First Tee Participants Selected as 2012 RBS Achievers of the Year
June 15, 2012
By Damin Esper, Special to PGATOUR.com
SAN FRANCISCO-- Jessica Martel was approaching the dais when she found her path blocked by a couple of photographers. The 17-year-old had just been announced as one of two winners of $15,000 scholarships presented by The First Tee.
Jack Nicklaus, who was posing for the pictures with the recipients, motioned with his hand to Martel, as if to tell her, “Come join in the pictures. You've won.”
Turns out, it was perfect metaphor for The First Tee program. Established by the World Golf Foundation in 1997, the program is about helping young people -- not by teaching them about golf, but by using the game to teach nine core values: Honesty, integrity, sportsmanship, respect, confidence, responsibility, perseverance, courtesy and judgment.
Ten teenagers were honored at the RBS Achievers of the Year dinner at San Francisco's de Young Museum on Wednesday, June 13. Martel and Zakki Blatt won the $15,000 scholarships while the others received $3,000 grants.
It was the end of what Nicklaus called, “a very, very special day.” Earlier, the USGA announced that winners of the U.S. Open will receive the Jack Nicklaus medal and that a new wing of the USGA's museum will be named for the four-time U.S. Open winner.
However, it was clear that Nicklaus was most affected by the stories of the scholarship winners, to the point of nearly being speechless.
Blatt is from Philadelphia. He was born with a congenital heart defect and suffered a stroke early in his life. He was left with the use of just half his brain and full use of just one arm and one leg. He required oxygen just to survive.
Two years ago, Blatt joined The First Tee and now no longer needs oxygen. His heart and lungs are no longer failing. Now 18, he's planning to go to college and wants to take golf into pediatric wards to give all kids the chance to play, even those on oxygen.
Nicklaus let out a long sigh when he was talking about Blatt. “I mean, unbelievable,” Nicklaus said. “This kid, he's walking up here. It's just unbelievable.”
Blatt says he always wanted to be a golfer. “The First Tee brought me, not just surviving, but thriving, and it got me back on my feet,” he said.
Martel, who is from Carson City, Nev., was born to parents struggling with drug addiction. Her father left when she was young and her mother ended up in prison. When Martel was 5 years old, her mother escaped and was murdered. Martel was later abused while living with her grandmother.
Eventually, Martel was adopted by the family of her best friend. Now 17, she worked as a junior course reporter for The First Tee at the Reno-Tahoe Open and is planning to go to college and major in journalism and psychology.
“Just being in the program itself and learning all of the life skills has helped me in school, studying for tests and getting things done at school and home,” she said. “Being responsible with my parents and respecting people around me and being able to have confidence to be out in public and speak to people. Because of where I've been, I'm a very shy person with anybody because I don't trust anybody.”
The stories of the other semifinalists are just as inspiring. Chuck Spears, a 17-year-old from Pineville, La., was a Hurricane Katrina refugee. He ended up winning two Louisiana state championships and earned a partial scholarship to Louisiana State University, becoming the first African-American to play golf at the university.
Jasmine Gary, also 17, is from Raleigh, N.C. She was in eighth grade when her mother suffered a stroke. Shortly thereafter, her father left, leaving Gary and her brother to care for her mother. In 2010, her grandfather, who had introduced her to golf, passed away. She is now a junior in high school and plans to go to college to study broadcast journalism.
Bobby Mazziotti, of Westbury, N.Y., lost his mother to Arterial Lateral Sclerosis, better known as, “Lou Gehrig's Disease.” As his mother's health declined, Mazziotti and his family cared for her at home, often staying up well into the night. For his Eagle Scout project, Mazziotti put together a group that built a deck for The First Tee of Nassau County, which was named “Betsy's Backyard,” in honor of his mother. Now 18, Mazziotti will attend Queen's College and hopes to become a high school chemistry teacher.
Tayvon White of Allentown, Penn., never knew his father. His mother spent much of his childhood in jail and White often acted out, leading to fights and suspensions at school. He moved in with his grandparents, who introduced him to The First Tee. Now 16, White has begun to overcome his anger and learn to trust people. His grades have improved and he now plans to go to college to study accounting.
The stories of the other semifinalists are just as moving. Nicklaus said these impacts of The First Tee are what make the program meaningful.
“We were struggling to find what we thought was proper usage of funds that would do the most good,” he said. “It wasn't about golf. It was about kids. It was about teaching lessons of life. Golf was just a vehicle. That was what I loved about First Tee. That's something that's really worth getting involved in.”
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