Learning about life while on the golf links in City Heights

Children at Pro Kids Golf working on their homework after school at Colina Park. Photo courtesy of Pro Kids Golf

Stroll by Colina Park Golf Course in the Colina del Sol neighborhood of City Heights and you’ll see, well, a golf course.

But look harder and you’ll find one of the more inspiring youth programs in San Diego, an effort  spanning nearly two decades that has mentored almost 15,000 kids and taught them the skills needed to succeed in life – while also helping them learn a little about golf.

At Pro Kids Golf, hitting the links is simply a way of getting kids to take their studies seriously.

“We are an education program that happens to use golf as a hook,” said Marty Remmell, chief executive officer of Pro Kids Golf.

The Pro Kids mission, according to its web site, “is to challenge underserved youth to excel in life by promoting character development, life-skills, and values through education and the game of golf.”

Pro Kids was the brainchild of the late-Ernie Wright, an original Charger when the team was founded in Los Angeles and a member of the San Diego franchise that won the AFL championship in 1963. With the help of other community leaders, including then-City Councilman Ron Roberts and Price Charities founder Sol Price, the fledgling program began at Colina Golf Course in 1994.

It was an uphill struggle. The golf course wasn’t exactly country club-esque at the time.

“To call it a cow pasture would have been an insult to the cows,” Wright said in a 2008 San Diego Magazine story. “In City Heights at that time, you could call it representative of the neighborhood.”

Wright told the magazine he had been approached about starting a golf program for inner-city kids in the past. The links off 52nd Street was being run by a Florida company and was losing money at the time. When Colina Park became available in 1994, the city was more than willing to let Wright establish a program there.

But why golf?

“One of the things that Ernie told me was that he learned how to cheat at football from a young age,” Remmell said. “He loved golf because he saw it as a game that you couldn’t cheat at. You have to call penalties on yourself. It’s definitely a game of honor. He saw that as teaching some valuable life lessons.”

Todd Smith is director of golf at Pro Kids; Chris Matthes is an education specialist who oversees the tutoring program. Both say the program is invaluable for City Heights youth.

“It has had a huge impact,” said Matthes, who was hired about a year ago. “Even in the short time that I’ve been here, I have seen such a change in their attitude toward learning.”

The key to reaching the kids, Matthes said, is getting to know them.

“You have to get to know them by name and address them by name,” he said. “The next thing you want to do is know more about the kid, know their background, know where they’re coming from. You have to know the kid if you want to communicate with them.”

Key is communicating the importance of education.

When the program began, it partnered with the San Diego Unified School District. Staffers would – and still do – bring youth from the classroom to the golf course.

“The first thing we teach them is how to introduce yourself with a firm handshake while looking a person in the eye – making visual contact,” said Remmell.

In 2001, the organization built an 8,000-square-foot learning center through contributions from civic groups that included the Building Industry Association of San Diego. Total costs came to about $1.8 million. Pro Kids paid about $600,000. The BIA contributed everything else, including the plumbers, drywallers and painters who donated their material and time, Remmell said.

Two years later, the golf course was renovated at a cost of about $1.5 million. Half of the money came from a state parks grant. The rest came from city, county, Price Charities and others.

Over the years, the focus on education has grown stronger. When Faye Elementary was built across the street, Pro Kids partnered with the new campus and started working closely with the students there. The study hall at Colina Golf Course is a second home to many kids.

Remmell points out that when she began working at Pro Kids in 2003, the group employed one educator and five golf pros. Today, it has four educators and four golf pros. Among the educators is a credentialed math teacher, along with a science instructor who once worked as a molecular biologist.

The center has a homework club that attracts between 25 and 40 students daily. It also tracks children’s reading scores.

Kids have to earn their time on the course. They pay for rounds of golf by earning points through such things as doing community service, completing book reports, raking bunkers, and going on field trips to local businesses in an effort to learn about various career opportunities..

“We won’t let kids go on field trips or participate in other events unless they are caught up in school,” Smith said.

Despite the emphasis on education, or perhaps because of it, Pro Kids is turning out some pretty good golfers. Smith notes that duffers associated with the group racked up 65 wins last summer at San Diego Junior Golf Association championships. Some 16 kids qualified for the Callaway Junior World Golf Championships.

Roberto Rosas is one of the organization’s success stories. He began playing golf at Pro Kids as a seventh grader in 2003.

“You don’t get on the golf course until you learn the etiquette, until you learn how to introduce yourself, until you know what’s expected of you and your behavior,” said.

“I started going there every day after school,” Rosas said. “I became pretty OK.”

In fact, he became a starter on the varsity golf team at his high school, Francis Parker, a private school in Linda Vista he attended with the help of Pro Kids scholarships. He now attends Columbia University in New York, with Pro Kids paying for some of the grants and scholarships he has earned.

“Pro Kids has probably been the biggest influence on my life, and it has given me the tools I need to succeed academically and socially,” Rosas said.