It is truly a rare thing to see: children running, laughing and playing on a golf course. It’s even rarer to see the adults joining in. This is what an average afternoon is like at The First Tee of Charlotte, where children come not only to learn the game of golf, but also to learn life lessons such as discipline, courtesy and patience. Mix in a large pool of excited volunteers, enthusiastic coaches and a beautiful facility and it’s impossible not to enjoy yourself. As one of 200 chapters of The First Tee national nonprofit organization, The First Tee of Charlotte has three full-time employees and over 150 volunteers. Jennifer MacCurrach, executive director of The First Tee of Charlotte, has been with organization since 1999 and with the Charlotte chapter for one year. “We have all hands on deck this week,” says MacCurrach during one of their day camp programs. “It’s awesome though, to see so many kids turn out for the camp. I mean, look how much fun they’re having!” She’s right on that point. There are various stations set up teaching golf skills in unusual ways. One group of kids, playing a hybrid of golf and baseball, cheers on their teammates as they circle the plates. Each station has a sign with a character-building skill labeled on the front, meant to be learned through the particular exercise or game. The nonprofit works with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools to teach their students the same nine core values taught in the school’s character building program: responsibility, respect, honesty, judgment, courtesy, integrity, confidence, perseverance and sportsmanship. The First Tee also works with schools through its National School Program. The program is currently in 26 elementary schools and is expected to be in 41 schools by fall 2012. The program helps incorporate golf into physical education classrooms and The First Tee provides the equipment, curriculum and guide. Jeane Bryne, who has been a teacher for 27 years and a First Tee volunteer for 10, says she’s seen the program work successfully in the classroom and outside of it. “It teaches them to be self-directed learners by taking personal responsibility for their lives,” she says. “It also gives them a game they can play at any age, because it really is a lifetime sport.” MacCurrach says The First Tee begins to teach these values to children as young as 5, starting with their Tiny Tees program. As the children age and their games improve, they take proficiency tests to move up to the Birdie, Eagle and Ace programs. “We want to start young to allow these lessons to have longevity,” she says. “Our goal is to make sure our kids graduate from high school and take the skills we give them through their lives.” But the students are not expected just to pass the golf proficiency test, but also a test in like skills. “It’s a difficult thing to measure,” says MacCurrach. They do this by examining the student’s attitude and interpersonal communication. “The first day you take them on the course, most of them are talking and mingling while each one tees off,” she says. “But after a couple weeks, they begin to quiet down and allow each other to tee off in peace and quiet. They realize that if they respect their teammates, they will get respect in return.” MacCurrach says she often sees development in the personal appearance of the students. “You can tell that they start to take pride in dressing neatly,” she says. MacCurrach says once the students are comfortable with themselves in the new environment, they will often reach out to their coaches in areas of their life outside of golf. “Golf is an equalizer,” she says. “The students don’t feel like the coaches are better than they are, because no one has ever perfected the game. The coaches and students talk about what they are working on at the time and it gets them on an even playing field. Once they start talking about golf, it gets them to talking about other things, too. Our coaches really are mentors to these kids.” MacCurrach says she gets positive feedback from both parents and teachers, which helps her to know that The First Tee’s programs are successful. “Teachers often says that their student used to sit in the back and not participate, but are now seeing major improvements in their classroom involvement,” she says. “Parents see their children being more respectful and kind. And we see it on the course, too. These kids are really taking in these lessons in and understanding the meaning behind them.”
Want to get involved? The First Tee of Charlotte actively relies on volunteers and donations of both funds and equipment. Have old clubs lying around? Contribute a great cause! For more information, visit www.thefirstteecharlotte.org.