When Bowen Elementary School fifth-grade student Breanna Scott took her turn putting, the golf ball rolled past the hole.
Brendan Coallier, an intern for The First Tee of West Michigan, paused to give Breanna instructions, showing her how lightly to hit the ball with the club.
“Nice and easy, not a hard as you did last time,” he said. “Line it up. See the little line on your putter? Line it up with the hole.”
Breanna putted again. The ball went in. “See? Nice job,” Brendan said.
Breanna and Brendan were partners for a game of putt-putt golf, during Bowen Elementary School students’ weekly golf lesson at Fellowship Greens offered through The First Tee of West Michigan. The week’s lessons were twofold: putting andresponsibility.
Life Skills Taught on the Course
Each Tuesday for six weeks, students from Bowen Elementary are taking part in the program that teaches values and life skills through golf. As every player knows, golf requires patience and perseverance, and the etiquette of the game calls for maturity. There’s no referee; players keep their own score and tally their own penalties.
Bowen students, many playing golf for the first time, are learning these things with experienced golfers. They not only perfect the students’ swings, but get them thinking about how skills necessary on the golf course are important at home and school too.
“We are using golf as a trigger to think about becoming a good citizen,” said Tyler Smies, The First Tee’s executive director.
Lessons on the links focus on nine core values: honesty, integrity, sportsmanship, respect, confidence, responsibility, perseverance, courtesy and judgment (decision-making). They also help instill healthy physical, emotional and social habits.
During a recent session, students discussed respect and responsibility. In golf, you have to respect equipment, other players and the course. At home, you have to respect your parents and at school, your teachers, students agreed. “I like to sit down after the lesson and talk about respect,” said fifth-grader Tariya Barnett.
Making Different Worlds Collide
Most of the students involved in The First Tee come from low-income households. At Bowen Elementary, nearly 85 percent of students are economically disadvantaged, according to data from the Michigan Department of Education.
Golfing through The First Tee is offered through Kentwood Public Schools’ after-school ARCH program (Academics, Recreation, Community and Health), combining tutoring, healthy activities and field trips.
The national The First Tee organization, based in St. Augustine, Fla., was founded in 1997 and offers programming in every state. The First Tee of West Michigan, headquartered at Grand Rapids’ Highlands Golf Course, started in 2011. While the partnership with Kentwood is the organization’s most involved school program, The First Tee also works with Grand Rapids Public Schools, Boys and Girls Club and other organizations. Kentwood students also participate in The First Tee’s winter program, Homework and Hitting, during which they work on homework, hit balls and putt.
A highlight for Kentwood students this summer was attending the LPGA tour to watch the competition.
Smies, a Calvin College graduate, said he realized in volunteering with economically disadvantaged students through other organizations that golf was inaccessible to many of them. “I had a passion for both of them, these two worlds,” he said. “I thought these two worlds never collide. But I was wrong, they do collide through The First Tee.”
“I get better in golf every time we come back,” added fifth-grader Zion Vazquez. Fifth-grader Darcy Dorris said she is becoming a good golfer because of the lessons. “It’s teaching you how to do another sport,” she said. “I never did golf in my life. I can hit it 100 yards.”
Volunteer Lindsey Boyle, a former East Kentwood High School girls golf coach, has seen the elementary students excel over the past three years.
“I like to see kids have the opportunity to be successful in an activity they normally wouldn’t have a chance to do,” Boyle said. “They are always having fun, and that’s the most important thing.”