Family Buoyed By First Tee Program Following Hurricane Katrina

Dec. 10, 2009

By Lindsay Erickson, USGA

Golf practice had just begun when a volunteer received a call from her husband.

“You need to get the boys home,” he said. “Tell Joe [Ortique] to stop practice. Right now.”

For participants of The First Tee of Greater New Orleans, fleeing was not uncommon, and most had the drill down. During hurricane season, when storms threatened from the Gulf of Mexico, families would pack an overnight bag, leave town for the night and return home the next day to blue skies. The ordeal always proved to be more of a hassle than anything else, but when living in a city that sits below sea level, it was better to be cautious.

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Karen Roby (left), Immediate Past President of The First Tee of Greater New Orleans, had the large task of figuring out how to get operations up and running again following Hurricane Katrina. (Courtesy of The First Tee Of Greater New Orleans)
 

On that Saturday morning, with hurricane winds building in the Gulf, The First Tee of Greater New Orleans volunteer Karen Roby and Executive Director Joe Ortique suspended practice and made sure every golfer got home safely. With her two sons still dressed in The First Tee attire, and only a couple of spare shirts and pairs of shorts, Roby and her family evacuated. At the time, no one knew it would be more than the standard overnight trip.

Two days later, on Aug. 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina, one of the largest natural disasters in the history of the U.S., touched down in New Orleans. By Aug. 31, more than 80 percent of the city was under water. It would be months before families could return to their homes.

Pulling Together

In December 2005, Roby’s family was one of the first to return to a devastated New Orleans. Electricity had not yet been restored, homes were in ruins and parks were destroyed.

Five months later, Roby received a call from Ortique. He and his family had fled to Alabama during the storm and were staying there permanently. Even though he had left, Ortique was devoted to bringing junior golf back to New Orleans.

After all, it had only been two years since the program was founded. As declared in its mission statement, its goal is to create affordable and accessible golf facilities, character-development and life-enhancing values with a strong emphasis on serving area youth of all races and economic backgrounds who have not had access or exposure to golf.

Most of the participants came from the historically African-American neighborhood of Pontchartrain Park, where the program’s home facility, Joseph M. Bartholomew Golf Course, was located. The organization seemed to have a bright future. It had been only four months since the USGA awarded The First Tee of Greater New Orleans a $17,000 grant to support the construction of a practice facility at Bartholomew. Soon the project would come to a halt as Joe Bartholomew sat under more than 10 feet of water in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.  

From Alabama, Ortique enlisted local PGA professional Jimmy Headrick to take over as the interim executive director. Together with Roby, they began to figure out how to get The First Tee of Greater New Orleans operating again.

Returning to Joe Bartholomew Golf Course was out of the question; the course had been devastated by the storm and major construction was needed to make it playable. Through talks with the city, The First Tee of Greater New Orleans was granted permission to begin operations at Brechtel Park Golf Course, which had served as an affiliate site before the storm hit.

Still, an important piece of the equation was missing. Most families still had not returned home.

Said Roby: “I started getting phone calls from parents, telling me, ‘My kids need normalcy back. When will you be up and running?’ So I figured the time had come. In March of 2007, we were officially able to get things back up.” 

The response from potential junior golfers was overwhelming. The program reached capacity almost immediately. While several faces were familiar from before the storm, there were many new ones as well.

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Participants of the program have learned more than just about golf; they've been provided tools to use in everyday life. (Courtesy of The First Tee Of Greater New Orleans)
 

"It dawned on me that we were ‘it’ in town,” said Roby. “Most parks were still out of commission, and children’s programs had not commenced. … There was nothing that remained the same. The First Tee of Greater New Orleans provided a sense of normalcy that these children were seeking.”

For a year and a half, Headrick would operate the program out of his car and all administrative work was done at everyone's kitchen tables. But if that’s what it took to bring golf to the children of New Orleans, Roby and Headrick would make it happen.

‘Program Saved Her Life’

For one family in particular, the return of The First Tee of Greater New Orleans proved to be lifesaving. Natausha Gaudin and her daughter Imani had evacuated New Orleans before the storm hit.

“Imani was 6 at the time,” said Gaudin of her only child. “We jumped into the car because my sister insisted, and I had just one little overnight bag. We stayed with my mom, just an hour away. When the storm hit, our whole neighborhood drowned. I was self-employed, and my business was in New Orleans.”

At this point, returning to their home was not an option. So mother and daughter moved in with Gaudin’s sister. Imani resumed first grade at the local elementary school. But Gaudin was extremely worried.

 “ ‘What are we going to do, and where are we going to go?’ ” Gaudin thought.

In December 2005, the Gaudins moved to Georgia, where Imani was enrolled in school. Then the pair soon moved again.

“She was on her fourth school in seven months. At the time, I was thinking, ‘We’re just rolling with the plan.’ I never stopped to think about how it was affecting the children," said Gaudin.

Within a year, the two returned to New Orleans, where they lived in a trailer provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The storm, as well as its aftereffects, had caught up with Imani. Gaudin noticed that her daughter was having a tough time in school, something that had never happened before. Gaudin’s concern did not stop there.  Imani had fallen into depression. Gaudin had never seen her daughter in this state before, and felt helpless.

One evening at her daughter's school, temporarily housed between two locations, Natausha was approached by a woman she had never met. Without hesitation the stranger asked a favor. “I don’t know who you are, but I have no way to get my daughter to school tomorrow morning,” said the woman. “Can I please count on you?”

“I said sure,” said Gaudin. “I couldn’t say no, but I was barely figuring out what I was going to do.”

That next morning, the woman dropped off her daughter at Gaudin's trailer and Gaudin took her and Imani to school. The chance carpool turned into a regular event, and the two mothers developed a friendship. Through the woman, Gaudin learned about opportunities in the community for her daughter, one of which was The First Tee of Greater New Orleans.

The following June, Imani became a member of The First Tee of Greater New Orleans.  Her involvement with the program came at a critical time in the girl’s life. Suddenly she was surrounded by other kids with similar interests and experiences. She quickly developed a love for golf and thrived on the life lessons it brought.

“I look at a picture (from before our involvement with the program), and I do not even know the child captured by the camera,” said Gaudin. “But today, just over one year later, my daughter is all smiles. This program saved her life.”

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Natausha Gaudin (right) took an active role in helping out and couldn't be more pleased with the positive lessons her daughter, Imani, has learned. (Courtesy of The First Tee Of Greater New Orleans)
 

Resilient Times

The transformation inspired Gaudin so much that she became a member of the board of directors.

Today, she has risen to vice president. Imani also continues to grow through her involvement with The First Tee of Greater New Orleans. In early 2009, she was nominated by her peers to serve on the Junior Advisory Board, which provides the young leaders with a voice in communicating problems they see with the program.

The program itself continues to display resiliency. These days, The First Tee of Greater New Orleans has the support of a 23-member board, where it is a reflection of the melting pot that is New Orleans.

The program has grown to serve more than 180 participants in core programming and reaches hundreds more through an in-school component. Area courses including Brechtel Park, TPC Louisiana, City Park New Orleans North Course, Lakewood Golf and Country Club, Oak Harbor Golf Club and Audubon Park Golf Course have all partnered with The First Tee of Greater New Orleans to provide the junior golfers free or low-cost course access.

The City of New Orleans, through the Department of Parks and Parkways that is headed by First Tee of Greater New Orleans board member Ann MacDonald, and PGA Tour veteran Kelly Gibson, also a current board member, are helping lead efforts in renovating Joe Bartholomew Golf Course. The program is slated to return to Joe Bartholomew next fall.

“We’re certainly still in need,” said Gibson. “We were dealt a situation that no one in America has ever dealt with.

“This is a shining light opportunity for children and parents as well.”

Every day, the team leading The First Tee of Greater New Orleans strives to be that shining light. Last January, The First Tee of Greater New Orleans received the distinction of “Ace Chapter” within The First Tee Network, recognizing the program as one of the best of the best. This honor came fewer than two years after resuming operations. And in April 2009, the program received a $20,000 grant from the USGA to help with program expansion.

There’s no doubt the city is still recovering from tragedy.

“From what you hear on the news, you do not know what is going on unless you are really on the ground,” said Gaudin. “You have to get into the neighborhoods. Our house has not been rebuilt; money has been allocated but not delivered. Resources have not gotten down to the city to repair the streets, the buildings – fire stations, libraries, and schools – are not up.”

Gaudin, however, serves as a reminder that hope that can be found within the people of New Orleans.

“We are using The First Tee of Greater New Orleans to bring stability to children to show them it will be OK,” she added.

Through golf and the dedication of many, New Orleans continues to show its resolve. Which is exactly the sort of character building and life values the program was created to provide.

Lindsay Erickson is a second-year fellow with the USGA Grants and Fellowship Program.  E-mail her with questions or comments at lerickson@usga.org.

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