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Sunday, 22 January 2017 11:49

Teaching life skills through the game of golf

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Tyler Smies, executive director of The First Tee of West Michigan. Tyler Smies, executive director of The First Tee of West Michigan. Photo by Katy Batdorff

In five years, The First Tee of West Michigan has grown from a $35,000 seed grant to a successful nonprofit with a budget just under $1 million. 

The number of youths learning golf and other valuable life skills also has exponentially increased — from 73 participants in 2011 to more than 700 last year. 

As an avid golfer and young college graduate, Executive Director Tyler Smies jumped at the opportunity to lead a local First Tee chapter. He pitched himself to the owner of The Highlands Golf Course, Steve Scheuermann, who applied to start the chapter and then stepped aside. 

“I was 22 at the time, doing it on a wing and a prayer,” Smies said. “We were super blessed (to get) Amway as a seed sponsor in 2011. They were the reason we got it off the ground. We’ve been fortunate enough to have very strong board governance. We leaned on our board pretty heavily, and since then we’ve been able to grow as a staff and get our feet underneath us.”

The First Tee, founded in 1997, is an international youth development organization dedicated to introducing the game of golf and its inherent values to young people ages 7-17. Through afterschool and in-school programs, The First Tee helps shape the lives of young people from all walks of life by reinforcing nine core values: honesty, integrity, sportsmanship, respect, confidence, responsibility, perseverance, courtesy and judgment.

For its growth and impact in the community, The First Tee was named a winner in the small organization category of the  MiBiz Best-Managed Nonprofits Awards in the category for organizations with budgets of less than $1 million.

“As a parent of a young person in the program, helping to tell their story, I really just respect the program,” said Maureen Fitzgerald Penn, a board member. “Yes, it’s golf, but it’s life skills using the game of golf. The life skills I’ve seen my son take away are immeasurable.”

Besides strong board governance, Smies credits the West Michigan chapter’s success to innovative partnerships with area college students, golf courses, school districts and youth-serving organizations to provide access, along with transportation, to young people who would not otherwise be exposed to the sport. 

The Highlands has served as the organization’s home base for most of its existence, but because of its closure, The First Tee moved offices to Stormy Creek Golf Course this month. 

The organization tries to operate as lean as possible and relies on donations and sponsorships from private and corporate donors, foundations and fundraisers. The chapter’s Golf Marathon Event successfully raised $30,000 in its first year in 2014 and netted more than $100,000 last year.

Local chapters operate under The First Tee umbrella and its guiding principles, but fundraising stays in the community and governance and programming is independent to meet local needs.

“I can’t say enough about how the organization is really grassroots driven. It’s a national entity but the West Michigan chapter is all about West Michigan,” Penn said. “I see Tyler and the board acting on behalf of those young people. We’ve grown quickly, we’ve grown with much thought and in ways that have the best interests of those young people at heart.”

Students on free and reduced-priced lunches are offered scholarships to participate for a nominal fee. Reaching underserved and underprivileged youth is core to its mission, along with encouraging character development and breaking down perceived barriers between participants and the game. 

To address the need for qualified coaches, the chapter developed a multi-layered training program using paid college interns to serve as assistants under veteran lead coaches. They go on to lead six class sessions in the next season and those who show a passion and interest in the program often continue as lead coaches. The First Tee recruits students from sports management programs and other fields in West Michigan.

Program Director Taylor Haudek started in The First Tee at 7 years old in Battle Creek and connected with the West Michigan chapter as a student at Grand Valley State University. The program opened the doors to coaching, trips to meet PGA pros and leadership training.

The First Tee partners with several golf courses in Grand Rapids and Muskegon, and plans to expand to Holland this year. The courses host programs including The First Tee’s winter Homework and Hitting, as well as practice time on the driving range. Sessions are offered spring, summer and fall and participants progress through various levels as they learn new skills. Coaches integrate the nine core values into both golf and life skills. 

“We might use courtesy and responsibility on the putting green that we loop into the lesson,” Haudek said. “It’s really cool for us to see kids advance through the program. A light switches, you see some positive change for that player — they have that lightbulb moment.”

Many participants go on to play golf in high school, but it’s more about watching a personal transformation in regards to self-esteem, decision making and perseverance.

“My son has always had a lot of anxiety, and his ability to interact with others has changed profoundly,” Penn said. “He’s a pretty confident young man now.”

The Homework and Hitting program is another example of acting entrepreneurially to serve the organization’s mission. This program engages participants through the winter by inviting students to gather at a church, school, or other facility with trained First Tee coaches to supervise homework completion followed by indoor golf skills training.

“We have a unique and fun platform for kids to learn fun stuff, and we hope more and more people find out,” Smies said. “We’re just people that want to see kids grow up and have confidence and have character. We think golf is a good way to teach those things.” 

The First Tee of West Michigan: 

    • Mission: To impact the lives of young people by providing educational programs that build character, instill life-enhancing values and promote healthy choices through the game of golf.
    • Service Area: Grand Rapids, Muskegon
    • Executive director: Tyler Smies
    • Annual budget: Just less than $1 million
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