Program A Rags-To-Riches Story


May 23, 2008

By David Shefter, USGA

Chapel Hill, N.C. - It is another idyllic spring morning in the Carolinas. Temperatures are crawling into the lower 70s and a slight breeze whispers through the trees. For golf, the weather could not be more perfect.

Shortly after 9 a.m. three large motor coaches pull into the Finley Golf Course parking lot on the University of North Carolina campus. Youngsters wearing navy blue and white logo-collared shirts file out, seeking their black monogrammed bags. Staff members point them to the practice range where balls have been neatly set in pyramid formation along the wide strip of manicured turf.

To the casual observer, it appears like another junior tournament has found its way to town. But under closer examination, one realizes this is not a congregation of hotshot American Junior Golf Association competitors nor is it a collection of collegiate All-Americans.

The swings are not perfect; in fact, most are unorthodox. Some shots are struck crisply; others are topped or sent in an awkward direction. It does not really matter. For this group, just being on a regulation golf course is a thrill.

Midnight Golfer Renard Glenn shows solid form on a tee shot during the group's round at Finley G.C. in Chapel Hill, N.C. (Chris Record/USGA)

Nobody here is searching for the next Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson. But you might find a future Booker T. Washington, Thurgood Marshall, Barack Obama or Colin Powell.

Welcome to Midnight Golf. Partially funded by the USGA - since 2001 grants from the Association have totaled more than $130,000 - Midnight Golf introduces economically disadvantaged inner-city Detroit African-Americans to the game while heavily emphasizing valuable life skills.

Part of the annual 30-week program is a six-day excursion to southern college campuses. This year's bus trip stopped in four cities - Columbia, S.C., Charleston, S.C., Durham, N.C., and Greensboro, N.C. - and visited six colleges. Each day started with a golf outing near the schools, followed by tours of two area colleges. In Durham, the kids played Finley Golf Course before visiting the University of North Carolina and nearby North Carolina Central.

Just 24 hours earlier in South Carolina, virtually all of the 91 participants were exposed to a true 18-hole championship layout for the first time.

Making A Difference

Seventeen-year-olds Renard Glenn and Johnathan McElrath were two of the exceptions as they compete on their high school teams at Renaissance and Cass Tech, respectively.  They don’t fit the normal Midnight Golfer profile, but both have prospered in the program, and not because of the golf instruction.

“I have changed my ways,” said McElrath of Midnight Golf’s impact. McElrath started playing at the age of 7 in the Police Athletic League because his mom preferred golf over basketball. He plans to play at  Division II Ferris State this fall. “I know the right way to greet people, how to send thank you letters. Some of the guys who were real urban, I see a big change [in attitude].”

Glenn was just happy to receive new equipment.

“My other clubs are scratched,” said Glenn, who started playing six years ago and has been accepted to Bowling Green University in the fall, where he hopes to compete on the school’s golf team.

Through the monies granted by the USGA, PGA of America and other organizations, Midnight Golf founder/director Renee Fluker has the financial means to purchase clubs, bags and gloves for each participant. When the group was smaller, Fluker even had enough money to buy khaki pants.

Until last September, 99 percent of the current Midnight Golfers had never even picked up a golf club or even thought of playing the game.

Golf in the inner-city? To these kids such a program was akin to playing ice hockey in the tropics.

The concept, however unusual, has worked, even though its participants hail from some of the roughest Detroit neighborhoods.

Last fall, approximately 300 students from Detroit’s public schools applied to Midnight Golf. Only 121 were accepted. To be eligible, individuals must be between the ages of 17 and 22.

Four years ago, Fluker decided to amend the curriculum to include an out-of-state college tour. Realizing most Midnight Golfers rarely venture beyond the city limits, Fluker incorporated golf with higher education. The golf lessons absorbed over the previous seven months could be applied in the outings, while visiting different college campuses would expose students to alternative higher-education environments. Past trips have included stops in Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, Maryland and Washington, D.C., visiting such schools as Vanderbilt, Duke, Georgetown, Auburn, Florida A&M and Morehouse.

The kids get to meet school officials, ask plenty of questions and get a taste of campus life. More than 60 Midnight Golf alums are now attending college.

To be eligible for the spring trip, participants can’t miss more than six sessions – Midnight Golf meets on Monday and Wednesday nights from 5:30 to 8:30 – and show progress toward becoming a better citizen. Of the 103 students currently enrolled in the program, 91 qualified for the 2008 trip. They were joined by 24 other adults who serve as mentors and role models, along with Fluker and Dave Gamlin, Midnight Golf’s program director and Fluker’s right-hand man.

Participants also do community-service projects such as conducting a walk for the homeless, collecting toys for needy kids at Christmas (Toys for Teens) and doing a Walk-A-Thon to help those less fortunate pay utility bills.

“We teach golf, but it’s about changing lives,” said the 52-year-old Fluker, who still maintains her full-time job as a community liaison to the Wayne County Department of Mental Health.

“I have discovered that there is so much more to life than what we see [in Detroit],” said 17-year-old Eva Robinson, a senior at Cass Tech. Robinson maintains a 3.7 grade-point average and has been accepted at Johns Hopkins University and the University of Michigan, where she plans on majoring in analytical chemistry. “I want to be a crime scene investigator.”

Added 17-year-old Brittani Blackwell: “It opens you up to new experiences. I’m making lifelong friends that I wouldn’t have walked into. For me, [Midnight Golf] is another family. It’s another home.”

Planning for this year’s trip began in January. Fluker and her volunteer mentors and board members managed to raise $105,000. Each kid had to ante up $125 and those who could not afford the fee did various fund-raisers.

Michelle Merriweather, a 17-year-old senior, got assistance from the congregation at Liberty Temple Baptist Church. Members donated $675 so that Merriweather and two other Midnight Golfers – Arielle Hall and Irvin Holloway – could go, with each given $100 extra for spending money.

For Merriweather, the trip was a dream-come-true as she has always envisioned herself attending the University of North Carolina. The few hours spent on campus reaffirmed that quest to someday enroll. But with a 2.5 grade-point average and 17 on the ACT, Merriweather knows she’ll have to attend a local community college to achieve the grades necessary to transfer.

“I want to go to Chapel Hill and play on the golf team,” says Merriweather. “That’s why I plan on going to Schoolcraft College. I hope to transfer in 2009.”

Golf might be the main component to hook participants, but the main focus remains career and life skills. The first 90 minutes of each session is devoted to some life-skills aspect, whether it is how to fill out a college application, managing a checkbook or learning how to properly study for the SAT or ACT, two standardized tests used by colleges to accept prospective students. McElrath saw his ACT score jump from 18 to 20, and he’s not alone.

Other classes deal with dining etiquette, public speaking, writing essays and how to properly greet people.

And the transformation that takes place between September and May is astonishing.

“A lot of people have opened up and don’t mind when they have to speak [in public],” says 22-year-old Oakland Community College freshman Tony Hill, who is the program’s eldest participant. His 17-year-old brother, Michael, also is in the program. “There’s a lot of maturity that takes place.”

Individuals like Academy of Oak Park Principal Joe Hood and technical sales consultant Kevin Massey make major impacts as mentors. Almost all of the mentors are African-Americans. They are highly successful educated professionals, many of whom battled their own adversity to achieve their dreams. Participants can relate to them because not only are they of the same color, but they can share similar stories of growing up with limited means.

“I couldn’t think of a better program,” said Kareem Horton, a 28-year-old entrepreneur in his first year as a mentor. “Just the way it is run and the different things they expose the kids to.”

As stated, each session starts with a life skills lesson. A full-course catered dinner follows and then the kids receive 60-75 minutes of golf instruction from dedicated Michigan PGA Section professionals. During the fall and spring, they meet at the Beech Woods Golf Course in Southfield and at Marygrove College over the winter. Ann Arbor Country Club head professional Frank McAuliffe makes a 50-minute drive twice a week to teach the kids. Other pros make similar sacrifices.

“Our pros are very static,” said Fluker. “They are committed to the program.”

Randy Tylo, now the teaching professional at Highland Golf Center in Milford, Mich., told USA Today in 2002, “…once you get inside and meet the kids and you see they want you to be there, it propels you to want to be there. They’re all excited to be there. I get a lot out of it too.”

Nearly 80 percent of Midnight Golfers come from single-parent homes. Some like 18-year-old Javonte Jackson don’t have any parents around at all and are being raised by relatives or older siblings.

Jackson lost his mother four years ago to cancer. He has not had a relationship with his father and currently lives with his 26-year-old brother. Not only does Jackson help take care of his younger siblings, but he’s also a senior at Henry Ford High, where he was elected vice president of his class. To earn extra money, he works in the school’s office as a clerk before going off to a job at the Burlington Coat Factory from 4 p.m. to midnight. During lunch breaks, he finds time to do his homework and maintain a 3.4 GPA. In the fall, he will attend Eastern Michigan University, where he plans to study accounting with an emphasis on international business, “specifically Japanese or Chinese [markets].”

When it comes to how Midnight Golf has made an impact on his life, Jackson gets a little teary-eyed.

“Midnight Golf is everything to me personally,” he says. “It’s the will. Anytime I felt like giving up, it was the mentors or the fellow [student] members picking me up to keep going. I know I’m making my mom proud from above. [Midnight Golf] is like my second family. I have never met so many people who cared.”

The Beginning

Jason Malone first took up golf at the age of 9 while attending a private elementary school. Neither of his parents played, but that never deterred his love for the game. His father died in an auto accident when he was 12, but his mom was able to continue paying for his private-school education. When he played at University of Detroit Jesuit High, he was the only African-American on the squad. By the time he left for Loyola University in Chicago, he told his mother, Renee Fluker, to start a program to get more inner-city kids involved in golf.

Fluker heeded those words and in 2001 started Midnight Golf, patterning it after the city’s popular Midnight Basketball program. Back then, she had to beg kids to participate, knocking on doors in the projects to find prospects.

Determined to make this fledgling program work, the passionate Fluker surrounded herself with other determined and driven individuals like Dave Gamlin, a director for New Detroit, a non-profit civic organization.

Since 1992, Gamlin has organized Camp Enterprise, a one-week summer program for inner-city students that teaches entrepreneurship. Students go to the University of Michigan and Michigan State University and learn how to operate a successful business from corporate executives.

Gamlin not only recruited kids to Midnight Golf from Camp Enterprise, but also by making presentations at Detroit’s public high schools.

Through the determination of Fluker and Gamlin, Midnight Golf has grown and prospered, not only in numbers but also in the number of African-American business leaders who have signed up as mentors and financial contributors.

“We are all bound by this game,” said the 47-year-old Gamlin. “Typically, [the mentors] come to us as golfers, but many come to us because they care about young people. It really takes a unique and special combination of things to come together to make it happen.”

Charles Grant was one of 10 children in his family. He attended Cooley High in Detroit before going on to Wayne State and a successful career as a technical writer for Daimler/Chrysler. He also got involved in business, purchasing a school bus transport company. Grant joined Midnight Golf in 2002 and now serves as a board member, donating his transportation services to get many participants home following the twice-a-week sessions.

“I have been retired five years and have a [second] home in Florida,” said the 47-year-old Grant. “And my dream is to be in Florida from Thanksgiving through April. But because of Midnight Golf, the only time I get to Florida is when there is no Midnight Golf. Every year I keep saying that I am going to go to Florida. But Midnight Golf has become a part of my life and it will probably stay a part of my life.”

A few years ago Grant recruited his banker, Harold Curry. For two years Grant told the chief executive officer of Detroit Commerce Bank about Midnight Golf and its inherent values to the young people of Detroit. When he finally got Curry to come out and talk to the kids, he couldn’t let go. Curry became addicted to the program and he now serves as president of the board.

“He’s taken us to another level,” said Grant of Curry’s backing. “We are going to look for a facility. I am very hopeful within the next two years we are going to acquire it. There is some land in the city. [And] with the PGA, USGA, myself and other financial supporters, we are going to make this a reality.”

Meaningful Experience

 One by one, they stepped up to the podium to talk about the impact of Midnight Golf.

Some spoke with tears in their eyes. Some couldn’t get through their speeches without breaking down. The Rev. Kevin Early, one of the mentors and the emcee for the evening, told them to just take a deep breath to alleviate any anxiety.

This was the second-to-last night of the trip. Everyone dressed up – many boys wore ties and the girls donned dresses – and gathered for a banquet-style dinner at the hotel. The festivities included speeches from Gamlin, Fluker and Early. Eva Robinson came up and sang.

But the most compelling portion came when individuals stepped up to the podium to offer life-altering testimonials about their Midnight Golf experience.

They could not thank Gamlin, Fluker and the mentors enough for their support. Some acknowledged fellow students for keeping them in the program. Last fall, most of them wouldn’t have even had the courage or the aptitude to speak in front of a large audience. Such is the metamorphosis of a Midnight Golf student.

Cierra Chaney came to Midnight Golf last fall with one pair of pants and two shirts in her entire wardrobe. Her 2.3 GPA was not going to get her into many four-year colleges. The Academy at Oak Park senior wondered where her life was going. She was frustrated and lacked confidence or self-esteem.

One of her teachers, Edith Friley, noticed that Chaney was talking a lot about a man named “Uncle Charlie.” Friley recognized the reference to a longtime acquaintance that she hadn’t heard from in some 15 years. Friley contacted Grant and the two chatted about Chaney.

They took her shopping over the Christmas break to purchase clothes. Friley also encouraged Chaney to run for class president, which she managed to win. Almost overnight, Chaney was transformed into a different person. She became more outgoing and engaging in public. She now plans to attend a local four-year college in the fall, something she never could have imagined last September.

“Midnight Golf just opens a lot of young people’s eyes,” says Grant. “I tell people all the time, if you could see them when they first come in and watch this flower bloom on the final day.”

Success stories like Chaney abound in Midnight Golf. Shakyra Stanfield was in and out of public housing and foster care during her youth. But through the guidance obtained from Midnight Golf, Stanfield was able to get accepted into the nursing program at Howard University. She recently graduated and is now working as a pediatric nurse at the Yale Hospital in New Haven, Conn.

Twins Edmond and Jasmond Webb spent more than a month with both of their parents in jail. The mother was in for two months (the father a lot longer) and Grant discovered the disturbing situation on his bus taking the boys home after a Midnight Golf session. Grant, Fluker, Gamlin and Early carefully monitored the two boys. They took them grocery shopping, where they didn’t buy the kind of food most teens would. They bought chicken, ground beef and vegetables to make healthy dishes. They were in a culinary program at Golightly Education Center and knew how to cook more than a frozen TV dinner.

The mother finally returned and the boys survived the ordeal just fine.

During their speech, the two twins talked glowingly about the influence of Fluker, Gamlin and the Midnight Golf program has had in seven months. They talked about coming back someday to serve as mentors.

“I truly believe a lot of them will come back and give to the program,” said Grant.

Daniel Allen, perhaps, summed it up best when he ended his speech with the words, “A man is only worth from the words he speaks. And I feel so rich right now.”

For these kids, Midnight Golf has been a priceless experience.

David Shefter is a USGA communications staff writer. E-mail him with questions or comments at dshefter@usga.org.

 

 

 

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