Many of the things 16-year-old Simon Yu wasn’t able to do in China he’s been able to do — or come closer to doing — after just one year in Scarsdale.
Yu, who has cerebral palsy, which impacts his muscle control and speech, spends his time finding solutions and inspiring others to help him overcome any obstacle that comes his way.
On the surface, Yu gets around in a wheelchair and speaks with a slur and a stutter in English, which is his second language. Behind the exterior is an engaging personality who has found greater acceptance and opportunity in his new surroundings after coming from a country that views the disabled unfavorably.
According to the website sixthtone.com, “According to the China Disabled Persons’ Federation (CDPF), more than 85 million people identified themselves as living with disabilities on the 2010 national census. But in China’s public spaces, they are largely invisible.”
In Scarsdale, Yu has made his presence known.
One of the ways Yu, his classmates and his history teacher, Maggie Favretti, are working to promote change is by creating Golf This Spring to give Yu and other locals who can’t stand or have trouble standing the chance to play golf by raising money to buy a paramobile device that aids users in standing upright.
It all stemmed from Yu’s desire to play the sport.
“For me I sit in a wheelchair so I want to do some sport that is quite relaxing because I like fishing,” Yu said. “They are both relaxing. In China we have fewer shows about golf. I basically watched the TV shows about fishing, the only sport for me that holds my interest.”
Once Yu told Favretti he wanted to play golf last fall, she presented the opportunity to Yu’s classmates and students in her other classes to form a group to problem solve the issue. It took some time, but the Golf This Spring group, featuring five mainstays — freshmen Karen Lee, Zach Siegel, Hunter McRobie and Sebastian Rett, and junior Ben Schwartz — and others on the fringe, came up with a way for Yu to become an active golfer.
Even better, the mission changed from helping Yu to offering the opportunity to others with disabilities to have the chance to get out on the course in a safe, enjoyable way.
Golf This Spring needs to raise more than $20,000 for the paramobile device, which can be obtained from the California-based Stand Up and Play Foundation. The paramobile will be housed at Saxon Woods Golf Course in Scarsdale and White Plains.
Yu’s first go-round at golf came in December. With snow on the ground, he was invited to test out the paramobile at Candlewood Valley Country Club in New Milford, Connecticut, with Greg “Jake” Jacobson, who also uses a wheelchair. There may have been snow covering the ground, but that didn’t stop Yu from enjoying some time of the course for the first time.
“It was risky transferring to the paramobile,” Yu said. “The ground was still covered with snow. I will now be able to stand up and they will teach me how to swing and how to hit the golf ball. I love it.”
Anthony Netto of the Stand Up and Play Foundation, and co-creator of the paramobile, visited Burke Rehabilitation Hospital last month during an adaptive golf clinic where Yu, Favretti and the Golf This Spring Club learned more about the paramobile. Netto, also in a wheelchair, showed Yu how to use the device properly and he got some swing lessons from Jacobson and Schwartz, a golfer who was fresh off qualifying for the New York State championships for the Raiders.
Yu tried hitting with two hands and then one hand, and after a few swings was able to better drive through the ball to get some lift off the ground and into the net. From a look of pre-swing concentration to a wide-eyed smile after successful contact, it was clear Yu was living out a dream.
The paramobile, which Netto said has yet to tip over, even on a severe pitch, is designed for safety. It can actually be uncomfortable at first and golfers need to stretch because it stands up a body that is not used to being in that position. However, it offers an array of health benefits for users, like aiding with bone density, lung capacity and the digestive tract.
“The beauty of the Stand Up and Play Foundation is that they created this device, so they are interested in making sure the people coaching it are trained,” Favretti said. “They train volunteers and then people who would like to use it sign up for time slots to play at Saxon Woods when there are volunteers available.”
Netto pledged $5,000 from the Stand Up and Play Foundation to get the Scarsdale group started on its fundraising.
McRobie did research and found Candlewood was the closest course with a paramobile. He left a message, got a call back and Yu was invited for the demo.
“It was just really eye-opening going there because I knew the paramobile device was a good device and I knew Simon really wanted to use it, but I didn’t realize how nice it could be,” McRobie said. “They opened up the whole golf course for us and it was snowing.”
McRobie said he had “no desire” to play golf, but when asked if he’d play a round with Yu, he said with a smile, “That could be fun.”
Siegel heard about the project from Favretti in history class. One day he saw Yu at lunch, went over and struck up a conversation. Siegel helped research devices like the paramobile and once they settled on it he contacted Stand Up and Play to find out more. Once the visit to Candlewood Valley happened, they knew they were headed in the right direction.
“This is a completely new experience for me,” said Siegel, who set up a website for the group. “This was my introduction to meeting Simon, getting involved in this project, and I’m really happy that I did, but not only am I part of this group getting a paramobile, but as Mrs. Favretti mentioned earlier, I think I’ve really learned a lot from Simon.
“I’ve learned more from this project than I’ve even contributed.”
Lee got to know Yu through Siegel, who told her about the project. She and Yu became fast friends and she worked on a Q&A with him as part of the project to get his thoughts and experiences down on paper.
“As he responded to some of the questions it was a new perspective for me to look at because I wasn’t really aware of the experiences of a disabled person,” Lee said. “Through writing the article and going through this process with Simon I was able to develop a better perspective and empathy.”
Rett joined the group in January and has been on the technical side making some movies and documenting the journey. He got to know Yu after having class with him in the second quarter and they performed together in the school’s recent Shakespeare festival.
“For me I was in a wheelchair when I was younger because I broke my leg once and everyone was treating me kind of special,” Rett said. “I didn’t like that personally so much, so I just treat him like a normal classmate.”
Like his brother Jonathan before him, Schwartz has been working to raise money and spread awareness through the Challenged Athletes Foundation, which provides proper equipment and opportunity so people of all abilities can participate in sports. The Schwartzes have brought speakers to the school and the money raised has gone to a good cause.
“Golf is a huge part of my life and Mrs. Favretti thought it would be a good idea for me to join to help give Simon the opportunity to play adaptive golf and I thought it was a great idea,” Schwartz said. “We went to Saxon Woods and we pitched it to their manager and they accepted it. They are going to be hosting the paramobile we’re going to be raising money for as soon as we can.”
Working with Yu, however, is the first time Schwartz knows exactly who his efforts are impacting. There is a name and a face that are now familiar to him.
“The money for CAF, we just gave it to them,” Schwartz said. “We knew what it was going to, but we didn’t know exactly who. It’s really special to have Simon here and to know I can help an individual person.”
This will also be a chance for Schwartz to be trained in paramobile use and coaching in order to have a hands-on impact. “What’s really cool from my perspective is I can be trained to give adaptive golf lessons,” Schwartz said. “That’s really cool. What’s special for me is I can do this.”
The design class at the high school is also working on a method for Yu and others to transfer from a wheelchair to the paramobile. Netto demonstrated moving from a wheelchair or scooter to the paramobile and Yu got a bit of help transferring, but they want to develop a safer, less risky way that is more comfortable for the golfer to get from point A to point B. The class is working on a pair of rails similar to those Yu uses in physical therapy so he can use his arms, which are strong since he doesn’t use his wheelchair at home, to make the transfer.
“It’s not tested or built, but there’s something in the works,” Favretti said. “Simon has to be helped now, which is awkward and probably uncomfortable.”
Yu, who immigrated to the United States after a 10-year wait with his mother and younger brother — Dad is still in China working — described his daily school life on an island city in southern China as “not very comfortable.” He had to go between buildings in severe weather conditions and had to climb stairs. The bathroom was unsafe and unsanitary. His parents offered to donate money to improve the infrastructure, but were denied.
“Being late to class was embarrassing,” he told Lee in their Q&A. “I could not endure the 46 pairs of eyes focusing on me.”
Yu couldn’t write fast enough in class and had trouble with homework deadlines, which meant he stayed up late and got up early to make sure his work was done. This led to long periods of sitting with little time for much-needed movement.
There were also no allocations for extra time or use of technology for important exams that would greatly impact his future.
Yu described his relationships with his peers in China as “somewhat abnormal.” They just didn’t know how to interact with him, which caused him to feel “lonely at times.” Then there were the kids and adults who went out of their way to be unkind.
When he came to Scarsdale to visit the school in June he found a completely different environment. In Scarsdale, he gets a bus with a lift to take him to and from school each day.
In addition to fishing for five years in China and now getting into golf, Yu started learning how to play piano with both hands in October. He had his first recital in March. That’s something “I never imagined I could do before,” he said.
In order to better understand a day in Yu’s life, some students spent time going around Scarsdale High School in a wheelchair. At backpack level they struggled to get through crowds. While there are two elevators in the building, they are both on the same side of the school. And one is broken. In addition, there is only one bathroom big enough for Yu to use.
“I sat in a wheelchair and Mrs. Favretti took me around the school,” Siegel said. “We went to each one of his classes to see what the travel time was like and basically the whole experience that Simon goes through every day. It was eye-opening. It took much longer to get to a class than I expected. There are five minutes between periods, but often it took eight or more minutes.”
That’s additional time away from his teachers and classmates. “We figured out it added more than an hour to his day,” Favretti said.
Still, it’s a major step up for Yu. He’s thrilled to have the opportunity to function and learn in Scarsdale, despite the challenges he faces.
“He is very appreciative because it’s much better than the situation was for him in China,” Favretti said. “The things he’s had to adapt to here have been in his eyes advantageous.”
Favretti called it “inconvenienced travel.”
“One of the things we’ve been learning from him is there’s a big difference between accessibility and inclusion,” Favretti said. “One of the important things he’s taught us is how to think with empathy about our school building… We need more systems thinking in our education. We’ve sort of gotten ourselves into silos and it’s not good for teaching sustainability, inclusion or resilience. Simon has taught us a lot.”
As much as Yu had to get used to his new surroundings, his teachers and classmates had to get used to him. They had to get over any preconceived notions about Yu’s physical and mental being, which he helped them do right away.
Yu asked Favretti in the second week of school if he could address the combined history and English classes of Favretti and Steve Mounkhall. Yu wanted to tell everyone about himself — who he is, what he’s interested in and how to make friends with him.
In addition to speaking to the class, Yu made a slideshow with pictures of his hometown and told everyone the best way for those not comfortable coming up to him right away or if they had trouble understanding him was to communicate with him via email.
“He thinks very deeply and carefully about everything,” Favretti said. “That was a really important moment because he helped us get used to him and to learn how to communicate with him. Immediately students began emailing him.”
Two of the first to reach out were Siegel and Lee via email.
“They struck up a relationship,” Favretti said. “His friendships don’t occur maybe the same way as others do.”
Yu doesn’t shy away from public speaking and many of his classmates are now used to his speech pattern and can understand what he’s saying. He constantly contributes to class discussions and for the Shakespeare festival where freshmen had the choice to perform for their class or the entire grade, Yu was up there in front of the whole grade.
When he knows he’s going to be speaking in front of others — from that first presentation to his classes in September to the Shakespeare event last month — Yu is well prepared.
“He rehearses everything he is going to say in his mind 25 or 30 times to try to control the stutter,” Favretti said. “A lot of that is not in his control.”
Schoolwork is also a challenge. Since he can’t take notes quickly, he takes a photo of friends’ notes with his phone.
“He is diligent, conscientious, makes sure he understands every assignment, does every assignment, incredibly thoughtful, very bright,” Favretti said. “He participates multiple times in every class and he’s participating in English as his second language.”
When he had difficulty using a microscope in biology, design class senior Anthony D’Ambrosio created an adaption of a device to attach a cellphone to the microscope.
“This kid created a much greater, much cheaper 3D printable version that’s adjustable to the microscope so the teacher can see what Simon is supposed to be seeing and so Simon can see it by taking pictures with the phone,” Favretti said. “It just revolutionized the way we think about science labs. The teacher is now thinking and the kids are now thinking of the different ways to use this tool.”
In 33 years of teaching, Favretti has had students “who have struggled in a variety of ways very publicly and privately,” but the soon-to-be retiree said she’s “never had a student like him with the kind of mental and emotional maturity and dynamic personality.”
In Yu there is no anger, bitterness or underdevelopment, and Favretti credits his parents for fighting in his favor all of their son’s life. Nothing stands in the Yu family’s way.
“He’s brilliant and it’s a great credit to his parents because his family is making huge sacrifices to make it possible for him to be a normal person,” Favretti said.
Yu likely had never heard the term “non sibi” prior to coming to Scarsdale, where it, meaning “not for oneself alone,” is the school motto. That’s another way he fits right in whether it’s in the classroom, learning piano, speaking in public, playing golf or doing something he’s not yet considered. The doors are now wide open for Yu and those around him.
“I think it was worth the opportunity to come here,” Yu said.
For Yu, for Scarsdale, for the world around him.
Paramobile donation checks can be made out to Stand Up and Play Foundation, with Saxon Woods on the memo line, and mailed to Maggie Favretti, c/o Scarsdale High School, 1057 Post Rd. Scarsdale, NY 10583 or made online at golfthisspring.org.