By Judi Becker ’84, ’06, ’18

Winona State University Alum Donna Strum ’84, a native of Arlington Heights, Illinois, is looking back these days with a sense of fulfillment and gratitude for her WSU education and subsequent work as co-founder of the non-profit RevelationGolf, her life’s work in therapy golf.

While current programming is on temporary pause due to COVID-19 and the subsequent stay-at-home order in the state of Illinois, Donna shares that RevelationGolf is ready to take to the course once more when the order is lifted and it is safe to do so. In the meantime, she is taking time to reflect on her career journey.

Donna remembers hearing good things from friends already attending WSU while she was a high school senior. Although accepted at other schools, she chose Winona State, “I thought the size and natural beauty of the area were perfect for me.”

Studying therapeutic recreation with a clinical emphasis, Donna loved attending Winona State, “It was a place for me to find myself and grow in my faith, growing as a believer and a person.” She credits all her professors and the job opportunity to work in women’s athletics for laying a foundation for her to grow her confidence and skills and try new things.

One such “foreign” experience took place during her senior year, the first time she played golf, “A college friend Amy (Frank) Johnson ‘84 took me over to Westfield Golf Course in Winona, and that was my introduction to the game. I purchased some clubs after graduation, and rest is history.”

Donna’s next career steps included further developing her leadership skills by earning her Master of Public Administration and Health from Roosevelt University in 2000 while also working in a rehabilitation hospital in Illinois. In 2005, Donna and her colleague Kathy Williams brainstormed, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could do golf all the time?” The dream seemed almost feasible with their extensive backgrounds in both golf and therapy.

After restructuring took place in her hospital that same year, Donna remembers “This was my opportunity to step out in faith and do what I had dreamed of doing.” She left the hospital and began working with “a dream team” of advisors, which included representation from USGA Foundation, PGA of America, IL Section, and the Chicago District Golf Association, as well as a Franciscan nun, Sister Shirley, who was instrumental in establishment of the non-profit status.

Donna describes RevelationGolf as all about increasing the physical, social, emotional, and spiritual quality for those they serve, using golf as a therapeutic tool. Within two years of beginning their program, military/veterans became a major focus, and today about 90% of the programs provided are for military/veterans.

Also served, breast cancer patients/survivors are seen on a 1:1 basis. RevelationGolf also serves stroke survivors, Parkinson’s patients, amputees, and those with traumatic brain injuries. They also partner with Shriners Hospital Chicago and at-risk youth. In summers, as an official Navy program, they hold a military kids camp at the Great Lakes Naval Base. RevelationGolf is also an official program of the three Veterans Administration Hospitals in the Chicago Metro area.

What makes RevelationGolf unique, Donna explains, is use of specially trained clinicians, (mostly therapeutic rec specialists) and LPGA/PGA golf professionals, who lead the programs. In 2019, 155 programs were provided for just under one thousand people. Donna proudly reports that “We have evolved our Military/Veterans Program to include a structured Homeless Veterans Program, in additional to female veterans, veterans with physical disabilities and mental health issues and those with post-traumatic stress which we have served since 2007.”

While every day brings moments of joy and/or challenge, Donna holds a few of the most memorable times as permanently etched in her mind.

“We worked with a then six-year-old boy Matthew, who has cerebral palsy and uses ankle foot orthosis to stand, walk and control balance. He was unable to run and moved more slowly than the others, so playing with other children was difficult. When we began working with him, I immediately fell in love with this little boy. He had a great laugh. He felt so safe with us that he wasn’t afraid to ask for help or lean against me for balance support. Up to this point he had never had an activity-based birthday party because he couldn’t be active with the other children. After 20 months of working with us in golf, he had his 8th birthday at a golf facility where the children hit golf balls into targets monitored by a machine. Matthew came in second! He truly felt just like all the other children. He was so incredible happy; the joy was bursting all around, moving me to tears.”

Donna shares that Matthew, now a senior in high school, has received college acceptance letters from Georgetown University, Notre Dame, University of Illinois, University of Wisconsin-Madison and Indiana State University.

“Another favorite is a veteran, Peter, who has post-traumatic stress. He was in our weekly program and just loved golf. He was very quiet in the beginning; smiles were few and far between. By his third week we began to really see a positive difference. His self-confidence and socialization were continually present. After his discharge from a local hospital inpatient program, he was still able to attend our program.”

“One evening during our monthly after-golf dinner together, Peter began to emotionally share how much he was struggling on his own. He felt like maybe he could make it through another week if he just held on until RevelationGolf Wednesday, where he would get the boost he needed. There wasn’t a dry eye at the table. Peter is doing great, has a full-time job, and once or twice a summer still comes and plays golf with us on Wednesdays.” Better yet, Donna shares, Peter now gets groups of his veteran buddies together regularly to golf independently.

Similarly, in the new reality of the COVID-19 pandemic, while they wait for the golf courses to open again, Donna and Kathy are in communication with their clients by email and text, exchanging messages of encouragement and hope. They recently heard from client who is currently in Vietnam, who was thinking about them and reached out to make sure everyone was doing alright. Eternally the optimist, Donna fully believes golf and life past COVID-19 will arrive soon.

RevelationGolf, now in its 15th year, provides all golf programming at no cost to participants through an annual golf fundraiser, continual grant-writing, corporate donations, and individual giving. With success well documented over time, Donna notes that “Today we are able to demonstrate the value of our program and the therapeutic benefits our participants receive, which gives our donors a greater reason to donate, which we didn’t have in the beginning.” The next annual fundraiser is slated for August 24, 2020 at Cantigny Golf in Wheaton, Illinois.

Looking towards the future of RevelationGolf, which they say has become their ministry, Donna (Executive Director) and Kathy (Assistant Director) have another dream, to grow into other Midwest states. “Current plans for development and funding are in the works,” she says. They want to continue and expand the work, “helping people find their hope so they can go out and make their lives.”

Finally, Donna expresses deep gratitude to Winona State University, her professors, classmates and friends, and the coursework that provided pathways to her future “I am so grateful to Dr. Gary Grob and Coach Lavonne Fiereck for believing in me and helping me learn and grow in leadership. I also had a wonderful network of friends who helped me grow in my faith and in my personhood. I value experiences through the clinical path to therapeutic recreation which gave me the ability to develop in my field and try new treatment models. Winona State was the very best place to become fully prepared. I do not just work a job but live a dream. I feel so blessed.”

To learn more about RevelationGolf and the 15th Anniversary Fundraiser in August, please visit www.revelationgolf.org.

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Judi Becker

Judi has been a Warrior since 1980, when she earned a Bachelor of Science in English with a Writing Emphasis. Two of her three masters degrees are also from Winona State, one in Education and one in TESOL. She has been a student-teaching supervisor, adjunct instructor, and mentor, working frequently with second language learners.