Don Van Deusen may have traded the high school athletic fields for the golf course when he retired, but the outdoors still is his classroom.
As a physical education teacher, coach and athletic director over a 33-year span at Howard, Atholton and River Hill high schools, Van Deusen carved out a respected career in Howard County before retiring from the public school system in 2004.
Now, the New York native's lifelong passion for sports and kids has moved to the links, where he heads First Tee of Howard County at Fairway Hills Golf Club.
Centered on instilling a core set of values along with instruction in golf skills, the international youth development program "is more about making nice kids than creating another Tiger Woods," said Van Deusen, who has served as executive director for seven years. He also is the assistant general manager at Fairway Hills, a Columbia Association golf course.
"First Tee is really about dreams and goal-setting," Van Deusen said. "Parents who think it's about getting cheap golf lessons are in the wrong place."
Now the program for those ages 8 to 18 is reaching out to younger kids with new classes this summer. The Target level is aimed at 5- and 6-year-olds and a new program for 7- and 8-year-olds is being tested locally and in 21 other chapters by the home office of First Tee, an initiative of the World Golf Foundation, which is based in St. Augustine, Fla.
"The younger ones who tag along with parents as they're dropping kids off are always champing at the bit to give it a try," said Van Deusen. "We are going to find out how they do."
Begun as a way to renew interest in golf while teaching a set of nine core values, such as honesty, perseverance and respect, First Tee has 206 chapters in 48 states and four countries, and draws 2.2 million participants, according to its Web site.
Enrollment in the program has grown in seven years from 100 to more than 500 youth, said C. Vernon Gray, founder of the county chapter.
"The initial goal was to bring golf to disadvantaged kids, but that has changed somewhat over the years," said Gray, administrator of the county's Office of Human Rights and former member of the County Council. "The emphasis is on building values to last a lifetime."
Gray, who served as chairman of the board of directors of First Tee of Howard County for five years, said, "Don has done a fantastic job, and there's really been a strong recruitment effort to increase the number of minorities in golf."
"All kids can use what we're serving," said Van Deusen. "We take kids from every nationality and race. We also have a scholarship fund, and we've never turned anyone away" based on the ability to pay.
Payment is not usually a problem, he added, calling the classes "a real bargain," ranging in price from $50 for 10 one-hour sessions in the Target program to $150 at the Ace level.
Aside from the emphasis on building life skills, the county chapter boasts a talented roster of personnel, said Bob Bellamy, board member and liaison to the Columbia Association, which is a partner in the program.
"Don has added a level of professionalism to the instructors, which has helped the program to evolve and our momentum to grow," Bellamy said. There are typically 24 kids in a class and four instructors to work with them.
"It's a great community program to be involved in," he said, "and it's worked out remarkably well."
Ed Ely, chairman of the county board of First Tee, echoed Bellamy's praise, saying, "Don has an enormous amount of energy and enthusiasm, and is the reason I joined the board. He's the driving force behind the program.
"Using golf as a platform to teach life skills is unique," he said. "Golf is the only sport where you call penalties on yourself," bringing the various aspects of sportsmanship into play. "The more we instill values in our youth, the better off our society is going to be."
Van Deusen and Ely said that David Costello has played an important role in the program. Costello's company, Costello Construction, built a learning center two years ago at Fairway Hills, and he also gave a substantial financial contribution, Ely said.
Bach Nguyen of Columbia has enrolled his 12-year-old daughter, Bryana, in First Tee classes for four years.
"This has been a good program right from the beginning," he said. "Golf is a mental game that is not based on the strongest person being the winner, and I like the life-skills instruction they provide."
Describing Bryana, a sixth-grader at Lime Kiln Middle School, as "quiet and gentle," Nguyen said he appreciates the emphasis on teaching the kids "to shake hands, look a person in the eye and introduce yourself - this gives them confidence."
He added that the youngsters quickly learn the importance of integrity as well, because "you are your own official" when you play golf.
"She will probably continue all the way through the program, and I will enroll my 6-year-old son, Brandon, next year," he said.
"Columbia is a great place to raise kids," said Van Deusen. "There are opportunities to try all kinds of sports here. First Tee will remain an influence in these kids' lives long after they complete a round of golf. The skills become who you are."
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