Children’s charities focus of annual golf tourneyWritten by Sarah Ottney | Managing Editor | firstname.lastname@example.org
The attention of the golf world turns to Northwest Ohio once a year during the LPGA’s Marathon Classic, set for July 17-20 at Highland Meadows Golf Club in Sylvania. But for tournament staff and hundreds of local volunteers, preparing for the tournament is a year-round job — one they take extra pride in because it helps raise millions of dollars for area children’s charities.
From parking cars to quieting crowds to serving food, it takes about 1,000 volunteers to operate the tournament, said Heather Warga, who has been volunteer coordinator since September 2002.
More than 75 percent are returners, she said. About 10 percent have been volunteering more than 20 years, including a few who have worked since the start of the tournament in 1984. Ages range from those in their mid-80s to Warga’s 6-year-old son, who will help hand out water bottles. Charities and sponsors are providing about 300 of the volunteers, including about 140 from title sponsor Marathon Petroleum. Most come from Northwest Ohio, but they also hail from Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky and even Texas, Warga said.
“It’s the only local tournament where you can see athletes at the level of Paula Creamer, Michelle Wie, Stacy Lewis and, if they hit the ball near the ropes, you’re 2 feet from them, not nosebleed level,” said 70-year-old Lee Meserve, a Bowling Green State University professor who has volunteered at the tournament since it moved to Highland Meadows from the current Stone Oak Country Club in 1989.
“For some reason I didn’t go to the tournament the first year it happened. The second year, I was there four days. The third year I went every day. I thought, ‘If I’m gonna be there the whole time, I might as well give them my time.’ It’s just a really fun way to help the community.”
Since 1984, the tournament has donated $8.1 million to more than 100 Northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan children’s charities. Last year, 23 charities shared $378,000 in proceeds.
“The best thing about my job is I get to work with so many awesome people who take time out of their summer to volunteer,” Warga said. “We have become a family. We are all in this for one common goal and that is to be able to give back to our community and the deserving charities who are making the difference in children’s lives every day.”
Ronald McDonald House Charities of Northwest Ohio and the Jamie Farr Scholarship Fund are charity recipients every year. This year’s other charity recipients are Anne Grady Services, The Arts Partnership of Hancock County, CASA Volunteer Association (Monroe), CASA Volunteer Association (Toledo), Camp Fire Northwest Ohio, Children’s Hunger Alliance, Christian Clearing House, Down Syndrome Association of Greater Toledo, Findlay Family YMCA, The First Tee of Lake Erie, Friends of the Findlay-Hancock County Library, Gliding Stars of Findlay, Junior Achievement of Northwestern Ohio, Mobile Meals of Toledo, Putnam County Educational Service Center, Putnam County YMCA, Ryan’s Place, Specialized Alternatives for Families and Youth, Special Kids Therapy and United Way of Hancock County.
Ronald McDonald House staff members and volunteers operate the 10th hole each year. The organization houses the families of children who come to Toledo for medical care.
“We certainly are very proud to be able to be a part of it,” said president Chad Bringman. “It’s fun to be out there for the week, to mingle with the community and the golfers, and at the same time knowing we are supporting so many organizations.”
The Down Syndrome Association of Greater Toledo plans to use funds raised from the tournament to launch Smart Start, an educational workshop for parents on how to get their kindergarten-age children with Down syndrome ready for school, said Executive Director Richard Harris.
“It’s already a nationally recognized program, but we’ve never had the funds to start it here,” Harris said. “We’re extremely grateful for the opportunity.”
Gliding Stars of Findlay is an adaptive ice skating program for individuals with disabilities.
“At the end of our season, we have an ice show,” said Executive Director Cindy Bregel. “It’s a very emotional event because a lot of times a lot of our stars do not get the opportunity to be in front of an audience, performing and hearing applause. We will be creating a really nice sustainable future for Gliding Stars with the help of the Marathon Classic.”
Mobile Meals of Toledo plans to help cover costs for its Weekender Meal Program for kids, said Executive Director Maureen Stevens.
“We hope to raise funds to feed about 1,500 children at one school for an entire school year,” she said.
Grounds Chairman Jeff Easton of Sylvania Township started volunteering when someone asked him to help. He had some ideas to improve efficiency and soon found himself chairman of the crew responsible for roping and staking the course and erecting light structures, portable toilets, signs and more. Nineteen years later, he’s still on the job.
“Whenever I get frustrated, I think of all the children in our local area who benefit from that tournament and that’s a wonderful thing,” Easton said. “It’s great for the community and great publicity for the area.”
The task of making sure all the players get where they need to be falls to Dan Balduf, 60, of Curtice, a retired City of Oregon employee in his 26th year as a tournament volunteer. As director of transportation, he picks up players and other celebrities from the airport, shuttles them to their hotels and takes them anywhere else they need to go.
“It’s fun to meet the golfers right up front when there’s no pressure on them, when they’re right off the plane in a relaxed condition,” he said.
Unlike most crews, the transportation volunteers are least busy during tournament play.
“That’s our downtime, when players are playing,” Balduf said.
Weather-delayed flights have found Balduf sleeping in his car in a parking lot. His farthest trip was to the airport in Cleveland.
“It was a Swedish golfer in her first year and she didn’t know how far that was,” Balduf said. “My wife says I’m crazy. It’s a lot of volunteer hours for one week, but I enjoy it.”
Paul LaCourse, 69, of Toledo, a retired Lake Erie charter boat operator, has been volunteering with the Ronald McDonald House on the 10th hole since he retired 13 years ago.
“I’m a huge sports fan and I love golf,” LaCourse said. “It’s a great way to see the tournament, get inside the ropes, talk to the players and get involved.
“If something great happens on the course like a hole-in-one or an eagle, we hear about things like that over the radio. News travels pretty quickly.
“I’m on the hole seven days from daylight till dark. It’s getting a little harder for me because I’m getting up there in age and the sun gets pretty hot, but I enjoy it so much. I’d be out there watching it anyway, so I figure I might as well put in my time.”
Volunteerism for the tournament has dropped over the past few years and it’s particularly challenging to attract younger volunteers, Warga said.
“The hard part is to get people to commit the first time, but once they come out, they usually stick around for quite a few years,” LaCourse said.
Meserve estimated he spends at least 100 hours at the course during tournament week.
“There are people who are really committed to this and it’s not because of the benefits for you as an individual; it’s what the tournament does for kids’ charities in Northwest Ohio,” Meserve said.
‘The Great Flood’
Among the most memorable tournaments for many longtime volunteers was 2006, or — as most refer to it — the year of “The Great Flood.”
“Weather is definitely a huge factor for us because no matter what the tournament has to go on,” Warga said.
That year, heavy rain caused standing water and the creek running through the golf course to overflow. Scaffolding and bridges were built over flooded areas and volunteers pitched in extra hours squeegeeing water off the fairways.
“I remember people coming from the neighborhood on rafts. That was crazy. That’s a sight you’re not used to seeing,” Warga said. “I just remember thinking, ‘There’s no way we’re going to be able to finish this,’ but so many people pitched in that year to make it possible, people from all the different golf courses around Toledo and the surrounding areas. It was amazing.”
Last year’s weather challenge was heat — “hotter than the hinges of hell,” as Meserve described it.
“I try not to look at the weather. It makes me nervous,” Warga said, laughing. “But I broke down last night and looked at the forecast for this year and it was really good.”
Many longtime volunteers met or got to know Toledo native Jamie Farr during his years of hands-on involvement with the tournament, which bore his name until last year.
“He’s a really nice guy. The City of Toledo is his heart and soul,” Meserve said But they are also excited to be part of the tournament’s future with Marathon.
“It’s found a new path and a new course and I think it’s going to be more successful than ever, and I think we’re all excited to be part of that,” Easton said.
Admission for children 17 and younger has always been free with the purchase of an adult ticket, but this year will feature activities for kids, said Director of Marketing Jim Decker.
NASCAR driver Richard Petty will sign autographs 10 a.m. to noon and 1-3 p.m. July 17. July 18 will feature mascot day (10 a.m. to 2 p.m.) and a photobooth (10 a.m. to noon). July 19 will offer a golf clinic with the pros (4-5:30 p.m.) and a Find Pink Panther social media contest. July 20 will offer face-painting (11 a.m. to 3 p.m.) and photos with the trophy (11 a.m. to noon). Scavenger hunts and a golf simulator will be offered 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. July 17-20.
Police, fire, military
All active-duty police officers, firefighters and military members will be admitted free along with one guest.
“That’s what this tournament is all about, is giving back,” Tournament Director Judd Silverman said. “To be able to allow active service people into the tournament is just another way to help the community and provide an opportunity for people to come out and enjoy the greatest women golfers in the world.”
Local active military members will be spotlighted July 20 at the 18th green.
Tickets are available at Kroger stores or online at marathonclassic.com. Prices are $50 for a weekly grounds badge, $100 for a weekly clubhouse badge or $15 (Monday-Friday) to $20 (Saturday-Sunday) for daily passes. When purchased in advance at Kroger stores, the weekly grounds badge is buy one, get one free. All ticket proceeds go to the charity of your choice. Parking is $10 for the week or $5 daily.
“It’s just a nice community gathering to support some very deserving children’s charities,” Warga said. “At the end, when you see that result, that’s what it’s all about.”
Toledo Free Press Staff Writer Sanya Ali contributed to this report.
Tags: Anne Grady Services, Camp Fire Northwest Ohio, CASA Volunteer Association (Monroe), CASA Volunteer Association (Toledo), Children's Hunger Alliance, Christian Clearing House, Curtice, Dan Balduf, Director of Marketing Jim Decker, Down Syndrome Association of Greater Toledo, Findlay Family YMCA, Friends of the Findlay-Hancock County Library, Gliding Stars of Findlay, Grounds Chairman Jeff Easton, Heather Warga, Highland Meadows Golf Club, Illinois, Indiana, Jamie Farr Scholarship Fund, Junior Achievement of Northwestern Ohio, Kentucky, Lee Meserve, LPGA, Marathon Classic, Marathon Petroleum, Michelle Wie, Michigan, Mobile Meals of Toledo, NASCAR driver Richard Petty, northwest ohio, Oregon, Pau LaCourse, Paula Creamer, Putnam County Educational Service Center, Putnam County YMCA, Ronald McDonald House, Ronald McDonald House Charities of Northwest Ohio, Ryan's Place, Special Kids Therapy, Specialized Alternatives for Families and Youth, Stacy Lewis, Stone Oak Country Club, Sylvania, Texas, The Arts Partnership of Hancock County, The First Tee of Lake Erie, Tournament Director Judd Silverman, United Way of Hancock County