When I heard we were providing a grant to The First Tee of the Triangle as part of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina’s (Blue Cross NC’s) Month of Thanks, I went to Hillandale Golf Course in Durham – one of the organization’s six program locations – one October Saturday morning to check it out.
These kids were ages 7-9 and 9-11 (the program starts at age 5 and goes through age 18). The golf clubs the younger ones were swinging were almost as tall as they were. The instructors clearly knew and loved the game, and were patiently giving pointers.
I asked a few of the kids if they were having fun. All were. My favorite response was from a 10-year-old boy, who said with a mischievous smile, “You can hit something with a club and not get in trouble for it.” An 8-year-old girl with a braid told me, “I like golf because you don’t have to be on a team. You can do it by yourself.”
I was starting to get it – these kids were outside in a beautiful setting, getting out some energy, and learning lessons of good sportsmanship and self-confidence.
A sport for everyone
Holly McCann, a 16-year-old high school junior, was a volunteer helper at the class that day. Holly used to go to the driving range with her parents when she was little. Her dad bought her a set of clubs when she was 5 and saw immediately that she was a natural.
She started participating in The First Tee program in Raleigh when she was 7. “The First Tee really helped my attitude toward golf,” Holly said. “I used to get really frustrated. A bad shot would just get stuck in my head and I’d have a hard time getting past it.”
But learning the 4 R’s through The First Tee – “Replay, Relax, Ready, Redo” – helped Holly so much that she went on to their Eagle Classes (for advanced players) and now plays on her high school’s golf team. An academic superstar, she’s graduating early and will be playing golf at the University of Maryland next year.
I also met CJ Paschall, another volunteer and part-time instructor for The First Tee. Before I asked him a single question, CJ told me, “I just want you to know that I absolutely love this organization.” I could tell.
A huge sports fan, CJ was first exposed to golf through his grandmother. She didn’t play, but she’d watch it on TV. “She would really perk up when Tiger Woods was on,” he said. This was back in the early 2000s when Tiger was in his heyday.
Now a student at North Carolina Central University, CJ started classes with The First Tee when he was 13. “I was in a class with 5- and 6-year-olds,” he laughed. “It was fun, but it was frustrating because I wanted to get better, fast.” And he did.
Golf became his thing. “My dad never saw me play,” CJ said of his father, who passed away in 2009, “But I know he’d be proud of me. It’s a way to keep a part of him with me.”
A step outside the box
After chatting with me, CJ and another instructor started up the second class of the day. This one was a partnership with an organization called Take Back Durham. The First Tee works with 10 local organizations (Boys and Girls Club, YMCA, and others) to provide free classes to kids who might not otherwise be exposed to golf.
“All the really cool stuff in life happens just one step outside of your comfort zone.” Brandon Baker, The First Tee of the Triangle’s executive director, said. “We’re here to help kids take that step.”
Read that again: All the really cool stuff in life happens just one step outside of your comfort zone.
“I didn’t pick up a golf club until college,” Brandon told me. But he fell in love with the game and wanted to work in youth development, so The First Tee was a perfect fit. He worked for the national organization in Maryland and Tennessee before moving to North Carolina.
“We don’t create a ton of great golfers here. That’s not what we do,” he said. “Our goal is to provide affordable – or free – opportunities for kids to learn new skills. We use the game of golf as a way to make a positive impact on kids.”
Kids learn self-management and interpersonal skills, the importance of following rules, goal setting and resiliency – all while having fun and learning a sport they can play throughout life.
“For example,” said Brandon, “We’ll teach about honesty by letting the kids try out the putting green and keep their own score. They’re learning life skills and having a great time doing it.”
They even teach kids how to make eye contact when speaking with someone, and how to shake hands. If you’ve ever been around a tween immersed in his or her iPhone, you can understand why that’s important.
To understand why Brandon cares so much, you should know his story.
He didn’t have an idyllic childhood. When he was in high school in South Hill, Virginia, he worked to help put food on the table. An athlete with excellent grades (when he wasn’t catching up on sleep during class), he decided he’d skip college so he could work full-time.
“It was August of my senior year of high school,” he said, “Probably 100 degrees outside, and I’m at football practice. I’m doing sprints up a hill, and I’ve got my helmet on so I can’t see behind me. Someone grabs me from behind and I fall backward.”
It was his high school principal, who’d heard of Brandon’s plans to skip college. “He told me to make a list of all the colleges that I had been considering. He wanted to see that list the next morning.”
“So the next morning at practice I saw him, and I went and got the rumpled list from my car. He told me to clear my schedule for the next few days because we were going on a road trip. He and two of his friends took me to visit every single school on that list.”
Brandon ended up at Virginia Commonwealth University, where after finishing his undergraduate degree he got a Master’s in Recreation, Parks and Sports Leadership. It’s no surprise that Brandon ended up in youth development, wanting to change kids’ lives.
When I asked him what his high school principal saw in him, he paused before responding, “Probably some of what I see in CJ Paschall, and what I see in so many of the kids who go through this program.”
Building better futures
The First Tee of the Triangle relies heavily on volunteers and has more than 165 of them – many who have been with the organization for several years. They collectively donated more than 5,000 hours last year.
“We’re always looking for people who want to make a positive impact on children. Knowing golf is a plus, but not even necessary,” said Brandon. “We want to teach kids to be good golfers, but to be better people.”
They also have a strong board of directors, committed volunteers who understand the value of the organization. People like John Roos, senior vice president and chief sales, marketing and communications officer at Blue Cross NC. He said, “This organization reaches more than 1,200 young people in the Triangle by teaching life-enhancing values, building character and promoting healthy choices through the game of golf.”
John went on to say, “If some of the participants become lifelong golfers, that’s great. But the goal is to use golf as a teaching tool.”
“We’re changing lives,” said Brandon. “We’re breaking down those perceptions about golf – showing kids that trying something different and going outside the box is a good thing to do in life.”
Blue Cross NC offers thanks to The First Tee of the Triangle for their impact on children and youth sports. As a Blue Cross NC ‘Month of Thanks’ recipient, First Tee will receive a $5,500 contribution.