How it Started
In the spring of 2020, First Tee announced its plans to expand to the Kalamazoo community, partnering with the Kalamazoo Junior Golf Association and the Kalamazoo Municipal Golf Association (owners of Red Arrow, Milham Park, and Eastern Hills Golf Courses) to offer its programs to kids starting in the spring of 2021. But the potential partnership between the KJGA, the City of Kalamazoo, and First Tee – West Michigan started long before that.
Executive Director Tyler Smies first met with Mitch Wilson and PGA Professional Dean Marks of the KJGA in 2016 to discuss a potential partnership. At that time, First Tee – West Michigan was a young chapter, and unable to dedicate the time and resources to a potential partnership.
As 2018 came to a close, Tyler Smies reconnected with Mitch Wilson, Dean Marks and First Tee board member Nate Golomb to see if First Tee could be a fit in Kalamazoo. Little did First Tee know all the groundwork the KJGA had already laid in the community.
By the end of 2019, First Tee – West Michigan had a full business plan and applied for the opportunity to expand to Kalamazoo. So many pieces were already in place thanks to the hard work of the KJGA. The KGJA had already been using First Tee LINK, a modified version of First Tee’s curriculum, for years at Red Arrow Golf Course. More than 150 students participated in the LINK program throughout 2019 and even more participated in 2020. An additional 250+ participate in the KJGA’s tournament series annually, a natural competitive golf opportunity for future First Tee students. In addition to Red Arrow, First Tee will run programs at Eastern Hills and Milham Park.
PGA Professional Dean Marks, who operates the City of Kalamazoo’s three courses, and is also President of the Kalamazoo Junior Golf Association, is excited. “The KJGA has provided affordable golf opportunities to 400+ youth annually for over 30 years. The opportunity to partner with First Tee and their life skills and values curriculum will increase our outreach to area youth. That is a win for the community, a win for the youth, and a win for golf and the future of Kalamazoo. We are excited to expand the use of Red Arrow Golf Course to ensure that any family who wants their kids to learn important life skills through the game of golf will be able to do so regardless of their ability to pay.”
Kalamazoo Advisory Committee & Kalamazoo Golf Marathon Fundraiser
All throughout 2020, a newly formed Kalamazoo Advisory Committee has been meeting monthly to prepare for the launch of programs in 2021. In September, First Tee launched its first-ever Golf Marathon fundraiser in Kalamazoo. $38,000 was raised and more than 1,400 holes were played for First Tee’s launch in Kalamazoo. Below are all the marathoners who played this year!
This, along with a surprising and incredibly generous $25,000 gift from a local family foundation, allowed First Tee to begin searching this December for a full-time Kalamazoo Area Director.
All of these efforts have been led by the First Tee’s Kalamazoo Advisory Committee, listed below:
- Nate Golomb, Chair, Mercantile Bank
- Mercedes Befus, Horizon Bank
- Marcus Brussee, Mercantile Bank
- Matt Forkin, Boys & Girls Club of Kalamazoo
- Torean Greeley, HUB International
- Jeanne Hess, Kalamazoo City Commissioner
- Melissa Johnson, Gull Lake View Resort
- Dean Marks, Kalamazoo Municipal Golf Association, KCC Women’s Golf Coach
- Jack Versau, Kalamazoo Country Club
- Mitch Wilson, Retired from Pfizer, Pretty Lake Camp, KCC Men’s Golf Coach
First Tee Kalamazoo Launch Timeline:
- January 2016: KJGA visits First Tee – West Michigan’s Homework & Hitting program
- November 2018: Executive Director Tyler Smies and board member Nate Golomb reconnect with Mitch Wilson and Dean Marks of the KJGA
- January 2019: First Tee – West Michigan launches a feasibility study with support from Kalamazoo current and former residents
- December 2019: First Tee’s Kalamazoo Business Plan approved by Board of Directors
- February 2020: First Tee’s territory expansion to Kalamazoo County approved by First Tee HQ in Florida
- March 2020: First Tee hosts Meet & Greet at Homer Stryker Field in Kalamazoo
- April 2020: First Tee Kalamazoo Advisory Committee begins to meet monthly
- September 2020: First Tee’s first fundraiser, the inaugural Kalamazoo Marathon held at Eastern Hills, nets nearly $40,000 for the program launch.
- November 2020: First Tee received a generous $25,000 gift from a family foundation
- December 2020: First Tee Kalamazoo Area Director Position is posted
Fostering Community Partners
As First Tee launches in the spring of 2021, it will look to partner with other organizations already working with at-risk youth in Kalamazoo. First Tee ceaselessly collaborates with existing organizations to give students new opportunities to learn values and life skills. Conversations have already begun with key strategic organizations in Kalamazoo, including:
- Boys & Girls Club of Kalamazoo
- Douglass Community Association
- Kalamazoo Country Club
- Kalamazoo Parks & Recreation Department
- Kalamazoo Public Schools
- Kalamazoo Communities in Schools
- Kalamazoo Youth for Christ – City Life
- The Moors
- And others
Come this spring, with a new Area Director joining the staff and programs offered at multiple locations, First Tee anticipates 35-50 needed volunteer mentors to start in Kalamazoo. Interested individuals can connect with Program Director Taylor Haudek at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All this growth means a 2021 projected operating budget of over $100,000, with that number expected to increase in future years as First Tee impacts hundreds of area youth.
Your financial support of this expansion at year-end can make a big impact on next year’s launch. Thank you for your consideration!