The proverb "from little acorns do mighty oaks grow” aptly describes the results of those participating in The First Tee of Denver. The nonprofit organization, whose purpose is to educate and inspire youth academically, socially and physically through golf, first took root in 2002, building from what was then Denver Junior Golf, a program with similar goals. In 2001, Denver Junior Golf had 200 participants in its program, but the then-program director, David Kolquist, believed it had considerably more growth potential.
After visiting schools within walking distance of City Park Golf Course, Denver Junior Golf’s home course, he sparked more interest from educators, students and the community in the value of golf as a bridge to esteem-building, physical activity and academic excellence. A year later, the momentum continued when the First Tee of Denver became a chapter of the national organization, which launched in 1997.
A partnership among the USGA, the PGA TOUR, the LPGA, the PGA of America and the Masters Tournament, the First Tee began introducing an affordable junior golf program to communities that did not have them, particularly in socioeconomically disadvantaged areas. In the 23 years since the organization’s inception, the impact is as impressive as a 400-yard drive pounded by Rory McIlroy. Nationwide there are 1,200 programming locations, more than 3,900 active coaches, more than 24,000 volunteers, over 1,000 PGA and LPGA professionals serving as coaches, executive directors, staff and volunteers, and its National School Program has been introduced to over 9,000 schools. Locally, the impact is also significant.
“We started with 200 kids in 2002,” said Paula Purifoy, CEO of The First Tee of Denver, The First Tee of the Front Range and The First Tee of the Colorado Rocky Mountains. “In 2013, we were only serving 2,000 boys and girls. But at a fundraising lunch, my board member chair made a bold announcement saying we were going to serve 10,000 participants by 2020. We had 10,024 participants in 2019, so we reached that goal even earlier.”
To date, the three First Tee locations Purifoy oversees have attracted 59,447 kids and teens ages four through 18, each of whom is encouraged to employ the organization’s nine core values in their lives. Those include respect, sportsmanship, honesty, judgment, integrity, perseverance, confidence, courtesy and responsibility. In addition to learning golf’s fundamentals, the participants are also taught life skills such as how to manage emotions, resolve conflicts, make proper introductions, establish step-by-step goals, plan for the future, appreciate diversity and how to advance through the program’s six levels.
“Our vision is for every participant to carry golf club in one hand and a diploma in the other,” Purifoy added. “We think sports and education are so important, and if you factor in character development with components like reading, math and science, you have well-rounded kids that grow up to be positive, contributing members of the community.”
Strengthening the educational component are the organization’s Read ‘N’ Swing and Club Building programs. Set up as a one-on-one student-to- volunteer exercise typically lasting six to eight weeks, participants read at least 30 minutes before engaging in any golf activities. Also over six weeks, students in the Club Building program are tasked with making a wedge and a putter. This encourages the students to employ math, reading and science skills resulting in the young golfer having the pride of accomplishment he or she can literally put into play.
“We’re tracking where they are with their reading skills at the beginning of the year and where they are afterwards,” Purifoy explained. “Our participants’ reading skills are improving at a faster rate and with a 50 percent higher reading proficiency than their peers that are not participating in our programs.”
The First Tee of Denver furthers its commitment to enriching the lives of its participants through its Peer Mentoring Program, where primarily at-risk children are paired with high school-aged mentors. Proven to be extremely relatable, the mentors are adept at helping the younger kids learn to communicate in a positive way, while also learning determination, what constitutes a healthy relationship and the importance of using good judgment. Passionate about why a good education is a springboard to a brighter future, The First Tee of Denver offers college scholarships annually to deserving students.
“We’re planning on giving away five college scholarships, each worth $10,000,” said Purifoy.
The program is designed not only to help children be more responsible, they’ll be in a trajectory towards getting better grades, more life skills, the ability to join the Youth Leadership Council, have a summer job and compete in local and national golf tournaments. Making the program accessible is the fact that participants need no prior experience with golf, no equipment and, unless they enroll in one of the year-round Birdie classes (a $125 fee), little to no financial commitment, largely because the program is offered through affiliations with participating schools.
“We had a teen who started with us at 14 years old, he earned an Evans Scholarship, he graduated from college and now he is our marketing director,” Purifoy commented. “One girl earned an Evans Scholarship through caddying at City Park with us. She graduated from the University of Colorado with no debt and went to work for an oil and gas company. These are the kind of kids I’m talking about that are going to be leaders in the community.”
From little acorns do mighty oaks grow.
The First Tee of Denver
3181 E. 23rd Ave. Denver, CO 80205
Kim D. McHugh, a Lowell Thomas award winner and member of the Golf Writers Association of America, has been writing about people, food and wine, travel and architecture since 1986. He appreciates what The First Tee of Denver does to grow the sport and encourage reading.
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