Geeked on Golf


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COMPLICATED, BUT PERFECT

Part 27 of the Journey Along the Shores series tells the story of the launch of a new youth golf program at Canal Shores

An idea about inclusiveness and enjoyment of the game of golf was born in our community this summer. That idea was transformed into a reality at Canal Shores by an unlikely team of high school students, a former social worker, a blogger, a community leader, golf instructors, parents and 18 brave kids who had never set foot on a golf course before. Their story embodies elements—inspiration, serendipity, perseverance, caring, courage—that when mixed together among people pursuing a common cause, tends to produce meaningful success. This story is about the inaugural Evanston Cradle to Career golf program at Canal Shores and the kids who went through it, but it begins in the mind of one kid.

It’s fitting that I would catch Thomas Haller for a conversation about his experience while he was driving with a buddy up to Sand Valley. He is my kind of geek—a teammate of my son Jack on the ETHS golf team, a member of YouthOnCourse and the NewClub golf society, a caddie, and a budding architecture connoisseur. Even better than all that, he believes that the game should be readily accessible to all. Coincidentally, his idea for a youth golf program came from another car ride. The Hallers were discussing diversity (or lack thereof) in the game while on the way home from the course one day. It was an issue that had been on Thomas’s mind. “Evanston is a diverse community, and all the sports teams at our school reflect that diversity, except golf,” he said. “So my friends on the team and I were aware of it, but the question is, what are you going to do about it?”

Thomas’s mom is a HeadStart teacher in Evanston and she originally suggested that he take her students out to play golf. That suggestion morphed into his idea for a youth program. He had seen how popular the kids camps and clinics at Canal Shores were and thought that he might be able to piggyback on those. “We are so fortunate to have a perfect place like Canal Shores in our town where kids can get introduced to the game,” he pointed out. “I probably couldn’t have done this in many communities in the area.”

Through a series of connections, Thomas found himself applying for a community building grant through Evanston Cradle to Career’s Advocates for Action council, an organization that advocates for systemic equity while pursuing life-enhancing opportunities for Evanston families. As he made his grant presentation with robust support from his parents, the Canal Shores Association Board and other members of the community, he realized that he was onto something big. “It was certainly overwhelming at first,” he recounted, “but I had lots of people helping me. When I saw how excited the parents and kids were for the opportunity to try golf, I didn’t want to let them down.”

The Buddy System

The kitchen table of Kelly Marcele’s home is a wedge away from the 15th green at Canal Shores, and yet she has never played the game. There was something about Thomas Haller’s idea that struck a chord with her though, and so the former social worker turned Advocates for Action volunteer stepped up to be his “grant buddy”. She recalled the lively internal conversation about race, recreation, outreach and inclusiveness prompted by Thomas’s application. The fact is that most people in Evanston’s African-American community have never been to Canal Shores, or any other golf course, and many have no familiarity with the game. Was a white teenager’s youth golf program really the best use of their resources? A fair question, but in the end, the answer came back affirmative. Thomas had his money, and the support of Kelly and others within Advocates for Action.

That support would prove to be crucial in bringing the idea to life. The first problem that needed solving was finding interested kids. After an initial outreach attempt failed, Kelly contacted blogger and community activist Nina Kavin who runs DearEvanston.org for help. With less than a week to go before the start of the program, Thomas had no kids signed up. Nina generously posted the opportunity on her Facebook page, and twenty-four hours later, the team had more inquiries than available spots. “My biggest takeaway was that minority kids weren’t playing not because they were disinterested,” shared Thomas. “They just didn’t have exposure and opportunity.”

The next challenge was one of logistics. The kids were signed up, but would they show up? Any parent of teenagers knows that little things like transportation and snacks aren’t top of mind. Once again, the community stepped up, led by Kimberly Holmes-Ross, Engagement Coordinator for Advocates for Action. Like Kelly, Kimberly was a believer in Thomas’s idea. The two ladies also shared a determination to do whatever it took to help see the program through, whether it was giving rides, gathering forms or welcoming parents and kids. Their efforts paid off as the group of participant families came together, and the players took to the game.

Producing Golfers

Peter Donahue is a beloved figure at Canal Shores. As head of The Golf Practice, his camps and clinics have been growing steadily since 2013, with this year’s class totaling 450 youth golfers. He is calm, caring, indefatigable and in charge—exactly the way he needs to be to marshal such a horde. A community golf course in Evanston is not where he planned to end up when his PGA Professional career began in the early ‘80s. “I thought I would be the next Hubby Habjan at a club like Onwentsia,” he reminisced. “As I went through my apprenticeship, I was encouraged to explore opportunities in the public space as well.” Peter found himself in Winnetka where he tapped into his love of instruction. “People who are enthusiastic students are a pleasure to be around, especially kids,” he said with enthusiasm of his own. Years later, that calling to teach would give rise to a robust program now known as The Golf Practice.

Peter had taken in disadvantaged students through the Canal Shores Association Board’s scholarship program before, with some successes. He saw in “the Haller project” (as he calls it) a different opportunity that got him excited. “What would it be like to take a kid with no exposure to the game, but who was interested in it, and see if we could produce a golfer?”, he wondered. Answering that question motivated Peter to sign on as a partner, helping Thomas to develop an introductory program that both welcomed players and taught them the basics.

“It was a revelation,” concluded Peter. He had always believed in the potential of a community course like Canal Shores to play an important and powerful role in the game, and during the weeks teaching Thomas’s recruits, he witnessed that potential being fulfilled. He wasn’t the only one making note of the profoundly positive vibe. “I’ve always been around kids who grew up with golf,” explained Thomas. “It’s a given in our lives, and we tend to get caught up in scoring and competition. These kids are in it for the love of the game, which puts it into perspective for me.”

More Than a Game

Golf’s just a game. What difference could it possibly make? I’m seeking answers to that question as I sit in the office of Canal Shores’ General Manager Tony Frandria. We’re discussing his impressions of the program, while the chaos of preparation for the first Northwestern University football home game swirls around us. The EC2C camp has ended, but Tony is clearly still affected by what he witnessed. “I don’t know what you were doing when you were in high school, but I sure wasn’t putting together youth golf programs,” he said with a laugh. “Thomas is a great kid with a great idea, and the result was all these other kids having a chance to learn the game. It was so cool to see the diversity of this place continue to grow.”

Amidst tight budgets, logistics of football parking, neighbor relations, course maintenance and challenging weather, the energy of the youth programs recharges Tony’s batteries, helping him continue to fight to make Canal Shores thrive. He noted the impact on families as well. “I heard through the grapevine that one father and son are ditching video games and buying clubs,” he gushed. “I have seen a mom and her son who was in the program continuing to come over on Fridays to hit balls in the nets together. Hearing stories like that and seeing the connections for myself…it’s just awesome.”

One particularly profound success is that of a camper named Judah. He went from never having played golf to making the boys team at Niles West High School in one summer. Clearly he was a natural, waiting to be found. But Judah’s experience is deeper and more important than what happened on the course, as his mother Abigail shared in a note to Kelly. “An African Proverb says ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’ My son and I went through some really tough times since (his father) died, and I felt so alone and overwhelmed” she wrote. “Judah was making me exasperated by hanging around with some bad influences…I remember crying myself to sleep one night and saying, ‘My God, I don’t have anybody!’…I had no idea that golf would bring brighter days and friendships and a village that would help take my son to the next level. He has connected with some really great young men and adults…I feel truly blessed by this experience with each and every one of you.” Thomas, Kelly, Peter and Tony all spoke of Judah, and as they did, their emotions were palpable. Can a game make a difference? Community golf can.

Reflecting back on this pilot program, all parties have ideas for how it can be improved going forward, and they are unanimous in their desire to see it do so in 2020 and beyond. “This was a good beginning,” said Peter. “Now we see what’s needed to keep it going, to make access happen.” Given that almost half of the first class of kids intend to stick with the game, there is good reason to press on. “We want to expand and include girls next time, and I will be recruiting my friends and teammates to pitch in,” Thomas strategized. “Perhaps we can turn it into something that gets passed down.”

Like many forms of sport or recreation, golf has the inherent ability to bring people together who wouldn’t normally mix. The club, ball and hole ahead don’t care if you are young or old, male or female, black or white. The challenge is the same for all. Get that little ball in that little hole and you are automatically bound to all the other players who have experienced the same joy of accomplishment. Unfortunately, barriers to entry to the game do exist, and that is what makes this story so impactful. Ultimately, it is about more than the game. It is about what it really takes to break down barriers. It is true that without Thomas Haller, this camp wouldn’t have happened. It is also true that with only Thomas Haller, this camp, and the greater good it produced, wouldn’t have happened. To create change and make a positive impact, the community must come together and act, as they did with Thomas’s idea. Not easy, but possible. Kelly summed it up best, “It’s way more complicated than people think, but it ended up perfect.”

Copyright 2019 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf