FOR devoted mum Alyson Elsy, a hug, a high-five and a smile from her son Stevie are priceless.

For the 27 years of Stevie Mawhinney’s life, Alyson has searched in vain for the key to unlock a little bit of happiness for her autistic, non-verbal son.

“We’ve tried everything over the years to get a spark of interest – kites, bowls, remote-controlled boats and cars – you name it, but nothing ever worked,” says Alyson, who lives in South Hetton, County Durham.

All Stevie did was stay in his room, watching DVDS, trapped in an uncommunicative world of his own.

Suddenly, as if by magic, that’s all changed. The key been discovered – and it is the game of golf.

“It’s like a fog has lifted – he’s just a different person,” says Alyson as she watches Stevie line up another tee-shot at the UK’s first autism-friendly driving range, created by the North East Autism Society at the 77-acre New Warlands Farm, amid beautiful countryside near Burnhope.

As Stevie’s club connects with the ball, he watches it soar into the air, straight as an arrow, and there’s the smile of satisfaction. Not a broad smile by any means, just a flicker, but it’s a smile that’s followed by the hug and high-five for his mum.

There’s also a high-five for European Tour professional Graeme Storm. “Stormy”, who has shared tee-boxes with the best, and most memorably beat Rory McIlory in a play-off to win the South African Open in 2017, has come to the farm to formally open the 300-yard driving range.

The Hartlepool golfer makes a small adjustment to Stevie’s stance so that he’s not too close to the ball and able to swing more freely. The next tee-shot sails even further and the happiness goes up a notch.

“It’s just lovely to see the joy that hitting a golf ball can bring,” says Stormy, who also takes time to give other autistic golfers, James Crumbie, Alex Lawler and Jordan Cavan, the benefit of his experience on the world’s finest courses.

Yet this is all happening in the middle of a field, punctuated with hay bales – as far from the perfect fairways and greens of Augusta, home of The Masters, as it’s possible to be. And yet, it has become the field of dreams for Stevie and his fellow autistic golfers. A few yards away, three driving nets have been set up for additional practice and, by this time next year, a par three hole, a putting green, a bunker, and sheltered tee-boxes will have been added.

The person who deserves most of the credit is Sharon Cotterell, who works at the farm as Programme Support Worker. Sharon used her love of the sport, and her connections with Durham City Golf Club professional Tom Cranfield, to drive the vision forward and secure funding from Sport England to pay for regular coaching for a group of autistic adults.

Not satisfied with that, she discovered that golf legend Ernie Els, who has an autistic son, had set up a foundation to help people with neurodiverse conditions to enjoy the game. After Sharon made contact, the foundation sent a representative to County Durham to advise on the way forward.

“This is just the bare bones – just the beginning of a dream – but it is going to grow and I can’t believe that it’s really happening,” says Sharon.

It is an inspirational example of someone using their own passion to improve the lives of others and, in Stevie Mawhinney’s case, it is no exaggeration to say it has been truly life-changing.

Instead of sitting alone in his room, watching DVDS, he is out in the fresh air, playing golf three times a week. And when he’s not out on the golf course, or on the driving range at New Warlands Farm, he’s busy practising on a new putting machine at home in South Hetton.

“He’s got bags of confidence and he’s so much happier,” says Alyson. “That means the world to me because all you ever want is to see your children happy.”

Golf hasn’t just transformed Stevie’s life – it’s lit up his mum’s world too.

ANOTHER devoted mum has been in touch with a plea for help.

Nicola Davis-Maxwell, mum of inspirational young athlete Kieran Maxwell, is holding a charity auction on the evening of August 10, at Rof 59 activity centre in Newton Aycliffe.

Kieran, from Heighington, died in June 2017, aged 18, after a seven-year fight against a rare form of bone cancer called Ewing’s Sarcoma.

Despite losing part of his left leg, Kieran excelled at gynmastics and athletics. In 2012, his courage was recognised when he was chosen to carry the Olympic torch through Bishop Auckland.

The auction will be raising money for Kieran’s Legacy, set up by his family to fund research into Ewing’s Sarcoma. A long list of sporting memorabilia, including a Geoff Hurst signed England shirt and a signed Mo Farah vest, will be up for grabs.

However, event organiser Tom Andrews, Kieran’s friend and fellow Darlington Harrier, is happy to receive further prize donations. “The more we can raise the better for a fantastic cause,” said Tom.

Tickets are £5 and details about how to get them are available on The auctioneer on the night will be yours truly and – fair warning – I’ll be in a ruthless mood, doing my best to suck as much money out of the room as possible.

August 10 is Kieran’s birthday, so please come along and celebrate the life of a local hero.

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