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Golf helping rough neighborhood near San Francisco's Olympic Club

When a spiffy, artificial turf short-game area and first-class netted driving range was installed in 2009 for a new First Tee program at Visitacion Valley Middle School in southeastern San Francisco, less than 10 miles, but a world away from U.S. Open site Olympic Club, skeptics had their doubts.

The school is situated in one of the city's roughest neighborhoods, including the notorious Sunnydale housing project. Seventy-eight percent of Visitacion Valley's students -- sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders -- live below the poverty level. The parents of only 2 percent of the students graduated from college. Several years ago, 70 of the school's 400 students had both parents who were incarcerated. Few have been unscathed by the area's violence.

"There was a spree five years ago when we had 41 murders," says the school's outgoing principal James Dierke. "I had kids coming in all wearing pictures of somebody who died. They were related to the person who died or related to the person who did the shooting or they witnessed the shooting."

Three years since the golf facility was put in at Visitacion Valley, on the same land where, as Dierke says, "neighborhood kids would come with the cars they stole and light them on fire," there is no graffiti, no damage. "No one has destroyed or vandalized anything in three years," Dierke says.

It looks like new. So, in fact, do many of the students.

Dierke, retiring after 13 years as the Visitacion Valley principal, and his dedicated teachers made the biggest difference. Dierke was national principal of the year in 2008 for his work in making the school an "island in a sea of trouble," according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Dierke didn't accept that his pupils, most minorities from bleak circumstances, were "throwaway kids" destined for desperate lives.

The First Tee has also done its part -- a big part -- to contribute to Dierke's mission. "Adult volunteers from a whole different world are talking to these kids, helping them," he says. "It is opening new doors for them, new vistas." He speaks with the knowledge of having earlier worked "on the high end side" of San Francisco. "There," Dierke says, "you make one phone call and six people come to help. When you're in the poor side of town, you make six phone calls and hope someone answers the phone. The idea that a group of citizens without any push from downtown or politicians, would do something for the kids in this neighborhood, is so commendable."

Related: A photo essay of public golf in San Francisco

At a critical time in these students' lives, when the brain is developing rapidly and emotions span the spectrum, their exposure to golf is helping them feel better about themselves and navigate difficult circumstances.

Make no mistake, it is still tough territory. "The big thing there is getting from your house, or wherever you are staying, to the school and back without an issue," says Bob Callan, an Olympic Club member and First Tee of San Francisco board member. "That's a big, big deal."

Callan remembers the first time he met some Visitacion Valley students when they were on an outing at TPC Harding Park. Looking at Lake Merced, which borders the golf course, they would wonder if it was the Pacific Ocean. "They had never been anywhere," Callan says.

Now the Visitacion Valley kids go regularly to Gleneagles GC, the nearby nine-hole public course that before seemed a faraway place behind a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire that separates it from Sunnydale. "There was a lot of yelling back and forth across that fence line," says Gleneagles operator Tom Hsieh, who worked hard to get his customers to accept the First Tee kids.

Related: 10 Ways To Win At Olympic Club

"These kids are fight or flight anyway because of their upbringing," Hsieh says. "We don't want them to flee from golf just because there are a couple of guys who don't get it."

The regulars at Glenagles have accepted their young visitors, who play a couple of holes there two days a week during the academic year. "I never thought I would hear people in my neighborhood say, 'We should play golf,' but I do," says sixth-grader Eugene Holbert. The fence with the barbed wire is still there, but there is a gate now, too.

No single thing is a panacea when the equation is as complicated as the one in Visitacion Valley. But golf, and being exposed to important values through it, can make a difference. "These are good kids, and they are buying into our core values," says Dr. Tony Anderson, the First Tee's site director at Visitacion Valley. "Things like responsibility, respect, courtesy, honesty. They relate those things to their peers. We can see changes, in their maturity, their confidence."

In some ways, though, the game is no different for Visitacion Valley's kids than for any other golfers.

"When the ball goes far and you make a nice par," says sixth-grader Justin Dieu, "you're just so happy."

Once, Dierke got a call from one of his students whose golf outing had taken an unexpected, but pleasant diversion. "'Mr. D., we're going to be late coming back to school,'" he told me," Dierke says. "'We're on the eighth hole of the Olympic Club.' I told him, 'Take your time.'"

Dierke isn't a golfer -- yet -- but knows what the game can do for someone.

-- Bill Fields
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