This article originally appeared in the October issue of PGA Magazine and has been reprinted with permission.
The story of 12-year-old Vinny Mercurio’s healing journey from hemorrhagic stroke to PGA Jr. League teammate.
By Hayley Wilson
Changing course. Improving life.” It’s the short but powerful motto of The Turn, a Northeastern Ohio-based non-profit organization that provides innovative golf programming for people with disabilities. Led by PGA Professionals and fitness-oriented physical therapists, year-round programming is provided free of charge at the campus of the Wharton Center at North Olmsted Golf Club.
Program Director Trevor Hazen, PGA, has been with The Turn since its inception in 2002. While The Turn welcomes people of any age and has participants ranging from 6-to-90-years-old, the staff has created quite the robust junior program that encompasses camps, clinics, and a PGA Jr. League team led by PGA Assistant Professional Erin Craig (pictured).
“I was actually nervous about getting a team going this year,” says Craig. “I tried to promote PGA Jr. League and golf to parents and families as a physical distancing sport option, and we ended up with 17 kids. We split into smaller groups and I ordered everyone masks with their jersey number on them.”
The Turn’s PGA Jr. League team plays within a league in the Greater Cleveland area. The team is diverse –– comprised of children of differing abilities –– including one very determined 12-year-old, Vinny Mercurio (pictured, top left).
The Mercurio family’s world was turned upside down when Vinny, their eldest son, suffered from a debilitating hemorrhagic stroke in November 2017. Vinny spent 129 days in the hospital, followed by 10 weeks of day hospital and ongoing outpatient therapy, where his physical therapist brought up the idea of golf and suggested The Turn.
“Our physical therapist knew Vinny enjoyed sports,” says Betty Mercurio, Vinny’s mother. “Last summer, we were introduced to The Turn and its golf programs. I could see the light in his eyes start to come back.”
Vinny plays with a Paramobile cart to assist with his balance. He uses a walker in everyday life, but he’s working hard through physical therapy, and golf, to move without it.
“It’s actually pushing him a bit because he wants to get to the next cart, which is the kind that most golf courses have,” adds Betty Mercurio. “That would open up places he could go and he could be more independent.”
Vinny and his younger brother, Tony, used to love playing baseball together. Now, they’ve made the seamless transition from the baseball team to a PGA Jr. League team. According to Craig and Hazen, they’re both naturals.
“It brings tears to my eyes to see that they can bond over something again,” says Betty. “Vinny will tell you, ‘I just wanna be a kid.’ For him to be able to play on a team not only with his brother, but also with other kids . . . everyone’s on the same playing field. All the kids are so friendly, and they don’t treat him any differently. He finally gets to be a kid playing golf with his brother.”
Craig and Hazen both affirmed Betty’s feelings about the acceptance and support from other teams and parents.
“I reached out first to the other Captains and Coaches to explain what kind of team I put together — that some kids need extra help — and I would join another league if it was a problem,” recalls Craig. “Everyone was immediately on board. I can’t say enough about the kids and parents on other teams. When they see Vinny or his teammates hit a great shot, they clap from a hole away.”
Adds Hazen: “The inclusion aspect is truly the No. 1 benefit, and it goes both ways. Everyone is getting something out of it, and they’re all learning from each other.”
Undoubtedly one of the happiest moments of this journey through golf has been the game becoming a family affair for the Mercurios. Vinny asked his dad to play a round with him for the first time, and the family now enjoys being out on the course together.
“I received a text message from Vinny’s father thanking us for everything,” says Hazen. “It’s funny, people say it’s tough to read emotion behind text, but this one wasn’t difficult. He said it was one of the best things that’s happened to him. That success alone makes everything worth it for us.”
While The Turn might be unique in its non-profit status, Hazen emphasizes that all facilities should be looking toward creating inclusive programs for people of all backgrounds and abilities.
“Golf is a game for everyone,” says Hazen. “PGA Jr. League is a great vehicle to really drive home the inclusion aspect. It allows everybody the opportunity to enjoy golf.” ■