A gift doesn’t always have to be something that you tear the wrapping paper off and hold in your hands.
Ask Chanel Gonzalez.
At age 18, she received something much more valuable — the gift of education.
“I’m so thankful for this,” Chanel said.
Chanel is attending Birmingham-Southern College in Birmingham, Alabama, mainly because of her own determination but also thanks to The First Tee of Miami and the Orange Bowl Committee, two organizations that locked hands in a program to help female golfers attend college.
The First Tee has been helping kids for half a century. The OBC wisely knew that history and enlisted an experienced partner to help achieve what it wanted to accomplish — to get more girls into college through scholarships.
The reason that can be successfully done is simple: In the world of women’s college golf, about 30 percent of scholarships go unused.
“The Orange Bowl has never before invested in an initiative focused solely on women’s athletics,” said former OBC chairperson Lee Stapleton, a Miami attorney who helped establish the golf program. “I’ve long envisioned something that would make a difference in the lives of young women, empowering them to achieve their greatest of dreams.”
One of those lives would be Chanel, a standout student.
In high school, at Young Women’s Preparatory Academy in Miami, she earned a 3.5 unweighted grade-point average. She decided she wanted to attend Birmingham-Southern because she liked the golf program and the school’s academic reputation.
“It’s one of the best schools in Alabama, right after the University of Alabama itself. I want to get a degree in biology and possibly become a dermatologist,” she said.
The First Tee and OBC happily helped her in reaching her college goal because she was the type of individual they were looking to assist. Now, she is in college — far from the comforts of home.
“Pretty much, if I’m not studying, I’m playing golf,” Chanel said with a laugh.
She acknowledged that being on her own has been an adjustment.
“Nobody wakes you up, nobody tells you to go to class, nobody tells you to meet with your professor,” she said.
She has done all those things — and more.
“I’ve grown academically,” Chanel said, “and I’ve grown as a person.”
Those are the first two assessments she makes of college life. Her third?
“My golf game has also gotten better,” she says.
Chanel hasn’t forgotten what people have done for her, particularly The First Tee, which she has attended since she was 11. She is one of many young people whom The First Tee has encouraged, nurtured and told they have no limits. Charlie DeLucca Jr. created the program at Melreese/International Links Golf Course back in 1963. Since then, he and The First Tee have helped thousands of kids stay on track academically through tutoring, homework help and guidance.
Says Chanel: “The First Tee is not about your golf game. It’s about home and community and learning and other people. After that, golf comes along. The First Tee has always given me emotional support.” Indeed, she calls The First Tee and International Links “my other home.”
Chanel grew up a block or two from the golf course. Once she got home from school, she would sling her golf bag and school backpack over her shoulder and walk to the course.
She would then spend the first hour or two at The First Tee studying, doing homework and being tutored in a classroom with computers, books and other learning aids. “They say ‘Let us help you become a better person, rather than just become a better golfer,’” Chanel said.
When she returns home to Miami during college breaks, Chanel said she will head straight to The First Tee building at International Links. She will tutor kids just like she was tutored as a child.
“When I arrived at Birmingham-Southern, people told me I was home,” she said. “That is true, but my heart is in both places, there and Miami.”