Lester BellFor years, Lester Bell, 18, used to look through the fence at the golf course which was across the street from the two bedroom apartment he lived in with his parents and seven siblings. He would imagine what it was like on the other side of that fence, playing on that golf course, away from the crowded apartment, away from the constant fighting between his parents, away from his family’s financial woes and away from the abuse made worse by his father’s alcoholism. Through the fence, Lester was watching The First Tee of Greater Dallas participants, and, unbeknownst to him at the time, he was looking at his future. One day, the chapter’s leader, Chuck Walker, saw Lester and invited him to join The First Tee. The coaches immediately saw his natural athleticism and knew he had the potential to excel at golf. However, a few years later, Lester fell into the wrong crowd, turned away from the Nine Core Values, stopped going to school and resorted to stealing food and clothes just to survive. He stopped attending The First Tee program and no one knew how to find him until one day, when Lester was 16, his coach, Ira McGraw, received a call from the local juvenile court saying that Lester had been arrested. While the charges were dropped, Lester needed an adult to sign him out. Virtually abandoned by his parents, Lester knew that McGraw was the one adult he could reach out to for help. Coach Ira and his wife not only signed Lester out of jail, but they also became his legal guardians, welcoming him into their home where he has lived ever since. Recognizing this second chance at his childhood, and at life, Lester is now a junior in high school and has a 3.2 GPA. He carries himself with confidence and embraces the Nine Core Values, leading by example on and off the course. Watching him mature and overcome adversity at such a young age, The First Tee staff refers to Lester as their true “Diamond in the Rough.” He aspires to attend college, major in business and become a member of the Professional Golf Association of America.
Megan Chapin, 17, intuitively understood the meaning of perseverance, even before she could pronounce the word. This courageous young woman endured two heart surgeries to repair a damaged mitral valve when she was just three, and again when she was seven years old. Through her operations and recovery, Megan never lost her positive outlook. This upbeat attitude helped her persevere through another medical diagnosis when in the sixth grade, a doctor confirmed she had Crohn’s disease, an incurable, chronic inflammatory condition of the gastrointestinal tract. Several hospitalizations over the years have caused Megan to miss school and scramble to make up homework just to keep up with her class. She has soldiered on through her medical issues and has been a strong role model to the junior golfers at The First Tee of Fort Smith where she is a volunteer coach for the young participants. Even when she felt her worst, she always felt better knowing that soon she would be back at her chapter, helping coach the TARGET class, as well as mentor the chapter’s Little Linksters and a class for special needs participants. Her dedication and time at The First Tee was been recognized by her chapter when she was given the Volunteer of the Year Award from 2006–2008. Also a Girl Scout leader, Megan was awarded both the Girl Scout Silver and Presidential Gold awards for her volunteer time spent at The First Tee. Megan also is a model for judgment when it comes to her diet and exercise—two important factors in helping to keep the Crohn’s from flaring up. She exemplifies the chapter’s motto of “Healthy-Mind, Healthy-Body, Healthy-Heart.” Megan would like to go to college and major in philosophy, then begin a career as a social worker or a teacher and be someone who helps children see how important and special they are, just like The First Tee did for her.
If Kolton Cooper, 17, has his way, he will soon be playing in the number one spot on a college golf team, majoring in engineering, and on his way to a successful career while making a difference in his community. Despite his young age, Kolton, an Ace-level participant at The First Tee of Roanoke Valley, has had an arduous journey to where he is today. He grew up with an abusive father who, despite Kolton’s mother’s many pleas to the courts, still had visitation rights with Kolton until he was 11 years old. Having his father in his life added a tremendous amount of stress and chaos for Kolton, causing him to lose focus and as a result, his grades dropped. The summer his father was finally out of his life was one of joy and contentment for Kolton and his mother. Though they have struggled financially over the years, they have a devotion to each other to be the best person they can be for themselves and for each other. Kolton quickly became a straight A student and a member of The First Tee where his athleticism and aptitude for golf also skyrocketed him to the number one spot on his high school team. Kolton began practicing every day and The First Tee coaches helped him utilize “goal ladders” to lower his USGA handicap from 25 to a remarkable 1.0 handicap Index. He attended The First Tee Hank Haney IJGA Academy in 2010 and, in 2011, took his first plane ride out to California to play with pro Jim Gallagher at Nature Valley First Tee Open at Pebble Beach. Each day, Kolton lives The First Tee Nine Core Values. He carries himself with confidence and shows respect to everyone. Kolton can now see that although his early childhood was scary and unpredictable, his perseverance has made him a stronger son, athlete and young man. He uses the Nine Core Values in his life by being the best son he can be for his mother, a great person to everyone he meets and a great athlete for his own satisfaction.
Philip Hoffman, 17, a participant at The First Tee of Charlottesville for past six years, was adopted when he was five years old from an orphanage in Karaganda, Kazakhstan. Coming to the United States with an un-repaired cleft palate and speaking only Russian, communication was difficult. Since then, Philip has had four surgeries to fix the roof of his mouth, spent five years in speech therapy classes, learned the English language, and battled a reading disorder. All of these issues meant he had to work very hard in school to succeed. Through his journey, Philip learned the meaning of perseverance and he began to excel. His diligence and determination meant he went from making failing grades in the third grade to being on the honor roll since the fifth grade. Philip was adopted by a single mother who encouraged his participation in The First Tee so he would have exposure to positive male role models. Little did she know how The First Tee would help Philip evolve from a shy, timid boy into the mature, confident and courageous young man he is today. He was selected to participate in The First Tee Training Program at Hank Haney IJGA, and he has twice participated in the Nashville Ace & Eagle Academy, winning the Determination Award in 2011. Philip is now a junior in high school, taking Advanced Placement level classes, has plans to attend college and hopes to one day work in the golf industry.
Seventeen year old Kyle Kubala credits The First Tee for helping him persevere and exercise good judgment during the many ups and downs of his mother’s six-year battle with cancer, which she lost in 2010. An Ace-level participant from The First Tee of St. Petersburg, Kyle had to become independent at a young age, caring for his two younger sisters while his mother was sick and his father was working, trying to keep up with the medical bills. Kyle kept busy—and more importantly, out of trouble—by volunteering and participating in his chapter’s activities, clinics and camps. He became a Young Mentor, serving as an excellent and popular role model for the other participants. During the hardships in his personal life, Kyle, who has plans to attend college, was able to maintain an impressive 4.4 GPA, join and enjoy many of his high school’s clubs and activities, and, in his junior year, win his District Championship Golf Tournament. This young man’s maturity and integrity in the face of such personal devastation reveals the true depth of his character and sets him on a path with a very promising future.
Cody Lissner, 18, a participant of The First Tee of Howard County, is more than a great golfer; he is a young man who exemplifies integrity and the strength found in overcoming obstacles. Honesty, trust and perseverance are values that guide Cody’s life. However, life was not always this way. He used to live a life of lies and would always have to worry about when people would find out the truth. And as Cody learned, the truth has a way of coming to light. At the age of 13, Cody found himself drifting from The First Tee’s Nine Core Values and morals he learned growing up. After experimenting with substances, Cody developed a drug and alcohol addiction. His chemical dependency cost him his grades, his golf and his ability to live at home. Unable to finish his ninth grade year, Cody decided to change his life. Leaving his friends and family, he entered a treatment facility thousands of miles from home. After nine months of wilderness therapy and therapeutic boarding school, he returned to his hometown to complete the remaining five months of treatment. Cody could only imagine all that he would accomplish in just a few months. As he celebrated his first year of sobriety, Cody was selected to play in the 2012 Nature Valley First Tee Open at Pebble Beach alongside Champions Tour player Chip Beck. He credits the role The First Tee has played in his journey to recovery. Today, Cody has been sober for two years and is an active member of Alcoholics Anonymous. He shares his story at hospitals and institutions, including the place where he was once a patient. His passion is helping those who are struggling with the disease of addiction, especially teens and young adults. Cody is on his way to becoming an Ace-certified participant and continues to practice regularly and play competitively on his high school’s varsity golf team. His goal is to study business in college while playing on the golf team. He hopes to one day forge a career in the golf industry.
Darcy Phinney, 17, a participant at The First Tee of Nashville, had dreamed of either joining the military or becoming a police officer. Her dreams were dashed, however, when a young man who was texting and driving, crossed the center line on the highway, going full speed, and ran head-on into Darcy’s family’s minivan, with all six of her family members inside. While everyone in her family survived, they each had varying degrees of injuries. Darcy’s mother fought for her life in the trauma unit and later spent four months in the hospital and in an orthopedic rehabilitation center. Darcy broke her back in the accident and underwent two major spinal surgeries that involved fusing together three of her vertebrae and inserting two rods into her back. Needless to say, her rehabilitation was slow. Not only were her movements very limited by the fused vertebrae, but she also wore a back brace around her torso day and night, making the simplest activities—like taking a shower—impossible to do on her own. With her mother in the hospital, and her father healing from a broken leg while having to continue to work, Darcy relied on her siblings to help with everything from tying her shoes to giving her a bath each night. The injuries that the family sustained caused them to move into a house that could better accommodate their new physical limitations. Unable to bend over or lift anything, Darcy pitched in the best she could, washing dishes or packing rooms. Unsurprisingly, she tired easily and could not help as quickly as she would normally have been able to. Despite these frustrations and her long rehabilitation, Darcy always kept a positive outlook. Persevering through this healing journey, she never felt sorry for herself and nor did she slip into pointing blame at the new path her life would take. Instead, she focused on what she could do and what she could control. She has come to terms with the fact that she will never be in the military or a police officer. Now, she hopes to still help people and still give back by majoring in business and entering into a field that will allow her to lead people, inspire them and help them grow.
Whether he is playing his trumpet, or swinging a golf club, Rashard Simpson, 17, is always pushing to be his best self. A participant for the last five years at The First Tee of Tampa Bay, Rashard’s upbringing was far from ideal. Along with his seven siblings, Rashard saw many things over the years that no child should, including abuse, drug use, poverty and more. Rashard worked hard to be a good example and mentor to his other brothers and sisters. He found happiness in golf and playing trumpet in his high school’s marching band. Rashard spends three to four days a week at The First Tee of Tampa Bay doing homework, practicing golf or simply hanging out with staff and other participants, in addition to practicing his music for several hours a week. The last two summers, Rashard was hired by the chapter to be a summer camp counselor. His responsibility and dedication to his job was exemplary. He never missed a shift, usually walking five miles one way to the chapter. With his easy-going personality and very positive outlook about his future, Rashard wants to major in psychology and eventually become a psychiatrist, serving as a sounding board to help children who have had childhoods similar to his. He wants to help them overcome their obstacles, lay a new foundation for their lives and show them that they can create whatever future they desire.
Xavier SparrowWhen Xavier Sparrow, 18, was in the fourth grade, he was told he would never be able to read beyond a second grade level. Instead of dampening his spirit, Xavier set out to prove that not only would he be a strong reader, he would also be a success in the future. He spent many hours with different tutors, all who believed in him and helped to build his confidence. During this time, Xavier’s mother, a single parent, struggled financially and when Xavier was in the seventh grade, they had to move in with his grandmother. This was a stressful time for Xavier, but he persevered with his studies and eventually gained a new outlet when he became a participant at The First Tee of Portland. Xavier credits The First Tee for changing his life. He not only learned about respect, patience and courtesy, but he also learned how to incorporate these values into his life. Having integrity, honesty and good sportsmanship helped Xavier as he developed new relationships during his time at The First Tee. He also realized that golf is a lifelong sport that will benefit him in both his personal and professional life. Xavier has been accepted into Cerritos College in Los Angeles where he plans to earn his bachelors and masters degrees in business administration. His goal is to become an entrepreneur and start his own property management company.
Virgie Velazquez, 17, an active participant at The First Tee of Greater Sacramento, has overcome challenging obstacles in her young life. After she persevered through her parents’ difficult divorce, she and her mother were on their own, struggling financially, moving often, and living with friends and relatives along the way. A few years later, her mother’s new husband provided financial stability and a much needed father-figure and Virgie felt her life was on track—her grades had improved dramatically and her home life was stable. She was playing golf at The First Tee and incorporating the Nine Core Values into her game and into her life. But in the summer of 2012, Virgie’s life was rocked yet again when her step-father was looking for golf balls on the course and contracted poison oak. It turned into a staph infection that spread into his blood stream and left him fighting for his life in the ICU. He spent two months in the hospital and underwent open heart surgery to treat the infection. Despite the odds, he survived the surgery and infection, but later lost his job and was put on disability. With her mother at work and her step-father in the hospital, Virgie helped her mother with the day-to-day activities of running the house and looking after her two young sisters. During those two months, she also kept up her grades and her involvement at The First Tee, volunteering at events and serving as a positive role model to younger participants. Virgie has persevered through these adversities with grace and dignity, growing into a strong, confident, respectful young woman who has a very bright future ahead of her. Virgie hopes to be the first in her family to attend college and would like to major in business and eventually give back to the community by creating an organization for teenagers who have also been through trying experiences.