Anthony Haynes has been hungry and homeless in the first eight years of his life, but as he went through his pre-swing setup at Chambers Bay last week, his only concern was a small one.
His golf ball.
Cap pulled low, 7-iron in hand, Anthony was working on his game at the driving range, trying to feather a shot over a sign that read “respect” some 15 feet in front of him.
When the fourth ball he hit carried over that sign, Anthony could barely contain himself. Behind him, Ryan Kallenberger’s smile was nearly as wide.
“We started First Tee of South Puget Sound nearly three years ago, and we’ve gone from working with 60 kids our first summer to over 600 this year,” said Kallenberger, the group’s program director.
“The best moments for me come when you see that first good swing, when they get it. It hooks them, and you know they’re enjoying it.”
Anthony, who lives in Phoenix Housing in Tacoma, could be a poster boy for the program in Pierce County, one of hundreds of kids this summer spending 90 minutes a week on one of seven area golf courses – and learning about more than golf.
An international program, First Tee teaches the game and tries to instill core values – integrity, honesty, respect, confidence – in the process.
“Golf is a unique game to do that,” said Matt Enloe, the local executive director. “We’re trying to get kids out there who usually don’t get the chance to play golf. We want to help them manage their emotions. We want to teach them things that will serve them throughout their lives.
“The kids we’re trying to reach don’t think they belong on a golf course. They think it’s a white affluent sport.”
First Tee works with boys and girls ages 7 through 17. On the day Anthony was honing his swing, he was in a row of youngsters from Phoenix Housing, including 8-year-old Paige Christensen.
When the group went from 7-iron to driver, Paige’s first few swings sent more turf than balls flying. At First Tee, one of the things she’s learned is to replace divots – an act that falls under the categories of “respect” and “courtesy.”
Volunteer John Heinzinger talked to Paige for a few moments, adjusted her stance. Paige’s next swing connected and the ball shot down the range, which delighted her.
“I’ve always loved the game and played it most of my life,” said Heinzinger, 62, of Tacoma. “I wanted the chance to give back a little. What I like about this program is that it doesn’t work with the kids once or twice; it encourages them to continue year after year.”
First Tee has developmental levels – player, par, birdie, eagle, ace – and as the kids move up the ladder, they get the chance to do more than use driving ranges and putting greens.
“When they’ve reached ‘birdie’ level, they can play nine holes,” Kallenberger said. “In the beginning, we occasionally play one hole to give them a feel for it.”
In the two-plus years the Tacoma-area chapter has existed, Enloe said its partnerships have grown. The Boys and Girls Club, YMCA and Tacoma Rescue Mission are all involved.
“We’re partnering with after-school programs that can provide transportation,” Enloe said. “We’ve got videos of the kids up on Youtube - under First Tee of South Puget Sound - and we’ve started a few girls-only classes. Right now, we’re at about 40 percent girls.”
First Tee operates on donations and grants. It supplies kids with golf clubs and bags at each session. When the chapter began in 2011, the national organization donated 25 sets of clubs.
Enloe first partnered with two courses – Chambers Bay and Meadow Park. Today, five more courses participate: McCormick Woods, Oakbrook, The Classic and two military-base courses, Whispering Firs and Eagle’s Pride.
At each lesson, coaches talk about a core value. Last week, for Kallenberger’s kids, it was “honesty.”
“We want to help create good citizens, not just good golfers,” Enloe said.
They also make kids who’ve had tough lives happier. When Anthony hit a shot well, for instance, Kallenberger or one of the other volunteers always seemed to be watching.
“Nice swing,” someone would say.
And each time, Anthony would beam, adjust that cap and say the same thing.
Larry LaRue: (253) 597-8638