March 12, 2009 in Washington Voices

Teeing up for success

Golf program uses game to teach physical fitness, life skills
By The Spokesman-Review
 
Pia Hallenberg photo

J’zon Poor, 12, and a fifth-grader at Grant Elementary celebrates hitting a putt at the First Tee program March 3.
(Full-size photo)

When the gym and the multipurpose room at Grant Elementary filled up March 3, it was for a rather unusual reason: to play golf.

The First Tee National School Program made its Spokane debut at Grant, just off South Perry Street, much to the joy of the students and neighbors who stopped by.

“I just love to do golf, it’s my favorite thing,” said fifth-grader J’zon Poor, 12, after he made his putt. “When you make the putt, you get extra PE time.”

And that’s not a punishment, said Rick Jones, fitness and health specialist at Grant.

“They love to get extra PE time,” Jones said while Poor nodded. “If the kid misses the putt, then we let the parents take a shot at it – we want them to have a good chance.”

First Tee is a national organization that promotes golf as a way to build good life skills such as sound judgment, how to resolve conflict and how to plan for the future.

First Tee had several chapters in Washington when Brad Nickle, a local investment banker, discovered that Spokane didn’t have one.

“It’s taken us a full year to get to this point,” Nickle said, surrounded by kids in the gym. “And this is our first school. Our goal is to get to 10 elementary schools.”

Each set of special golf clubs and equipment costs $3,000, money that’s raised by the local chapter.

“The teacher who’s doing this with us, has to take a three-hour class about First Tee,” said Nickle. “We are delighted to be here, but we are still at an early infant stage.”

The First Tee program started as a program aimed to help youths who weren’t likely to play golf either because they couldn’t afford it or because they lacked access to golf courses in inner cities.

Grant is a Title 1 school, which means it gets extra federal funding because many students are impacted by poverty – 80 percent of Grant’s students get free or reduced-price lunches. It’s also the most diverse school in Spokane School District – more than 34 percent of its students are students of color.

“Yes, golf is an expensive sport,” Nickle said. “Many of these children would never have access to it other than this way. Hopefully, as our program grows, we’ll be able to provide access to golf courses in the summer and scholarships.”

Tuesday night, there were also demonstrations on how golf clubs are built and what a golf ball looks like on the inside. Local golf pros, like Qualchan’s Mark Gardiner, helped the kids get their swing right, kneeling on the floor to be at kid level.

So how did Nickle get involved with First Tee?

“Well, I play a lot of golf, a lot,” he said grinning. “Hopefully we can get to a point where none of these kids will be turned away from playing – it’s a great sport.”

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