A Quest To Heal 


Derek Kinzer (third from left) said "the program is taking golf to a therapeutic level rather than a recreational level."

March 22, 2010

By Rebecca Calderara, USGA

At the Central Ohio Youth Center, a maximum-security juvenile detention center in Marysville, golf takes on a different form. Here navy blue jumpsuits take the place of polo shirts and an 80-by-90-yard grass patch substitutes for a driving range. The golfers, who have earned the privilege of learning the game, swing improvised clubs.

Without modern facilities or standard golf equipment, the ViaQuest Golf and Life Skills Program uses golf to teach the game’s most fundamental lessons of honesty, perseverance and integrity. Here, golf is a vehicle for teaching and healing.

Residents of this center don’t fit the mold of a typical junior golfer. Their backgrounds include drug addiction, criminal convictions and broken homes, but these players aren’t pursuing college golf scholarships – they’re looking for redemption. 

“This program is taking golf to a therapeutic level rather than a recreational level,” said Derek Kinzer, the program’s director. “The program has morphed into something even larger than I anticipated.”

In an effort to reach the youths at the center, Kinzer joined forces with an unlikely partner, a lovable Golden Retriever named Hurley. In 2009, Kinzer adopted Hurley, a former shelter dog turned Canine Good Citizen Program graduate. Hurley was trained by center clients through the Heel 2 Heal program, which allows inmates to train shelter dogs in preparation for adoption. In turn, inmates gain the personal and professional skills necessary to become valuable members of the community.

Kinzer brings the golf program and Hurley to group homes and foster children throughout Ohio, with the help of the USGA, which has provided $110,000 in grant funding to the ViaQuest Foundation over the past four years.

Hurley, a friendly Golden Retriever, has become an integral part of the Golf and Life Skills Program.

“From my experience working at the center, I’ve found major trends of juvenile offenders having a deficiency of empathy, responsibility and power-control,” said Kinzer. “I’ve been able to address these areas through golf, but largely through the presence of Hurley.”

Since his adoption into the Kinzer household, Hurley has become an integral part of the Golf and Life Skills Program. Hurley returns to his original home at the Marysville center each week for all golf programming sessions, and Kinzer believes Hurley’s presence has helped tear down the barriers many of the youths bring to the center. Hurley has become an unofficial mascot for the program and a true local champion.

“Hurley’s story relates to the boys and girls in the Center,” said Kinzer. “Just as Hurley ran from the dog warden and was eventually captured, many of the kids ran from the police only to be detained at the center. Hurley is now helping people through the golf program, and I hope that through using Hurley’s story I can open the eyes of the youth to how they too can rise above their situations and help people, like Hurley is doing.”

Since 2003, under the guidance of Kinzer, the ViaQuest Foundation has brought the game of golf to those most in need through the Golf and Life Skills Program. In addition to leading the golf program, Kinzer has implemented a dulcimer music program, an alternative prom, bowling trips, movie nights and an arts and craft program -- all with the mission of enriching the lives of young people with behavioral challenges or mental health disorders. It is golf, however, that has had the greatest success in reaching the youths.

“There is a sort of wholesomeness about the game of golf and it provides a means for the kids to be successful,” said Betsy Hauck, the center’s activities therapist.

One success story is Michael C., Hurley’s trainer at the center. When admitted to the center, Michael was a drug addict with anger issues. After just a few weeks in the Heel 2 Heal program, Michael improved his attitude and did not receive another misbehavior citation during the remainder of his 90-day stay. This dedication to innovative programming has led to the success of many participants.

The take-aways for participants aren’t limited to golf. Kinzer provides information about careers in the golf industry as well as a standing offer to help any program graduate. Most of all, participants are provided a friend in Hurley and a positive role model in Kinzer.

“Derek provides a father figure to the kids,” said Hauck. “Many of the kids do not come from nuclear families and Derek has a huge impact on them while they are at the center.”

While Kinzer’s impact is felt around the state, it is here within the concrete walls of the center that he is leaving a legacy among Ohio’s troubled youths.

“It means a lot that Mr. Kinzer comes out here; he seems like a busy guy who takes time out of his schedule to volunteer, “ said program participant Shadow A. “With Hurley, it’s pretty cool to see ‘our’ dog come back here, and we get to see that he is being well taken care of.” 

As the program participants graduate from the center, they take the lessons they learned from the game with them, and many affirm their desire to continue playing golf once they leave. Kinzer encourages them to continue to be in contact with him after they graduate, whether they are in trouble or would just like a partner for nine holes. The youths graduate with a new set of skills, but more importantly a crucial support network in Kinzer and Hurley.

Overall, golf has become an outlet for success for the residents of the center, allowing them to rise above their troubled pasts to gain new skills and learn the values intrinsic to the game.

Here among the pain of childhoods ended too early, golf is being used to heal.

Rebecca Calderara is a second-year Fellow with the USGA Grants Department. E-mail her with questions or comments at rcalderara@usga.org.

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