ST. PETERSBURG — Deborah Carter says her son Gerald used to have anger issues. He often just blew up at any provocation.
Two years ago, Gerald, 13, enrolled in the St. Petersburg chapter of the First Tee. The program introduces boys and girls ages 6 to 18 to the game of golf. The program also emphasizes character development.
Through the weekly golf lessons each summer, Carter says Gerald is now much more patient and willing to work through potential problems.
"I can't say he's completely changed, but those frequencies are less and less," she said. "The program teaches him how to defuse the problem. You don't always have to react. You have control."
Although parents and organizers tout the First Tee's benefits, the chapter faces severe cutbacks as it seeks to move from being a city entity to a nonprofit that relies solely on donations.
Formed in 2005, the local First Tee chapter falls under the city but receives no city money. Startup grants are running out, and city officials are unwilling to begin funding the program in a lean budget year.
"It was getting to the point where it would cost them money," said chapter president Mike Puffer. "They would have to cut almost everything."
As a city program, organizers have had trouble attracting donors.
"We found there's a lot of corporations and people that don't really want to write another check to the city of St. Petersburg," Puffer said.
So he decided to re-form the group as a nonprofit. To prove to the national First Tee organization that the chapter is still viable, it has to raise 20 percent of its annual budget, about $65,000, by September.
Puffer said the group has secured an $11,000 donation and is in talks with other donors. Even if the initial goal is met, the group will need donations for the rest of its budget.
The First Tee of St. Petersburg provides year-round golf lessons to about 1,300 kids, about 30 percent of whom are from low-income families.
"We're reaching out to a community that was not really able to play the game of golf for a lot of reasons, mostly financial," said Rick Waltman, who coaches many of the young golfers. "Golf is the hook to get in there and help these youth."
Two years ago, Waltman gave Bill Darling a lesson on his swing. Afterward, he asked Darling if he could help recruit some kids who couldn't afford the program without a scholarship.
A natural salesman, Darling truly believes in the First Tee. He convinces wary parents of the program's benefits with an engaging pitch and follow-up visits. He says it's worth it when parents tell him, with tears in their eyes, how the program helped their children.
"It's the little things," Darling said. "It goes much further than just a golf lesson. They're learning how to not only get along with other people, they're learning how to respect other people."
Others with kids in the First Tee also tout its benefits. Ruth Neal, of St. Petersburg, has two grandsons and a great-grandson in the program.
"When they get up on Saturday mornings, they're ready, they're raring to go," she said. "It's something positive in their life."
Carter, who lives in Pinellas Park, says her two boys can't get enough of golf. She has also taken up the game, with clubs and shoes ready to go in her car. Her younger son, Michael, still talks about when he walked with pro golfer Retief Goosen at a tournament at Innisbrook in Palm Harbor.
"I hope that they can find the funding to keep it going," she said. "If it went away it would just be a great loss to the kids and the community."