By Kurt Dusterberg
When PGA professional Doug Hodges created SwingPals four years ago he wanted to use the game of golf and all its virtues to help kids reach their potential. But he didn’t just test the tenets of the game on the sport’s usual clientele. Instead, he took golf where the values were needed the most.
That’s why the gymnasium at Durham’s Neal Middle School comes alive each week with the sights and sounds of golf. It isn’t the most likely place to see kids learning the game – but it might be the most important.
In 2012, Hodges went into the gym classes at Neal, toting plastic golf clubs with oversized heads. He set up Velcro targets on the wall, and the kids whacked tennis ball at them.
“These are at-risk children,” Hodges says. “They’re great kids. Sometimes their behavior isn’t appropriate, but it’s just their backgrounds and family histories.”
Throughout the winter, he works with 80 sixth graders, each getting several exposures to the Start New At Golf (SNAG) program. The kids who show an interest and excel are invited to continue in the program.
“In spring time, we invite 24 kids to remain with the program and take them outside to teach them at Falls Village Golf Club. – children in groups of four receive four weekly golf lessons with their potential golfing mentor,” he says. “We use real golf clubs and real golf balls and go out on the course.”
The implementation of the program has been tricky, but Hodges has found a solution to each hurdle. For starters, he discovered that many kids didn’t have access to transportation to the course. So Hodges made the connection between Neal Middle School and Falls Village. The school and the course are right next to each other, so the children don’t need transportation. A second round of school buses takes the kids home at 5:15 p.m.
And Hodges knew the kids needed something more than a sport. They needed role models. As a long-time mentor in Big Brothers Big Sisters (Hodges has mentored two boys over the past 15 years) he knows the value of mentoring to both the mentee and the mentor. Hodges reaches out to individuals and corporations to find men and women to play golf with the kids. The mentors build a relationship with the young golfers while enjoying another perk – taking lessons and playing golf for free right along with the kids.
“The mentor and the child get a bucket of range balls each week free for a year,” he says. “The man or the woman, all they have to do is show up at the middle school, meet the child when school is dismissed at 2:30, take them next door to the golf course and hit a large bucket of golf balls. If after school is not convenient a weekend time is arranged. A young boy has a male role model he can reach out to for male advice, because perhaps he doesn’t have a dad at home. If it’s a girl and a women the girl has someone who cares about her.”
Once a mentor commits to a child at the end of the sixth grade, Big Brothers Big Sisters takes over and monitors the relationship.
With supportive adults and a golf course in place, the kids needed only a set of clubs. Hodges and his wife have funded a new set for each participant for all four years of the program. As SwingPals grows, that has becomes a major financial undertaking.
“Very quickly, the budget went from something I was very comfortable with to something where I needed to reach out to the community, not only for volunteers but to connect with individuals and compete for their charitable dollars as well as foundations and corporate partners,” he says. “We keep our expenses down, but the budget has become significant.”
Hodges is not the first person to examine the virtues of golf and project them into wider use. It is a game that embraces sportsmanship, relies on the enforcement of rules and requires a mind-body connection. It is the latter concept – the emotional component – that is most useful for the SwingPals kids. Before they can excel in golf, Hodges helps them find some peace of mind.
“A very large percentage of them have parents who are incarcerated,” he says. “These kids are doing their very best, but they may not trust in what’s around the corner. Where is the stability? Maybe you’re not addressing the underlying issue of anxiety or fear or anger or frustration that these children inevitably experience.”
Hodges has some expertise in the field. His business, ThinkWorkPlay, helps golfers with the mental side of the game. He applies his concepts at SwingPals, where it takes some time to create the harmony of physical skill and emotional poise.
“A lot of these children don’t believe the outcome is going to be OK because they don’t have moms or dads at home,” he says. “Before we can really help these children perform to their potential we need to help them identify when they’re feeling anxious, so they can shift their emotional state and open up their potential – and get better grades, and better school attendance and hopefully hit better golf shots.”
The SwingPals program continues to grow. When sixth graders finish their term, they now have a two-day curriculum for seventh grade, focusing on both golf and classroom instruction. Next year, Hodges wants to continue with eighth graders, and eventually these children will be supported all the way through to their 12th grade and on to college.
To accomplish that, he hopes to secure additional funding for SwingPals. He feels the program will have more impact if it involves the children over a longer period. As so many golfers know, learning the game is a long-term venture. In other words, solving the mysteries of a sport that is mental, physical and emotional takes commitment.
“When we get to that space when we trust the outcomes are going to be OK that’s when we perform well,” Hodges says. “It really helps them enjoy the experience of being in the moment. That’s what every human being is about: How can we get to the point where we enjoy this moment?”
And that’s what he wants for all his SwingPals.
“What’s important in my life is giving back to these kids.”
If you are interested in becoming a SwingPals mentor or making a contribution to the program, please visit swingpals.org.