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Assignment Detroit: Out of the Rough

Midnight Golfers Markita Kleckley and Kavon Lewis.
Greg Ruffing/Redux
URBAN RENEWAL: Midnight Golfers Markita Kleckley and Kavon Lewis.

On a gusty January evening in downtown Detroit some 135 high school seniors from across the city have converged on Marygrove College, a small liberal arts haven whose stately gothic architecture belies the boarded-up storefronts and dilapidated homes that have come to symbolize this ailing town. The teenagers, some hailing from Detroit's roughest neighborhoods and worst schools, chitchat and laugh as they shuffle into a cavernous hall and find their seats. As social worker David Gamlin—check that, Mr. Gamlin—walks to the front of the room, a hush falls over the herd. Gamlin is in a dashing pinstripe suit. He's bright, articulate, and, it must be noted, physically imposing: 6' 4", strapping shoulders, a former offensive tackle at Michigan's Hillsdale College. The man can hold an audience.

He is lecturing tonight on the art of negotiating, one of those crucial life skills that you might not realize you don't possess until you stroll into a used-car dealership or ask your boss for a raise. After some opening remarks, Gamlin directs the kids to break into small groups and perform a mock exercise selling bulk orders of Droid smartphones to one another.

"So," he asks when the students reconvene, "who thinks they got a good deal?"

A smattering of hands shoot up, and the kids begin dissecting the relative merits of their transactions.

"Not bad, nice job," Gamlin tells one seller.

"Ouch," he says to another. "You think you could have done better?"

One girl got plain hosed. "If you do that in real life—guess what?" Gamlin says. "You're fired!"

The kids erupt in laughter, ratcheting the already considerable energy in the room.

"Who feels motivated?" Gamlin booms, sounding more like a preacher than a teacher. "Who feels inspired?"

The kids holler and clap, but the fun is really just beginning.

After breaking for a buffet dinner of fried chicken, cheesy potatoes and green beans, the group returns to the hall and helps transform it—with impressive haste—into a makeshift golf practice facility. (Who said you can't tee it up in Detroit in January?) On the far side of the room a pack of teens beat plastic balls off turf mats into opposing sides of a draped net, some holding their follow-throughs like seasoned Tour pros. On the near side another group chips balls to targets 10 yards away. In the hallway outside, still more students hone their putting. Instructing all of them is a hardworking team of PGA teaching professionals.

So what if many of these kids might never break 100 or for that matter become avid golfers? That's not the point. That they are playing the game at all is a revelation. "They're doing something that they probably never thought they could do or would do," says Glenn Pulice, one of the attending pros. "So the next time something comes around that they think they can't do or shouldn't do, they can accomplish that too." Like, say, going to college.

Welcome to Midnight Golf, not so much an afterschool program as a motivational series that has become a symbol of hope, success and the power of community activism in a city in desperate need of all of the above. Pairing golf lessons with life-skills workshops, college preparation counseling and good old-fashioned mentoring, the volunteer-run initiative sponsored by the PGA of America, the USGA and several corporate partners has achieved eye-opening results. Since Midnight Golf's inception in 2001, 425 students have completed the 30-week Motor City regimen. (Another chapter opened in South Florida in 2009.) Of those, 83 percent have been admitted to one of 60 colleges and universities, a remarkable statistic when you consider that, according to one disheartening study, fewer than a quarter of high school freshmen in the Detroit public schools go on to graduate.

No one is suggesting that all the Midnight Golfers rely on the program to shepherd them into college; in fact, the program purposefully selects students from varied economic and academic strata to foster peer mentoring. "We're trying to catch those kids who are on the edge," says Harold Curry, president of the Midnight Golf board of directors and chief executive officer of Detroit Commerce Bank.

"It works," he adds. "When some of the kids come in, they're like a tightly wound rose, and by the end of the program their petals are out and they're trying to grasp every ray of sun and every drop of rain."

That's thanks in great part to the program's dedicated mentors who advise the kids not only how to live productive, fulfilling lives but also on the college application process and financial aid and scholarship opportunities. (Marygrove College itself handed out $300,000 in scholarships to 18 Midnight Golfers earlier this year.) The program also runs an annual bus tour that takes the high schoolers to visit college campuses as far away as Texas and Alabama. All of which helps make believers out of kids who long assumed a college education was unattainable. "It was the first time that adults who I could relate told me that that you don't have to be a product of your society," says Amber Peden, a former Midnight Golfer who is today a pre-med sophomore (and fully funded by scholarships) at Kalamazoo College in Michigan. "That was the first time somebody told me, 'Yes, you're black, yes, you live in metro Detroit, but you know what—you can be the first person in your family to go to college. I gained a lot of confidence from that."

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