Assignment Detroit: Out of the Rough

Assignment Detroit: Out of the Rough

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

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.”

The no-nonsense life-skills seminars—on money management, resume writing, conflict resolution, you name it—pay dividends too. Sometimes literally. One year the kids spent a Sunday afternoon selling Detroit Lions merchandise at Ford Field; the team allowed them to keep 6 percent of their haul for Midnight Golf, or some $8,500. Another year a student who was bipolar and suicidal stood up in front of her peers and for the first time found the courage to speak publicly about her illness. She had the room blinking back tears.

It’s little wonder, then, how a grassroots initiative that began with 17 participants nine years ago today attracts some 400 applicants annually (up to 70 percent of whom it must decline). “It’s a little like going to your grandma’s house,” says Renee Fluker, Midnight Golf’s founder and director. “You know how grandma always has everything for you? Midnight Golf is a lot like that.”

Most of the kids have never touched a golf club before enrolling in the program, but it rarely takes long for the bug to bite, especially in the fall and spring when the students get to test their swings at local driving ranges (they’ll soon have an even better option). “Watching that first ball go up in the air, they get really excited and they want to do it again,” says Pulice, the program’s director of golf. “Even when it gets cold late in the day in September and April, there’s a good number of them that we basically have to kick off the range because we have to get them back on the busses.”

“What has Midnight Golf taught me?” says Moya McKay, a bubbly 18-year-old who hopes one day to become a psychologist. “I’ve learned table manners, I’ve learned how to make a speech without a quivery voice, and I’ve got a really good swing—a really good swing.” So does Charles Perry. He’s the natural in this year’s group, already a 70s-shooter with dreams of playing the PGA Tour.

To many of the Midnight Golfers, the program fills yet another critical role. Just minutes before Gamlin’s negotiating workshop, one of the students showed up to Marygrove weeping. She had just learned that her grandfather died.

“Do you want to go home?” she was asked.

“No,” she said, “I want to be around Midnight Golf because it’s like my family.”

It’s a sentiment shared by many of the kids, especially those who come from broken homes, hardscrabble neighborhoods or otherwise challenging backgrounds. Devon Gerard, 18, grew up with 11 siblings in a housing project in East Detroit, where he says “all types of problems” circle him, including drug dealers and the threat of violence. When Devon was 12, his father died, leaving the youngster morose and withdrawn. “I put a shell around me,” he says. Then, in 2009, Devon attended a Midnight Golf graduation dinner and was overwhelmed by the obvious bond between the mentors and students.

“There was so much love in one room,” Devon says. “At that point, I didn’t care how I got into Midnight Golf, but I knew I was going to get there.”

Fluker, the program’s founder, personifies the program’s nurturing atmosphere, frequently taking students out for lunch or to a museum, or helping them work through problems at home. You can plainly see what she means to the Midnight Golfers when the sessions wrap up and the kids, in a moving ritual, voluntarily hang around to give her a hug. “Thanks, Ms. Renee!” “See you Wednesday, Ms. Renee!” “Love you, Ms. Renee!”

A social worker of 35 years with Wayne County Department of Human Services, Fluker has had an up-close look at the plight of her beloved city. “I had about seven cases when I started,” she says. “Now our average worker has 800 cases—800. Things are that bad.” Still, the inspiration for Midnight Golf came not from her job but from her only child, Jason Malone. When Malone, now 27 and a Midnight Golf mentor, attended the University of Detroit’s Jesuit High School, the five-minute drive from there to home was “like a nightmare,” he recalls. “Prostitutes, drug dealers, pimps, people being beat up, gunshots. Then I’d get to school and it was like night and day. All hell is breaking loose on the outside but when I got to the inside it’s all calm and peaceful. That bothered me. It played with my mind.”

So Malone, who played on the Jesuit golf team, took action. “I said to my mom, ‘It’s sad. More people need to know about golf and the benefits that golf brings to your life.’ I said, ‘Let’s start a program that uses a golf as a vehicle to help inner-city kids understand that there’s more to life than just basketball and selling drugs.’ ”

Mom was sold. Using the already-successful initiative, Midnight Basketball, as a model, Fluker convinced the PGA of America to pony up $5,000 to help launch Midnight Golf. To cover the rest of the start-up costs, she solicited Midnight Golf board members and even dipped into her own 401(k) account. “She’s like Mother Teresa,” Malone says. “And I’m not just saying that because she’s my mom.”

Just ask Midnight Golf graduate Shalice Sabra. When Shalice was 7, her own mother died, leaving her and her four sisters in the custody of their drug addict father. Their East Detroit home quickly devolved into a drug den, Shalice says, and school became an afterthought. “I saw a lot things that I shouldn’t have seen,” she says today. She eventually landed in a solid high school on the other side of town and committed to make the most of it, joining the track and golf teams. Then, in her senior year, she made what she describes as one the best decisions of her life: she enlisted in a fledging youth program called Midnight Golf. “I felt like God sent me there,” says Shalice, now 24. “It was like a family. And I hadn’t had that sense of family, well, ever. We ate together, we prayed together, we learned together. Then we played golf together. It was everything for me.”

Shalice went on play golf at Benedict College in Columbia, S.C. Life wasn’t always easy there either, but Fluker continued to support Shalice, sending her care packages and lending moral support “when I felt like I was ready to give up,” Shalice says. In 2008, Shalice’s father was murdered. Fluker was there again, aiding Shalice and her family with the funeral arrangements. That same year Shalice graduated from Benedict and soon after landed a job as a customer service representative with Verizon Wireless. Today she’s thinking about pursuing a master’s degree in social work and she has dreams of paying Fluker the ultimate homage: launching another Midnight Golf chapter in South Carolina.