Austin Gambrel began participating in The First Tee of Pine Mountain at age 7, the first year the chapter was open. Gambrel, now a junior at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, admits he had “no idea” when he began the significant impact this program would have on his life years later.
That success of the rural chapter of The First Tee located at Wasioto Winds at Pine Mountain State Park in Pineville is cited as helping to change lives of children throughout the Tri-State region who take part. As a result of the success of the program, The First Tee of Pine Mountain has been named recipient of the Richard Thornton Award presented by the Kentucky School Public Relations Association.
The award, presented recently at the KYSPRA Fall Conference in Owensboro, honors an individual or organization for exceptional leadership and dedication to public education in Kentucky. Since its inception in 2002, the award has been presented to University presidents, state legislative leaders, the Kentucky Board of Education, Kentucky School Superintendents and various individuals. It is named for Richard Thornton, a long-time KYSPRA member and past president of the National School Public Relations Association.
The First Tee of Pine Mountain is part of a successful network that in 20 years has reached more than four million young people each year across the nation.
The Pine Mountain chapter is one of only a few rural chapters across the country.
Donnie Caldwell, program director for The First Tee at Pine Mountain, said it “helps kids build character and confidence, developing the core values and life skills that stay with them on and off the golf course.”
The First Tee of Pine Mountain has impacted the lives of thousands of young people and helped to ensure more of our region’s youth attend college and can afford to do so with scholarships awarded to them for their participation and academic and extra-curricular success.
“There are 20 schools and two drive locations across the southeastern part of the Commonwealth,” said Caldwell.
Gambrel, one of two program alums accepting the award on behalf of the program, told educators from across the state that “The First Tee of Pine Mountain is first and foremost ran by people that genuinely care about each child who passes through the tiers of the program each year.”
“Donnie (Caldwell) and Jan (Gann) teach more than the game of golf. Life skills and core values are necessary for building up great individuals and that’s just what they help to teach and reinforce with The First Tee program,” said Gambrel.
“They teach the reasons you should have a high standard of integrity for yourself or why you should respect others just as you would respect yourself, just to name a few,” said Gambrel. “Most importantly, they want the youth in our area to succeed in whatever path it is they may choose. This is a great program for our area and I’m so glad that it has now been incorporated into our school systems to reach more children each year.”
Gann is the executive director for the Pine Mountain organization.
“This program offers endless networking and opportunities for participants, as well as scholarships. I am a First Tee Scholar and a Mackenzie Family Scholarship recipient,” said Gambrel.
Noting in today’s culture, The First Tee curriculum is even more important. He said integrity, respect and perseverance are all part curriculum taught to our youth.
Although Gambrel has completed the program, he returns to Wasioto Winds frequently “to help these kids and make sure they really understand they’re not just there to learn golf.” It is his goal to give back to the program which has given him so much through participation in chapter and national events.
Gambrel said some kids “fight stereotypes of not being as literate as kids in the larger cities. Some come from a struggling home life. I’ve been through it and saw it. I get to come back and I get to help these kids and make sure they really understand that they’re not just there to learn golf. That is the most rewarding thing to me.”
Also accepting the award on behalf of the program was Jacob Cornett of Cumberland in Harlan County. Also a student at Western Kentucky University, Cornett said he was honored and “humbled” to be asked to accept it on behalf of the program which has been instrumental in his life. He said it helped shape him into the person he is today. He noted the program has been instrumental in providing college scholarship opportunities for him as well.
Caldwell said awarding academic excellence through scholarships from the national office is a priority to assist young men and women who complete the program.
In addition to life skills, positive core values and healthy habits are learned through the program. Teen and adult mentors guide them along the way with “so much more knowledge than simply the game of golf.”
The Pine Mountain chapter has served youth for 15 years. Currently, however, the organization faces a significant funding decline due to the economic downturn in the region. A fundraising program is currently in place soliciting donations to keep the program available for the area youth.
Other highlights of the program include lessons developed by recognized educational experts in the areas of youth development and youth sports education. The First Tee provides a safe and fun environment for youth to develop life and golf skills. Lifelong friendships are made by participants.
Pine Mountain averages 250 participants each year. Activities are offered in the spring, summer and fall. Participants are eligible to apply for acceptance to many activities provided by The First Tee national organization. Many are opportunities of a lifetime for the Pine Mountain participants, interacting with national and world leaders and athletes they most likely would never have the opportunity to meet.
The Pine Mountain organization is highly regarded a top-tier program in The First Tee network and has received the top performance award given to chapters, the Chairman’s Award.
It is a 501 c3 non-profit, dependent upon donations to fund the program. For more information on the Pine Mountain chapter or to make a donation visit www.thefirstteepinemountain.org. To learn more about KYSPRA or the award, you can visit www.kyspra.org.