CANTON Teenagers wrapped their hands around golf clubs and positioned their feet.
One at a time, a boy or girl pulled back the club and swung it forward into a practice ball.
For many of the kids, it was only the second time on a golf course and they needed guidance from instructors with The First Tee of Canton.
The youth are there for more than sport. It’s about life lessons, learning the core values of First Tee, a chapter of the national program: honesty, integrity, sportsmanship, respect, confidence, responsibility, perseverance, courtesy and judgment.
Trouble following rules or listening to adults brought them to the golf program as part of their juvenile court probation. Each of the teens has gone through court on a felony or misdemeanor offense, including theft, truancy, vandalism, disorderly conduct and failure to attend school.
The new program, known as “Tee it up for Hope,” partners First Tee and Stark County Family Court with the support of judges Jim James, Rosemarie Hall and David Nist.
The sessions take place once a week for two months at The First Tee course on 25th Street NE. More than a dozen kids (ages 13 to 17) are participating.
“We don’t want (the participants) to feel like they’re labeled when they come here,” said Angela Palomba, executive director of The First Tee of Canton, a not-for-profit organization. “It’s a clean slate in our eyes.”
Golf, life lessons
For many of the kids, a golf course was a foreign world with unfamiliar terms, etiquette and equipment.
“We like to partner with programs and organizations in the county that benefit all kids,” Palomba said. “But we also try to target (kids) who may never have the exposure or opportunity to participate in a program like this.”
There’s a natural overlap between the values of First Tee and the goal of family court, said Joyce Salapack, chief probation officer. Family Court strives for “rehabilitation and restorative justice,” she said.
Salapack said the golf program is similar to a few other existing ones at family court, including a running program for girls that won an award from by the Ohio Department of Youth Services. Family court also partners with Pegasus Farm for a horse-riding program.
Along with the sport, “it’s that additional thing that we’re teaching and it’s that ability to teach respect and that ability to teach self-discipline … and self-esteem,” Salapack said.
Simply devoting one-on-one time to the kids is beneficial, she said.
“Once we build the core values with these youths, hopefully, they can turn it into a love for the game,” she said.
“We want to be change agents for these youths and (teach them) they can find other avenues and other ways to become successful other than hanging out with negative peers and not being successful in school.”
Risk levels are assessed when selecting teens for the golf program, Salapack said. Violent offenders do not participate.
The golf program can help teach the kids coping skills and new ways to control stress and anger as well as the “demands of everyday life,” she said.
Palomba said there’s a natural crossover between golf and mentoring youth.
Moments before a recent practice session began, Terry Taylor, First Tee’s program director, addressed the teens inside a pavilion. Taylor wasn’t talking about the finer points of golf, he was talking about respect before leading the group out of the shelter. The kids formed two rows, lined up directly across from one another. Taylor instructed them how to greet one another with a firm handshake, including how long to hold the clasp, making eye contact and make a formal introduction.
Both Palomba and Salapack hope the new program is long-term. With the expansion of indoor facilities at the First Tee golf course, Palomba envisions the “Tee it up for Hope” program as year-round.
Family court transports the kids to the course and provides volunteers to help oversee the program. The court also provides T-shirts, pays for the registration fees and will hold a banquet at the end of the eight weeks. The family court’s budget for it is roughly $2,000, Salapack said. Two probation department employees, George Lancaster and Erica Spencer, help with the golf program.
Respect and integrity
The first few weeks of golf tutelage focus on basic skills. Plastic clubs and a smaller version of a tennis ball are used to learn basic swing technique. The kids progress to playing a three-hole round on the par three course. At the end of the session, the students may play on a larger course.
Noah Johnson, 17, of Canton, was among the few in the group with experience playing golf.
A member of the McKinley High School team, Johnson said, his misstep was an unruly charge for leaving home and not returning.
The First Tee program is helping him learn from his mistake. “It’s not just golf,” he said of the sport. “I always knew golf had a deeper meaning. It’s about living life correctly.”
Paris Lunsford, 17, of Canton, said his indiscretion was not going to school.
The golf program “is a good opportunity to keep me busy and keep me out of trouble,” he said.
Of stepping onto the golf course, Lunsford said, “it’s kind of peaceful.”
“I think it’s about a lot more than golf,” he added. “Respect, that’s No. 1. You’ve got to give respect to get respect.”
Another important value is integrity, Johnson said.
“This should be like installed in you,” he said. “Everybody’s going on about their daily lives and values aren’t their first priority, and they get lost in the sauce, and they don’t focus on their character daily.”