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By 2005 the 200th First Tee had been christened. The rapid expansion was not without its challenges. The home office in St. Augustine, Fla., helps defray operating costs in the first three years, but after that, each chapter is expected to be self-sustaining. The adults who populate The First Tee campuses may love golf and be dedicated to helping kids, but that doesn't mean they are cagey businessmen or adept fund-raisers, which can be a problem, given that the chapters generate little revenue. The First Tee of Monterey County charges kids $130 a year to be members, but the vast majority are on "scholarship," which is to say, they pay nothing. "We'll never turn a kid away because of money," says Phillips. "Everyone is welcome, and we'll worry about how to pay for it later." The Alisal school district doesn't pay a dime to TFTMC.
When the recession hit in late 2007, funding for many First Tee chapters began to dry up. The response in Monterey County was to form the Big Z Sales Club, named in honor of the late John Zoller, TFTMC's founding chairman. Big Z brings together three dozen pillars of the golf community, members of glittering private clubs such as Cypress Point, Monterey Peninsula Country Club, Tehema and the Preserve. Though the Big Zers are rarely seen in East Salinas, they have been relentless in raising money by garnering individual donations and throwing big-ticket fund-raisers such as last year's one-day tournament at Monterey Peninsula, which raised more than $100,000. Soliciting wine for a silent auction at the event, an e-mail implored Big Z members to "go deep into your cellar and pull out the good stuff." No exception was made for anyone without a cellar.
The First Tee of Monterey County has also been aggressive about cutting costs. A recent decision to subcontract the maintenance on the golf course will save $50,000 a year. Representatives of TFTMC spent much of 2011 negotiating with the city of Salinas for a reduction on its lease. At a December city council meeting a handful of kids offered emotional testimony about the impact of The First Tee on their lives, leading the council to unanimously approve slashing the annual rent from $575,000 to $125,000. "Every dollar is important to a city like ours," says Salinas mayor Dennis Donohue, "but it's critical that we are a good partner with The First Tee. It is the largest and most successful youth-services program in the county. The gang problem we face is a tough one. The First Tee is one program that gets results."
Of course, not every First Tee has Monterey County's fund-raising reach or political savvy. In recent years First Tees have been shuttered in Detroit; Jacksonville; Portland; Knoxville, Tenn.; Albany, Ga., and Columbus, Ga., among other places. This is a sensitive subject at The First Tee's national headquarters, and CEO Joe Louis Barrow Jr. is quick to point out that Portland and Knoxville both had two facilities and that in each city they were "consolidated for programming reasons, not because of the bottom line." But Barrow does allow, "You will see more contraction in the future, and we think that will be healthy."
With a nod to its precarious financial position, The First Tee launched last year's Campaign for 10 Million Young People. The related fund-raising—$72.8 million and counting—provides what Barrow calls "strategic reserves" to help struggling chapters. A new matching program, underwritten by Johnson & Johnson, will allow the home office to give each chapter one dollar for every two it raises. More money for more buses means TFTMC can reach more kids. Beginning in the fall the program will be expanded to include third-graders in the Alisal district, which is applauded by law enforcement. "We're finding that to effectively keep kids out of the gangs, you have to start much earlier than was previously thought," says commander Stan Cooper of the Monterey County Joint Gang Task Force. "If you wait until sixth grade, a lot of them are already lost forever."
The fund-raising campaign was announced at last year's First Tee Open, during which Barrow challenged TFTMC leadership to think big. The result is ongoing discussions with Cal State--Monterey Bay to put a First Tee facility on school-owned land east of Monterey. "It's going to happen," says Steve John. "We're working on the details." The tentative plan is for three golf holes, a large driving range and a complex of classrooms. This facility would be a 30-minute drive from the current TFTMC campus and reach an entirely different community, one much closer to the donor base. This complicates the financial picture in East Salinas. Says Nick Nelson, TFTMC's deputy executive director, "We have an interesting situation in that 90 percent of the people who use our facility are from Salinas, but 90 percent of the money that supports it is from the Monterey Peninsula. Our challenge is to get this community right here to offer more support."
The key is to tap the agriculture companies in the Salinas Valley, and the sales pitch being made to the ag barons is that most of those who use The First Tee are the children of their employees. The First Tee is also reaching out to its East Salinas neighbors. In April a parents advisory committee was formed, led by TFTMC staffer Irma Lopez. Eight parents attended the first meeting and 13 came to the second one. "The energy in the room has been great," Lopez says. "The parents have a lot of interesting ideas on how we can improve things."
One of Lopez's missions is to generate interest for TFTMC's summer camps, which are priced at $30 a week. "Anyone who has kids knows what a bargain that is," she says. "But these parents are used to getting things [from The First Tee] for free. I tell the parents you still have to support what we're doing. The fact is, we can't always count on someone else paying the bills around here."
On a sunny morning in mid-May, The First Tee of Monterey County was abuzz with activity. Bright yellow buses had disgorged a couple of hundred kids from Creekside Elementary, and they were quickly placed into small groups scattered around the facility. On the 7th fairway Al Janess led six two-person teams in a better-ball match. When a pair of fifth-grade girls got up and down from 50 yards for a birdie that won the hole, they couldn't contain their whoops of delight. Coach Al, a former Navy SEAL and recent cancer survivor, volunteers up to 40 hours a week at The First Tee. Beaming at the girls, he said, "These kids make me feel alive." On the driving range Mike Orozco, one of TFMC's four full-time paid instructors, had a group of beginners swatting tennis balls to each other with oversized plastic clubs. In the clubhouse half a dozen volunteers among the kids were writing thank-you notes to recent donors. Nearby, Jonell Baldwin was having a powwow with his fifth-grade teacher, Sue McClellan, and Mike Spiller, TFTMC's programs coordinator. Jonell is a charming, soft-spoken kid with Harry Potter glasses and a closely cropped Afro. He's a regular in the after-school program, but the discussion at hand was about whether he would be allowed to play golf with his classmates because he hadn't completed that morning's class work. Jonell was asked to explain.
"I started doing my watercolors instead," he said.