Volunteer Richard Maney celebrates a putt made by Malynn Blanchette as Holden Taylor looks on. Credit: Credit: Talia Wiener, Charlottesville Tomorrow

Jin Ellington has never played golf. Yet when she was looking to move to Charlottesville to be closer to family, the mother of two with a background in education and nonprofits stumbled across a job opening: Executive Director at The First Tee of the Virginia Blue Ridge.

Ellington applied to the position and found herself in charge of a youth development program, using golf as a tool to teach life skills.

“Before doing research for my position, my understanding of The First Tee was that they’re an organization that helps kids learn how to play golf,” Ellington said. “It’s more than just golf. The First Tee is very much focused on providing educational programs for kids that help build character, instill values in kids, teach them healthy habits… golf is really just the vehicle by which it gets done.”

There are more than 1,200 First Tee locations in the United States. The First Tee of the Virginia Blue Ridge (VBR) operates programs at Birdwood Golf Course and Highland Golf Park. The new chapter, formed in April 2016, succeeds First Tee Charlottesville, which operated at McIntire Park until 2015 when the golf course there was closed for the completion of the John W. Warner Parkway. 

The First Tee is founded upon nine healthy habits and nine core values, all of which are discussed and taught throughout the golf sessions. The healthy habits are broken into three categories: physical, relating to eating well and the importance of getting exercise, emotional, stressing confidence in oneself and one’s actions, and social, teaching how to cultivate positive relationships with family and friends.

But the core values, including honesty, integrity and respect, are what Nicole Cattley, Life Skills Coordinator and former University of Virginia golfer, says relate most directly to the sport.

“Golf is a great sport to teach character,” Cattley said. “With golf, you are your own referee.”

“You’re expected to call penalties on yourself and to live up to the rules on your own,” Cattley added. “That’s just kind of the spirit of the game of golf. It’s a game of integrity.”

The First Tee VBR’s mission is to prepare the children who participate with the skills necessary to succeed after they leave the program.

“Being a youth development program, our focus is to help develop these young kids into really successful high school graduates who go on to college or go on into a very successful career trajectory,” Ellington said. “We want to be able to start messaging that to young kids as early as elementary school, developing them in our program throughout the way with our core values and with our healthy habits and with the mentorship piece that they get from our coaches and volunteer coaches.”

First Tee VBR relies on more than 60 volunteers to ensure low coach-student ratios and to teach the values and habits. The volunteers participate in a training led by Cattley and are scheduled to teach during the fall, spring or summer sessions.

Richard Maney is a new volunteer with First Tee and a seasoned golfer who came across the organization on television. Maney reached out to First Tee VBR and is helping to teach a weekly summer session.

Maney says he also is getting a lot in return, especially the smiles and energy of the youth.

“At 70 years old, you forget about it and it’s just wonderful to be able to participate in something where the kids are so open minded to everything,” Maney said.

Ellington is hoping to expand the reach of First Tee VBR in order to teach these skills to a larger, more diverse group of children.

“I think generally when you think of golf, there’s a reputation or a stigma attached to it in terms of it’s for the wealthy,” Ellington said. “Part of our mission is to provide access to golf for the kids who may not have access to it because of financial reasons.”

In an attempt to spread outreach and identify children and families interested in First Tee, Ellington is speaking with local nonprofits, city and county government members, and church leaders.

“I’m getting a sense of what the Charlottesville community is like,” Ellington said. “Where are the pockets of need? Who are the organizations that are already serving those low-income, subsidized housing neighborhoods?”

By the end of the summer, Ellington hopes to have a strategic plan focused on reaching the currently out-of-reach populations. Issues such as transportation for children to the programs and funding for students on scholarship pose new challenges, but Ellington is confident in the organization’s ability to overcome.

“Many of our under resourced or disadvantaged youth need this opportunity more than some of their peers,” Ellington said. “So to be able to provide that opportunity for some of the low-income kids in this community will hopefully also help set them up for success as they go through elementary school, middle school, high school and into future careers.”