By Sarah Beauchemin

Golfer Bobby Jones said, “Golf is the closest game to the game we call life. You get bad breaks from good shots; you get good breaks from bad shots – but you have to play the ball where it lies.”

Photo courtesy of Pro Kids|The First Tee of San Diego

This fundamental life lesson is just one of many that San Diego’s Pro Kids|The First Tee of San Diego teaches its young members. Ever since 1994, when the nonprofit organization was established by former NFL player Ernie Wright, Sr., Pro Kids has challenged underserved youth ages 7-17 to excel in life by promoting character development, life skills, and values through education and the game of golf.

Headquartered in City Heights, Pro Kids uses the 18-hole Colina Park Golf Course to serve more than 1,600 children living in central San Diego per year; Pro Kids’ Oceanside location, opened in 2012, serves North County youth. Local PGA members and apprentices graciously volunteer as golf instructors at both locations.

“Where else can you really spend hours with an adult in a safe, comfortable environment, as far as mentorship goes?” said Susanna Summers, Pro Kids’ Grants & Development Specialist. “Since a round of golf takes a while, it allows our kids to fully interact with mentors and staff. It’s so beneficial.”

Most of Pro Kids’ members are recruited through a Partnership in Education with the San Diego Unified School District. Instead of attending physical education classes at their schools, kids from Pro Kids’ partner schools choose to be transported to Pro Kids’ City Heights facility. There, they receive an average of six hours of golf and life-skills classes per week. “Basically, we offer kids the opportunity to excel through sport, study, and service,” Summers explained.

How Golf Translates to Life

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Although golf is obviously central to Pro Kids, the education and welfare of the youth is what ultimately matters most to the organization. “Golf is really just the hook to get the kids into the classroom and teach them valuable life skills,” said George Young, a dedicated Pro Kids board member and Pro Kids Annual Golf Tournament Committee member for over 10 years.

Photo courtesy of Pro Kids|The First Tee of San Diego

Pro Kids’ classroom instruction takes place onsite in its Learning Center, and follows a life-skills curriculum designed by Pro Kids’ nationally affiliated organization, The First Tee. The Learning Center offers a wealth of resources to kids, including after-school tutoring, a computer lab, college prep, field trips, and even scholarships. Participants learn right away how the core values learned on the golf course – respect, confidence, honesty, and integrity – mirror the basics of the life-skills curriculum.

And with the help of a grant by SDG&E, Pro Kids was able to launch the Pro Kids Academy in Fall 2015. This more structured academic program builds proficiency in reading and math; interest in STEM studies; and “soft skills” like resilience, professionalism and self-sufficiency. Today, the Academy serves over 100 elementary students and sixth graders and aims to serve kids through twelfth grade by 2022.

The Annual Golf Tournament Fundraiser

One of Pro Kids’ largest annual fundraisers, its golf tournament, helps ensure that the Learning Center stays well-funded. This year, the event was held on September 12th at the San Diego Country Club in Chula Vista. Over 100 philanthropic golfers played in the tournament, which was followed by lunch and an awards ceremony. It’s a gathering of many socially influential people in San Diego who join forces to support a cause close to their hearts.

“In addition to the amazing generosity of the players, the tournament has tremendous sponsors like The Legacy, The Zable Foundation, and Qualcomm,” said Young. Altogether, the tournament raised over $225,000.

Along with Young, tournament committee members Bill Fontana, Judge Larry Irving, Phil Ward, and Doug Butz worked tirelessly to engage San Diego area donors to ensure a positive, successful event. “Pro Kids wouldn’t be where it is today without those guys,” Young said. “They’re 100% committed to the success of the kids. It’s transformational to witness all the ways the kids grow and mature throughout our program.”

Photo courtesy of Pro Kids|The First Tee of San Diego

Steady Progress and Lasting Impact 

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As exciting as it is to watch Pro Kids’ youth learn and blossom, it’s their steady progress and the lifelong impact of the program that really hits home for Pro Kids’ staff. Pro Kids executive director Andrew Holets said, “The great part about our program is that kids can come in having no experience with golf whatsoever, and immediately start progressing and moving up.”

“We have a leveling system, where their performance in the Learning Center and in their community earns them things like more time golfing, the ability to play in tournaments, and to take field trips to local businesses,” Holets continued. “There’s a lot of incentive for kids to put their time into Pro Kids because we put our time right back into them,” he said.

And Pro Kids alumnus are quick to vouch for this. One such alumnus and Pro Kids scholarship recipient, Marcel Kasmer, traveled from San Francisco – where he has forged a burgeoning career at Intel – to Chula Vista to participate in the annual golf tournament.

“I’ve been able to do the most incredible things in my life through this program. That’s the truth,” Marcel shared at the tournament’s award ceremony. “You guys introduced us to a world we may never have seen. I feel so fortunate to be able to pass that along to the young men and women at Pro Kids who have come after me.”

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