SERVING THE GAME
Advantage Academy Helps At-Risk Youths July 12, 2010 By Rebecca Calderara

The two-year-old Asher vs. Police golf tournament in Southgate, Mich., has benefitted the Advantage Academy, a school for at-risk youths. (Courtesy of Advantage Academy)

Southgate, Mich. – “I don’t play golf,” said Southgate Police Chief Thomas Coombs. “I’ve probably played six times in my life, and three were at this tournament.”

Coombs has played in the Asher vs. Police golf tournament since it began three years ago in 2008, including this year’s event held on May 14. The tournament is an annual affair conducted by Asher Golf, a program of Southgate’s Advantage Academy, a school for at-risk youth.

“He doesn’t play in the tournament because he likes to play golf,” said Ruth Kemp, program coordinator and athletic director for Advantage Academy. “He plays because he supports and believes in the event, and what it does for the students.”

The tournament began in 2006 as the brainchild of teacher Scott Stacey and Kemp. The two started the tournament in an effort to create greater understanding between their alternative education students and the local police department, two groups that had previously only known each other on the worst of terms.

“This tournament is all about changing perceptions,” said Kemp. “Perceptions from the police that all of the students are bad kids, and perceptions from the students that the police are only out to get them.”

The tournament is a great time for the two groups to meet and get to know each other in a light-hearted, friendly atmosphere. Students and Police play in teams of four during a nine-hole round on the students’ home course, Southgate Municipal Golf Course. Following the tournament everyone enjoys lunch together.

Kemp knew that a golf tournament would be the best way to bring these groups together as a result of the nature of the game.  “There would never be another time during the day where the students would be able to spend three to four hours with police officers,” said Kemp. “The beauty about golf is that it’s a sport that allows you to get to know someone while you are playing with them.”

Just as Kemp had imagined, the tournament has proven to be a catalyst in breaking down the stereotypes that surround both groups.

Adam Weinberg, a junior at Advantage Academy and an Asher Golf participant, said, “We get to know them [the police] outside of their job, a lot of kids know the police from bad personal experiences, but the tournament gives us a chance to know them without worrying. “They find out there is more behind us than just trouble, and we find out they are just normal people.”

In the words of Kemp, “things run better when the whole community is involved.” Therefore, she has involved a growing number of police units, up to four this year, the parks and recreation department, Southgate Municipal Golf Course. This year the event hosted the school board president, Ed Gawlik, and the superintendent of Schools, Dave Peden. “Some of the main people in the community that make decisions are attending the tournament to show that they support the students and the program,” Kemp said.

Stacey and Kemp hope the widespread community involvement in the tournament will help reinforce the message of giving back that they are trying to teach the children through the golf program. “I think the tournament has made the kids aware that it’s important to give back to the people that have enabled their success,” said Stacey. “Since the tournament, we’ve seen kids from limited means give back to the program.”

People are beginning to take notice of the program and the tournament’s success. In 2009, the Asher Golf and Fitness program was selected as a recipient of the 2009 Michigan’s Best Award by the Michigan Association of School Boards, and in 2010 the National Association of Sports and Physical Education awarded Ruth Kemp the Unsung Hero Award for her work with the program. The USGA has long recognized the potential and success of this program, and has supported it with five grants since 2006.

The real success story of this program and this tournament is not the words written on a plague, it’s the success of the students in the program. According to Stacy, some students even stay in school in order to participant in the program, “It’s a carrot that allows students to stay in their seats and pursue a High school education.”

For Weinberg the program is an alternative, “The program kept me out of trouble, and I’m excited to play with Mr. Stacey this summer,” he said.

A fun, friendly day, the tournament between the students and police officers is really about breaking down barriers, and Coombs said he knew the tournament had achieved its goal when he was asked by a student, “How do I become a police officer?”

Rebecca Calderara just recently completed her fellowship with the USGA Grants and Fellowship Program.