Cover Story: More than a Game
The First Tee is changing the course of kids’ lives
Editor’s Note: From the first issue, Yellowstone Valley Woman’s cover story has worked hard to shine the spotlight on women changing lives, inspiring others and building a better community. When we looked at The First Tee program and saw how this recreational golf program was doing so much more than developing kids’ golf games, we knew it was worthy of taking our spot on the cover.
When 18-year-old Kenna Adolf grabs her golf clubs, she revels in that peaceful easy feeling that overcomes her every time she hits the course. She doesn’t have a care in the world. It’s just her, her game and the vast landscape of 18-holes she hopes to conquer that day. “I especially love it in the morning, when there’s still dew on the grass,” Kenna says. As she preps for her back swing, she anticipates the sound of that first crack of the ball. “Stepping onto the open fairway, you feel like you are all by yourself out there.”
Even though Kenna comes from a long line of golfers, she just took up the game a couple of years ago.
“It’s been the biggest blessing,” she says. “My grandpa is a big golfer. He’s 87. He still walks out at the Highlands every day during the summer, golfs and shoots a pretty good score. He’s made a big push for me to golf.” Her Aunt, Bernie Steffan, is another big influence. As Executive Director of The First Tee program in Billings, Bernie called on Kenna to use her golf skills to mentor to kids wanting to learn the game.
"Since I have only been playing competitively for two years, when I walked into The First Tee program, I was actually learning along with some of the kids — the etiquette and the rules.” She’s been sharpening her skills and touching lives ever since.
The First Tee might be a program aimed at teaching the fundamentals of golf, but its mission runs much deeper than just learning the game. The First Tee uses the sport as a platform for kids to develop key values like honesty, integrity, sportsmanship, respect, confidence, responsibility, courtesy, perseverance, and judgment. They are the nine core values that The First Tee emphasizes to empower youth and, in turn, help build a better community.
“Those core values — integrity, honesty, and courage, standing up for what you believe in — those are things that I use in my everyday life too,” Kenna says. “You wouldn’t think that I would learn this from a kid’s golf program, but they have been instilled in me.”
Every summer, as the program’s leader, Bernie spends her days out on the course, touching the lives of roughly 300 kids as young as 7 and as old as 18. She laughs and says, “I am always teased about how I am herding butterflies all day!” She wouldn’t have it any other way. While many kids simply sign up for the program, others enter into the program through the Yellowstone Boys and Girls Ranch, the Friendship House or the United Way Care Academy on a scholarship to defray the $150 cost for the summer.
“Some of these kids really have seen things that we cannot even fathom. When you watch them and start to see the transition that they are making?” Bernie shakes her head in awe. “So many of them have just not had the opportunity to feel loved, to make a great shot and run across the green jumping and screaming and get a big hug from a high school student. It is so rewarding, you have absolutely no idea how great it is to see the transition in these kids.”
One little seven-year-old we’ll call “Luke” entered into the program with a world of heartache. Bernie says, “His mom had a seizure and he literally watched her die in the car on the way to the hospital when he was three.” She adds, “He is just starting to process that and he struggles. He had these emotional outbursts. His grandma called me and said, ‘Bernie, can you help us?’” Looking the little guy in the eye, Bernie remembers saying, “Luke, we are going to make you a better person.” With patience, time and a lot of love on the side, Bernie says, “By the end of the summer, not only had he become this great little golfer, he learned right from wrong.”
Luke also took a shining to Kenna, who served as one of his mentors.
“He’s had a rough past,” Kenna says. “But, he is the cutest thing I’ve seen and he tries really hard.” Kenna says one day while she was on the course practicing her game for the Central High School golf team, she spotted Luke getting ready to hit the course with his grandparents. “He said, ‘You should come with me!’ So, I went out and played nine holes with him and his grandparents. It was the most precious thing. You could tell that he was so excited to show his skills and all the rules that he learned through The First Tee.” As Kenna reflects on that day and how far Luke has come, “That really fills me up. It’s rewarding just to help and make an impact on their young lives.”
Kenna uses every opportunity and every stroke to teach life lessons.
“I think honesty and integrity are a big thing in golf,” Kenna says. “I have encountered people who are not always honest out on the golf course.” She grins as she says, “With the little kids, I know I’ve said, ‘Did you make that shot?’ and they will say, ‘Yeah!’ and I’ll ask, ‘Did you, though?’”
Fifteen-year-old mentor Kyra Brockhausen might have started learning the game with her dad when she was just 3, but she says, “The First Tee has really improved my game.” So much so, she says, “My hard work has paid off and I finally reached one of my goals which was to outplay my dad!” She also now represents her high school, playing golf for Skyview.
One of the more lasting lessons she’s learned through this program, however, is one that’s shocked even her own mother.
“Before I started the First Tee, I was really, really, quiet. I still am quiet but I managed to get out of my shell and get better at talking to people,” Kyra says. As Kyra shares, her mom smiles, nodding in agreement. “Having to sit back in the program, being a student and then stepping up to be a mentor, she’s had to step outside of that box a little bit and become a little bit more outgoing and assertive to help the other kids grow,” says Kyra’s mom, Marianne Brockhausen. Marianne says her once extremely shy daughter has come so far that she’s now involved in Speech and Debate at Skyview. “Things like that, I would never have thought she would have done because she was so quiet,” Marianne says with a smile. “It has been huge. She also now gets to help that child in the program who is maybe the quiet or shy child that is sitting in the corner who reminds her a lot of herself.”
For 18-year-old Logan Martin, The First Tee has taken him places he never thought possible. He rubbed elbows with Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. He’s golfed alongside PGA Pros. He’s attended leadership summits through the program and was invited to play in The First Tee Core Values Cup hosted at Pebble Beach, California.
Bernie went along with Logan and won’t soon forget the rush of the day when Logan played alongside one of the nation’s best junior golfers.
“Logan made the turn and the young gentleman he was golfing with really started to struggle. He had a couple bad shots and he wasn’t using his core values to go inside himself.” Logan, however, kept his head up even though he felt he wasn’t having his best game. Bernie says, “I went and got him a Gatorade and told him, ‘You’ve played a week of golf at a course that any golfer in their right mind would love to play.’ As we were coming in, Logan was kind of down. I said to him, ‘Hold your head up high.’” What happened next was remarkable. Bernie says, “All of a sudden, he’s looking up at the JumboTron. He looks up and says, ‘My name is up there. What does that mean?’ I told him, ‘That means you just won the Core Values Cup.’ It made me cry to see that look on his face.”
One of the gifts of the job, Bernie says, is being able to see this incredible growth in every one of the kids who takes to the course for The First Tee. Some kids champion goals like trying to keep their nerves or emotions in check. Others feel empowered when they are able to master a shot. Or kids like Logan try to take the program as far as it can possibly lead them.
“It was a truly remarkable experience,” Logan says about all of the opportunities The First Tee has provided. “It’s been pretty exciting, especially being the kid from Montana.”
While Logan started the program at 7 years old, he’s been giving back as one of the program’s mentors since he’s been 14. He’s learned that being a leader is more than holding a position of authority. “Maybe being a leader isn’t just in the title. It’s more about doing the right thing when people aren’t looking and helping the person that needs help,” Logan says.
Today, Logan is looking forward to next fall when he’ll head to college. He will definitely be bringing his golf clubs along. “The First Tee brought me to a new level where I am now ready to compete at the college level.” Logan has a few offers for golf scholarships on the table and is now weighing his options. He credits The First Tee for that. “That is really where it all started. I got some good role models to look up to and they taught me the game and guided me to success in the game.” Logan adds, “I truly believe I am the person that I am today because of The First Tee. I am proud of who I am. It grew me into a leader.”
Stories like Logan’s, Kyra’s, Kenna’s, and Luke’s are all music to Bernie Steffan’s ears. She knows with each new day comes a new opportunity to develop a child’s skill, share a particular value, or, at the very least, show a caring spirit to a child who might need a little boost.
How can golf teach values? Bernie smiles and says, “When we are doing Dodge Ball Golf, the kids have no idea that they are learning how to be a good sport. All they know is that they are having a fun time trying to hit one of their friends’ balls out of the square!” Other times, Bernie says, “You will have kids who are not listening and then we will have to go and sit and we will ask, ‘How do you think you could fix that behavior right now?’ You empower the child to come up with a solution.”
While each day comes with its own set of challenges, Bernie says it brings a multitude of joys.
“I can honestly say I have been so blessed to have these incredible young people. They have so much to offer,” Bernie says. And when the day is done and the kids start to pack up their gear, “You get to leave for the day with 40 little hugs. It just doesn’t get any better than that.”
Bernie says she’ll always remember a conversation she had with Emma Dyre, one of her teen mentors who has since gone off to college. “Emma told me, ‘When you leave an environment and you see the impact you’ve made on a young person’s life, it just doesn’t get any better than that.’” As Bernie reflects on the stories and the four years she’s personally been with the program, “The kids, they never stop encouraging. It just makes my heart happy.”
The First Tee began in 1997 as a non-profit to deliver golf programs in all 50 states. Since its inception, The First Tee has grown steadily into a robust, youth development organization impacting, influencing and inspiring more than 10.5 million young people. The program has been up and running in Billings for the past 14 years. Last year, 600 kids statewide took advantage of the program in Montana. It’s supported by the LPGA, the Masters Tournament, PGA of America, PGA Tour and the USGA.
WHAT FIRST TEE DELIVERS
73% of kids reported an increase in confidence in their ability to do well academically
82% felt confident in their social skills with peers
78% described their ability to transfer life skills through specific examples and stories
52% credited the program for their ability to appreciate diversity
96% credit The First Tee for improving their golf skills
DID YOU KNOW?
1 in 3 young people — 16 million — will reach the age of 19 without ever having had a mentor. The First Tee believes all young people should have access to safe places and caring adult mentors to help them grow socially, emotionally and academically.
WHO CAN PLAY?
The First Tee offers group lessons to all kids ages 7 to 19, regardless of background or previous experience. The First Tee of Montana also offers full scholarships or reduced fee programing for those in need. Children of veterans or military service members are also welcomed by scholarship into the program. For more information, visit thefirstteemontana.org.