Dr. Morris Brown carried his 6-month-old daughter Ariel to the driving range at Southbridge Golf Club in Savannah, Ga., to watch him hit balls. He first put a club in her hands when she was just 2. There began a lifelong bond between father, daughter and golf.
“Our relationship grew through the game,” Ariel Brown said. “A lot of people don’t get a chance to play with their dad, so I think that’s such a blessing. I’m grateful he taught me the game of golf.”
Ariel Brown was destined for a career in education and service through golf. Her family founded the Ash Tree Organization in 1989 which started as a non-profit after-school program for local youth. Similar to his approach with his daughter, Dr. Brown incorporated golf into his mentorship and guidance of children.
The program eventually evolved into a full-fledged academic institution—the Savannah Legacy Academy—once the Brown family realized the community needed a private school where intellectual pursuits and fun extracurricular activities could serve the next generation.
Since 2014, Ariel Brown has taught elementary school students in an array of subjects, but her time spent on the golf course with them through the First Tee has proven most impactful.
“When the kids come back into the classroom, they don’t want to talk about their work,” said Margaret Champion, an educator at the Savannah Legacy Academy. “They want to talk about what they did on the golf course.”
On Friday, the First Tee recognized Ariel Brown as its 2023 National Teacher of Year for her outstanding ability to connect with her students and make a difference in her community.
“I feel so honored and appreciated,” she said. “I’m here 12 hours a day making sure our students get everything they need to be successful.”
Brown serves as a lead golf coach for the First Tee Savannah chapter, an organization that aims to grow youth participation in golf while using the sport to build self-confidence and sharpen life skills, with programming revolving around the organization's core values: respect, honesty, integrity, sportsmanship, judgment, perseverance, courtesy, confidence and responsibility.
Inspired by her upbringing, Brown is committed to using golf as a channel to give back to the youth in her community, teaching them life lessons while having fun on the course.
“Golf will humble you in a heartbeat from just one shot,” she said. “We’re using golf to teach humility, along with integrity, honesty and perseverance, because those are things you need as an adult.”
Revered Ed Ayers, pastor at Christ Presbyterian Church in Savannah, attributes Brown’s success and acclaim as an educator to the compassion and patience she exhibits with her students.
“She is motivating and mentoring them through golf, which is something Black children have not had a lot of,” Champion said. “She makes them proud of themselves.”
In keeping with their commitment to the next generation, the Brown family is in the process of raising funds to purchase over six acres of land to build new academic and athletic facilities for the Savannah Legacy Academy, with golf as the core focus of the expansion.
A First Tee alumna herself, Brown is pushing to make First Tee mandatory for students K-12, as the school aspires to build a facility with a driving range, a putting and chipping area, and simulators.
“First Tee opened so many doors for me and granted me so many opportunities,” Brown said. “I hope we can continue to enroll more kids in our after-school programs and find a course we can call our own.”
Her weekly nine-hole rounds with her father are a continuous reminder of the values that were instilled in her from a young age, and the responsibility she possesses to impart those onto her students.
“I want the kids to remember to keep trying and never give up, because they’ll need that when they become adults and leave us,” she said. “My dad taught me that. Whenever I’m teaching and they get a little frustrated, it’s keep going and don’t give up.”