Ronnie “Austin” Caldwell, 19, is a participant of The First Tee of Pine Mountain who is a standout multi-sport athlete as well as a stellar student. In fact, looking at his accomplishments so far, you probably would not be able to imagine the frustrations he has overcome. For the past 12 years, Austin has battled Tourette’s syndrome and dealt with various muscle tics that became frustratingly frequent. School and athletics, two of Austin’s biggest passions, became daily challenges and medication seemed to only accentuate his symptoms. Yet, even at the height of his frustrations, Austin continued to volunteer in his community. During his 15 years of involvement at his chapter, he has embraced bully-prevention, building self-esteem in others and mentoring special needs participants. He continued to hone his skills on the golf course and his perseverance paid off. Austin was selected to attend the 2014 Perfect Sense Digital Pro-Am at Congressional Country Club where his partner was PGA TOUR player Danny Lee, The First Tee Life Skills & Leadership Academy in 2012, and in 2012 was selected as The First Tee of Pine Mountain’s first Youth Ambassador. Currently, Austin serves as a mentor and role model to young people in his chapter.
For some, displacement by a category five hurricane would be enough hardship for one lifetime. For Carlo Carino, 16, the hardest hit would come long after Hurricane Katrina’s waters had receded. In high school, Carlo received the news that his best friend and confidant had taken her own life after being bullied in school. Devastated by the news, Carlo said grief “affected every part of my life.” He found it difficult to focus in school, talk to his family or to even trust others for fear of losing another friend. After falling back on the core value of perseverance to overcome his grief, Carlo decided to honor his friend’s memory by creating an anti-bullying campaign for the elementary schools participating in The First Tee National School Program. Priding himself on community service, he will also host a walk during National Bullying Prevention Month in October to continue raising awareness for his program. When not making positive changes in his community, Carlo serves as a junior instructor for his chapter as well as captain of his high school golf team. Carlo credits The First Tee for instilling in him the values necessary to succeed and persevere. He strives to continue spreading awareness of his program and to eventually take his selfless service to the collegiate level.
Michael Mahlberg, 18, is no stranger to adversity. From personal difficulties as a young child to a series of severe illnesses, life has thrown a lion’s share of hurdles Michael’s way—hurdles that he has overcome with maturity, poise and an unwavering resolve to always press forward. His success on and off the golf course is almost hard to fathom given the fact that an appendix infection almost cost him his life and complications from a recent throat surgery almost derailed his golf career. Yet, during this time, Michael never ceased being a role model to his fellow participants at The First Tee of Sacramento, caretaker to his brother, who has autism, or his little sister. Michael is student body president of his high school, captain of the varsity golf team and involved in many volunteer activities that reiterate the astounding willpower he possesses to have overcome so much at such a young age. He credits The First Tee as well as the loving support of his family for helping shape him into the young man he has become and for reminding him to never stop moving forward.
Darren Schwartz, 19, was completing his orientation for his freshman year at Hofstra University when he received a heart-wrenching phone call. Both of his parents had been admitted to two separate hospitals. His father, recovering from his second heart attack, and his mother, from complications due to alcoholism. Isolated and concerned, Darren says that he called upon the life skills lesson of STAR (Stop, Think, Anticipate, and Respond) he learned at The First Tee of Delaware to plan his approach to the situation. Meticulously juggling his time between his college studies, his job, volunteer causes and caring for his parents, Darren spent a week in a whirlwind that would overwhelm most people. Darren’s innate commitment to his family, thoughtful judgement and ability to assume responsibility in a time of crisis exemplify The First Tee Nine Core Values. Both of his parents are now out of the hospital and recovering, and Darren remains committed to supporting his family any way he can while continuing to actively pursue his college education.
Griffin Shahmanesh, 17, was diagnosed with Tourette’s syndrome at the age of six. His tics invoked bullying at school and made even sitting still in the classroom extremely difficult. At 10-years-old, he was enrolled in The First Tee of Metropolitan New York and found that his tics appeared to decrease while he was playing golf. Above all, he found acceptance and a support network at the chapter that taught him the importance of The First Tee Nine Core Values. Griffin has dedicated himself and much of his free time to educating others about Tourette’s syndrome, including lobbying senators and congressman as a Youth Ambassador for the Tourette’s Syndrome Association of America. Additionally, he volunteers with local non-profit organizations and his synagogue. Griffin says that he wants to continue to spread awareness and acceptance for the disorder. He thanks The First Tee for giving him the confidence as well as the perseverance to see his goals through to the end. While Tourette’s will always be a part of his life, he is well on his way to crafting an exceptional one.
Robyn Battles, 17, was in the middle of her junior year when her family received the shocking news that her mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Despite having to commit much of her time to looking after her mother, Robyn still found the time to excel in both academics and at The First Tee of Fort Worth. In 2015, she was selected by The First Tee home office to attend the Outstanding Participant Leadership Summit where she was named The First Tee Outstanding Female Participant. Despite undergoing cancer treatment, Robyn’s mother was in attendance to see her daughter be awarded this prestigious honor wearing “the biggest smile I had seen in a long time,” Robyn said. Just one month after seeing her daughter honored, Robyn’s mother passed away. According to Robyn, the devastation was “surreal” and she thought about giving up. However, the memory of her mother inspired her to persevere and continue furthering her education. Robyn is currently a senior with plans to attend college and study environmental law. She continues to golf regularly in addition to being an award-winning member of her high school’s debate team. Above all, she is determined to never give up and to always keep moving forward no matter what life may send her way.
Angelica Harris, 17, of The First Tee of Greater New Orleans would spend hours each night looking over her history and English textbooks, struggling to comprehend what she was reading. Though a National Honor Society scholar and Beta Club student, Angelica felt like she had to work harder than other kids to understand the same material. What she did not know is that the source of her troubles came from an undiagnosed case of dyslexia. Though frustrated by this diagnosis, Angelica did not let dyslexia stop her from pursuing her dreams of attending an Ivy League university. After a disappointing result on her first ACT exam, Angelica rededicated herself to improving her scores, spending hours studying review books and learning new tips to better prepare herself. Just one year later, Angelica scored an impressive 29 on the ACT exam (scoring 31 on the English section alone!) and has begun submitting applications to her dream schools. Through confidence, hard work and sheer determination, Angelica refused to let her dyslexia define her. Instead, she persisted in her efforts and displayed that her passion for learning and dreams of attending an Ivy League university would not be deterred by her disorder.
Sharaia Pierce, 18, is the personification of the word fortitude. Growing up, Sharaia’s had an unpredictable and turbulent home life. Thankfully, Sharaia’s grandmother introduced her to the game of golf. Sharaia found solace at The First Tee of Greater Portland. Through the support of her Go-to Team, she gained the confidence she needed to help manage her personal obstacles. Having never lost faith in herself or her family, Sharaia graduated high school with a 3.5 GPA and currently attends Clark College where she will study nursing. Through all of her hardship, love for her family, for The First Tee and for herself instilled in her the drive to succeed no matter what obstacle she faces.
For Ariana Saenz, 16, family is everything. Born with congenital heart defect that required a dangerous open heart surgery, Ariana says it was her family that rotated in day and night for four months to be with her and that gave her strength to recover from her condition. Looking for a way to get her active and healthy, her father bought her first set of plastic golf clubs that she would play while in the hospital. With golf and The First Tee of Greater Houston, Ariana found her second family and an activity she could share with her parents and sister. In 2014, the bonds of her family would be tested again after her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Working to care for her mother at home, Ariana’s only respite was on the golf course where she qualified for the 2014 Nature Valley First Tee Open and dedicated her performance to her mother. Ariana has continued to play golf (qualifying for the Drive Chip & Putt Championship and going to Augusta as a finalist for the Southwest Region!), volunteering and earning straight A’s in school all while taking care of her mother, who was declared cancer-free in April. Ariana constantly credits her family and The First Tee Nine Core Values for all that she has accomplished on and off the course.
Grace Vaughan, 17, thought she might never get the chance to play sports. Born with a rare blood disorder that caused frequent visits to the hospital and several surgeries, sports and athletics were deemed too risky for her. With her grandfather’s help, she discovered golf and joined The First Tee of Spartanburg and Cherokee Counties. After being introduced to The First Tee Nine Core Values, she realized the importance of sharing her story of perseverance with others and began serving as a volunteer coach/mentor at her chapter. Grace says that The First Tee has helped her “become a better golfer and a better person.” She desires to become a collegiate student-athlete in the near future and inspire other young men and women to persevere over adversity no matter what.