Gianna Rojas, also known as the “One-Handed Lady Golfer” was born in Bath, Maine. Although, she was born with a birth defect of missing a hand, that certainly does not stop her passion for golf and creating a difference in the world.
“I don’t think of myself as being disabled or a handicap. I was born this way. I don’t know anything different,” said Rojas.
Her family moved to Florida when she was younger. Her neighbor, who was working for March of Dimes at the time, noticed her birth defect. She asked Gianna’s parents if she would be interested in being the poster child for the nonprofit organization. They agreed and she was the poster child from 1972 to 1976. Being the poster child of the organization, she contributed to stopping the drug responsible for her defect and was also spreading awareness.
Additionally, she contributed to giving blood samples and allowed the organization to seek out a way to prevent her condition.
“I was also part of the research to find out why babies were being born with birth defects all of sudden. I had chromosome and genetics testing. I had DNA testing, looked back at my genealogy tree. Nothing. Nowhere in my family were there any birth defects,” said Rojas.
The collaborative efforts of Rojas and the March of Dimes influenced pharmaceutical companies to stop carrying and selling Thalidomide. The drug originated from a German-based company called Chemie Grünenthal GmbH. During the 1950’s, it was a common over-the-counter drug that combated morning sickness for women who were pregnant. Over 10,000 children were born with thalidomide-related disabilities worldwide, according to the Science Museum.
The March of Dimes organization was originally called the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. It was created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to eradicate polio initially. However, now the organization seeks to prevent any future causes of birth defects.
“As soon as we see things we can change and we need the government to get involved with, we have an advocacy team that will go to Trenton or D.C. If we have to go out there and advocate to get some of those laws put into place or changed that are effecting our children,” said Rojas.
Life after being the poster child
Rojas is actually the current community director for Hudson County’s March of Dimes organization.
“I’m in a position where my story is coming back full-circle,” she said. “Who would have ever thought I would be back with March of Dimes again in this capacity?”
It is as if she is destined to work for March of Dimes and it truly is her calling.
“After we moved away, I never really thought about it. I had a scrapbook. That was neat, but it wasn’t really my thoughts that I would actually make a difference and now I’m in a position of where I am making a difference,” she said.
Rojas is also launching a one-handed golf challenge. The concept is that you play nine holes with a group of friends and the best ball is the winner. The main priority is to have people record each other attempting the “one-handed golf challenge” and to share it on social media sites to bring more awareness to people with birth defects.
Fifty-six million individuals have some sort of disability and only 10 percent of people with disabilities that participate in the sport of golf currently, according to data from the U.S. Department of Commerce.
Rojas believes that this will be a fun and engaging way to bring attention to the people who have some sort of permanent impairment.
“If people will dump a bucket of ice on their head to spread awareness, why not play golf one-handed,” she said, referring to the ice bucket challenge that was started in July of 2014 to spread awareness to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as ALS.
“The one-handed challenge” is a similar concept, just without getting yourself drenched by a bucket of cold water. The one-handed golf challenge will bring attention to the matter. The challenge can be done at any golf course and does not have a limited timeframe of when you can participate in it.
The only catch is, you can’t do it by yourself—you have to do it with friends in order to have a witness if you manage to sink a hole-in-one.
The challenge will be partnered with PGA REACH to support PGA HOPE to raise money for awareness, research and development. She is very excited to launch the one-handed golf challenge and extremely passionate about making a change.
“I want the challenge to let people know that physical challenges, mental challenges or cognitive challenges don’t have to be the end all. We can still be a part of society. We can still go out and make friends because that is part of human nature, we need to be social,” Rojas said.
Inspiring people beyond New Jersey
Rojas fell in love with golfing thanks to her husband, Ray. His love for the sport rubbed off on to her and she has been appreciating the sport ever since.
Rojas does not limit herself to only New Jersey in spreading awareness. She has played at courses in Saratoga Springs, New York for the Capital Region Golf Expo, Myrtle Beach at Barefoot Resort and has been as far as Kapalua, Hawaii.
She posted a video of her 126-yard drive from the Barclay’s Volunteer Challenge that she participated in on YouTube that was well-received. Rojas has been a marshal for the Barclays for the past three years. She has also received numerous international offers from places in Europe and even the Bahamas to play golf at local courses—although, travel expenses limit the possibility of heading to play abroad as much as she would like.
Rojas has also received swing advice from well-known golfers such as Nick Faldo, Chi Chi Rodriguez and others.
Actions speak louder than words
One of Rojas’ many passions is influencing others with birth defects or disabilities to never give up hope. If there is a will, there is a way. She shared that while she was practicing at a driving range one afternoon that a woman came up and hugged her. She didn’t know the woman but she was crying and thanked her. The woman explained to her, that her daughter is missing part of her arm and saw Rojas on the news driving the golf ball.
Rojas lives for these moments and no form of payment could possibly replace inspiring others to overcome whatever medical condition or health issue is holding them back.
Additionally, she is in the process of building her own adaptive golf website, called adaptivegolfer.org. It will engage more people to go out and practice their golf swing and participate in the sport. If you are unfamiliar with what adaptive golf, it means it is for everybody and never too late to learn.
“Although, it’s cool and neat. It’s about inspiring people to go out and do things that they think they can’t do,” said Rojas.
Adaptive golf is all about trying your best at playing the leisure sport. It allows the person to modify their swing technique to their liking in order to play.
“I’m not trying to be another nonprofit organization. I want to be a resource that link people to whatever it is they need. Whether it be inspiration or a product,” said Rojas.
Although, the website won’t be fully operational until sometime this Spring, people can still visit it. It will offer a unique experience for people who cannot play golf normally. It will connect people with birth defects, disabilities or handicaps that want to golf with other people that will help them make their dreams become a reality.
Rojas is a living testament that if you believe in yourself, you can accomplish anything. She is committed to the cause of preventing future baby defects and is trying to help the self-doubters to play golf. Nothing is more satisfying then to prove yourself wrong and to achieve what you desire.
Rojas said, “It’s amazing what the body can do if you want to, no matter what you have.”
Jonathan Sanzari is a contributing writer & copy editor with Meadowlands USA. He has an associate degree in arts from Passaic County Community College and a bachelor’s degree from Ramapo College of New Jersey in communication arts, focusing in journalism. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.