10:46 AM

Great golfers? Yes, but first a great start to a healthy heart



Not every kid who attends the First Tee of Essex County golf program will become a world-class player. But they’ll all get the best shot at a healthier start to life.

Look inside Newark’s historic Weequahic Golf Course and you’ll find hundreds of children’s dreams taking flight. Like dreams of becoming world-class golfers – some of which have already come true – or of a life beyond the greens and neighborhoods that surround the course.

Achieving those dreams takes dedication, perseverance and a lot of heart…a lot of healthy heart.

For these kids, all of these dreams are made possible thanks in large part to The First Tee of Essex County. Formed in 2006, the program provides children ages 5 to 18 the opportunities to not only learn the game of golf but also develop healthy habits around nutrition and exercise, and a recognition that success on and off the course means health for both body and mind.

Last year, The First Tee of Essex County produced its biggest on-the-course triumph. Fifteen-year-old Megha Gannes, who’s been with First Tee since she was 7 years old, made it to the U.S. Women’s Open Championship. She has since qualified to participate in Augusta National Women's Amateur in April 2020. “This is where the top pros go to play. Megha’s a rock star,” said Katie Rudolph, Chief Operating Officer and Coach of The First Tee of Essex County program.

Megha is just one success story from a program that has changed the lives of hundreds. Like the seventh-grader who took SAT classes through the program and who eventually earned a full scholarship to Yale University. Or the young man who “wasn’t the world’s best golfer,” according to Rudolph, who nevertheless persevered, learned valuable life skills, graduated as an engineer from Purdue University, and now works for Tesla.

“This young man told me he wouldn’t have had the confidence to do what he’s done without this program,” said Rudolph.

A drive for physical and mental excellence

The First Tee program features a rigorous curriculum combining physical training and education. As part of its year-round programming, participants play and run, take trips to grocery stores to understand the importance of selecting nutritious foods and explore ways to contribute to the overall health of their communities.

It’s for these reasons, among others, that Horizon BCBSNJ began funding the program in 2018 through The Horizon Foundation for New Jersey as part of its efforts to tackle childhood obesity across the state and ensure all children have opportunities to grow up at a healthy weight, with a healthy heart, and a healthy start to life.

Children who are overweight are at greater risk for becoming adults with diseases such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.

Megha participating in First Tee

Megha participating in First Tee

“With heart disease being one of the leading preventable chronic diseases, it is incredibly important that we start teaching kids at a young age the importance of exercise and good nutrition. Programs like First Tee help our communities lay the foundation for a healthier future, including better heart health,” said Jonathan R. Pearson, Executive Director of Corporate Social Responsibility for Horizon BCBSNJ.

The combination of athletics and healthy lifestyles is a natural fit for both Horizon and First Tee participants. “This program teaches children they can’t be a great athlete without the fundamentals of nutrition, exercise and sleep,” added Pearson.

The program serves about 550 kids each year. About 100 of the most devoted participants join Katie’s Academy, an eight-week summer program that caters to those who want to be elite athletes.

Every day during the academy, everyone goes on a 2-mile run, does a 24-station circuit training loop, then plays a round of golf, walking all 18 holes of the course, totaling 6 more miles. In all, participants log about 20,000 steps daily.

“We don’t just move – we move,” said Rudolph.

They also eat a healthy breakfast and lunch together. “No hot dogs, pizza or hamburgers during all eight weeks, which is pretty amazing for kids this age,” said Rudolph. “The only dessert we have is fresh fruit.”

“You push physical limits in the First Tee’s program,” said Megha. “You train as hard as you can – run and work out – then play golf. And you do it again the next day and the next.”

Coupled with the training are lessons in conflict resolution and emotion management. Because besides training great athletes, First Tee aims to train great people.

Integrated into the program are nine core values: honesty, integrity, sportsmanship, respect, confidence, responsibility, perseverance, courtesy and judgment.

For Katie, there is one core value that is the most essential – integrity.

“It’s the core of who you are as a person,” she said. “Golf is unlike any other game. There are no referees, no umpires. You are the one responsible for telling your opponent that you broke the rules, even if no one saw it. You call the penalty on yourself.”

For Katie’s Academy, the funding provided by the Horizon Foundation has been a “game-changer,” said Rudolph.

“How much they believe in us is so important,” said Rudolph. “They believe in our mission and see how much we believe in the kids.”