The First Tee links up with alternative learning program in Virginia

At Birdwood Golf Course in Charlottesville, middle and high school students build golf skills, confidence and character.

| | Originally posted on Charlottesville Tomorrow

First Tee Virginia Blue Ridge
Oveyon Ford, a student at the Enterprise Center for Learning and Growth, lines up a putt at a First Tee golf clinic at Birdwood Golf Course in Charlottesville, Va. Also pictured, from left, are Renee Willis, Jin Ellington and Angelina Hillier. Photos by Josh Mandell

Angelina Hillier says she used to think of golf as an “old-man sport,” and had little desire to try it for herself. But this spring, the Western Albemarle High School junior has enjoyed her weekly visits to Birdwood Golf Course in Charlottesville, Va., with The First Tee of the Virginia Blue Ridge. “(First Tee) turns golf into something that teens can enjoy,” Hillier says.

Hillier is participating in the golf clinics with her classmates at the Enterprise Center for Learning and Growth, an alternative learning program for Albemarle County middle and high school students who have struggled in traditional school settings.

The Enterprise Center typically serves fewer than 20 students at a time. Renee Willis, a teacher at the Enterprise Center, says it gives students the opportunity to continue their education in an intimate learning environment and then return to their base schools when they are back on track. “Many of these students were good at flying under the radar,” Willis says. “Here, you can’t help but to be noticed.”

“The Enterprise Center is smaller than a normal school, so there is no drama,” says Hillier. “Everyone is really close, and teachers are very focused on students’ mental health.”

The center had previously partnered with The First Tee of Charlottesville, a chapter of The First Tee that was discontinued after the closure of the McIntire Park Golf Course in 2015. Jin Ellington, executive director of The First Tee of the Virginia Blue Ridge, says she was excited to revive the partnership this year. “Our mission is to serve all kids, and to increase the impact we can make on kids who might not have access to our resources,” Ellington says. “These are the kids we really have a heart for serving.”

The First Tee-VBR offers after-school golf lessons and summer camps that are open to all children. However, Ellington says the enrollment in these programs often doesn’t reflect the diversity of Charlottesville’s population. To broaden its reach, First Tee-VBR works with physical education classes at local schools and hosts youth-serving organizations such as the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Virginia.

“We are working with groups that don’t normally have transportation and access to a golf course on a regular basis,” Ellington says. “It’s good to be part of a network of partnerships like this in Charlottesville.”

Willis says the Enterprise Center’s First Tee participants have taken a “healthy risk” by coming to Birdwood Golf Course — a very unfamiliar environment for some of the students. “It is healthy to put yourself in environments you have not been to before and learn how to remain poised and engaged — to be uncomfortable and work through that,” Willis says. (Birdwood Golf Course is overseen by 20-year GCSAA member Matthew Wade.)

Willis says the Enterprise Center often brings students on field trips to introduce them to unfamiliar places in the community and expose them to different career fields. “When you’re not successful, you often don’t look beyond the little world where you are struggling,” Willis says. “You don’t realize that there is something else out there for you to strive for.”

First Tee Virginia
Javonyai Burns prepares to chip at Birdwood Golf Course.

The First Tee is a national organization that uses golf to teach core values for life, including honesty, confidence and respect. It also teaches healthy habits to promote physical, emotional and social well-being.

Bruce Blair, First Tee-VBR’s program director, recently led a team-building game for the Enterprise Center students designed to teach the core value of integrity. Boys and girls separated into teams and passed a suitcase from one person to the next while standing on small rubber mats spaced farther than an arm’s length apart. If someone lost their balance and stepped off their mat, the team had to return the suitcase to the beginning of the line. Students were asked to self-enforce this rule, just as golfers are typically responsible for calling penalties on themselves.

“No one is going to call you out,” Blair says. “You only have to worry about yourselves. ... Integrity is about doing what is right, even when no one is watching.”

Blair says he tries to take a subtle approach to character lessons for teens, and gives them freedom to make their own choices. “These kids don’t like to be preached to,” Blair says. “They already are preached to a lot.”

Ellington, who recently completed her first year as executive director, says her vision for The First Tee-VBR is to provide academic support and mentorship that will help young people prepare for college and their careers.

“It’s great to teach these core values, but what really matters is the impact we are having on kids’ lives,” Ellington says. “I want a high school student to be able to put First Tee on their résumé as something that transformed and changed their life.”