Howard Bankhead lives by the motto, “Anything Positive is Possible” and he has lived that out for the past 12 years helping at-risk kids learn life lessons—one swing at a time.
Howard Bankhead is an irrepressible optimist, with a dose of creative genius mixed with equal parts tenacity and fearlessness of a pitbull.
How else do you explain a man who for the past 12 years has helped 1,331 at-risk children ages 6-18 in the poorest areas of urban and rural Alabama overcome their dire circumstances and crushing poverty via an unexpected, holistic formula—jazz and golf.
That’s right, jazz music to nurture the souls of the kids. But beyond the music, Bankhead uses the multi-faceted nature of golf to develop the multiple facets of each child.
He uses the physical play of golf to develop their bodies; the math, physics and science of the game to develop their mind and the honor-based rules of the game to develop the kids’ ethics, character and integrity.
Bankhead runs the program under the auspices of the Tennessee Valley Youth Golf Development (a.k.a. the First Tee of Huntsville) program where his underlying motto is, “Anything positive is possible”—a motto that is at the very heart of his organization’s mission.
By every standard and measure, there has never been a program quite like this one.
In fact, its very existence hinges upon its uniqueness. It’s because of its unorthodox approach to child development that it has been awarded annual operating grants from several national organizations including: the PGA, USGA, First Tee and other golf grants.
Participants for the program have gone on to earn academic scholarships as well as other recognition and awards.
His program continues to be featured regularly via local and regional media and it’s been featured twice on the Golf Channel and Bankhead himself is a monthly contributor to African American Golfers Digest.
Bankhead recently took sometime to speak with Good Men Project Contributor/Sports Editor, Tor Constantino about the good work that’s getting done in the lives of at-risk kids who might otherwise be forgotten.
Tell me about your program?
It’s a youth development program and it started from the Tennessee Valley Jazz Society, which is a non-profit arts agency to promote the art form of jazz music. And from there we’ve expanded its mission to include health and sports because our ultimate goal is youth development by building the mind, the body and soul of individuals.
We do that through jazz and the sport of golf.
We do this to counterbalance the fact that our youth are being inundated daily with mind-numbing and soul-crushing vulgarity.
Unlike other sports, golf holds lessons in life. Not just hitting a golf ball but it teaches lessons of integrity and respect and those types of traits. We want to instill those values in our youth which is why I started this program.
I believe that if youth has those values early-on in life, they can really have a positive impact on the world as they mature.
We want to use the art of jazz and sport of golf to also help reinforce a solid grounding in academics for kids and teenagers in our program. Both have elements of math.
Golf also addresses science concepts such as velocity, force, wind drag, ecology, conservation and meteorology – we introduce kids to all those concepts through this program.
But ultimately golf is a game that develops character. Players have to keep their own score so they have to be honest; players have to share the course with other individuals so they learn courtesy; players also learn to respect others – those are just a few of the traits we seek to develop in the kids ages 6-18.
What led you to expand the program from jazz to golf?
As an African-American growing up in the South, I never had the experience of playing golf because of a range of social ills and reasons.
I want to give kids in our program the chance to experience something that I wasn’t allowed to do growing up – because golf is a game of life.
You learn about life while playing it and you can play your whole life long.
Like it or not, a lot of critical decisions are made while individuals socialize over a game of golf—business decisions, politics, economics, education—decisions affecting local and national issues are often made in the golf environment.
I want everybody to have access to that— Asians, poor whites, blacks, Latinos—everybody deserves to learn those life lessons and get exposed to the benefits of this sport.
To answer your question, jazz is a creative and wholesome type of music—and I believe that golf is a creative and wholesome type of activity.
It’s a natural extension to expose children to the virtues of both.
How do you get kids in an urban setting to a golf course and keep them coming back?
I started the program in schools, but there were challenges. For me—being a black man with no money to support this program—was tough but that didn’t stop me.
We would use classrooms after school to introduce kids to the rules and concepts of golf. Then we would use the school’s ball fields to help the kids learn how to swing and hit the golf ball.
I was able to use references from the school to convince golf courses to let us use their putting greens and driving rangers during low-usage periods.
From those initial school programs and humble beginnings, I applied for a PGA growth of the game grant and was awarded.
After that I applied for a grant with the U.S. Golf Association (USGA) which I also was awarded.
That enabled me to get interest from a few local golf pros that would come to wherever we were holding classes for the kids and they would give a golf clinic.
Now we have a few courses where we meet regularly. The USGA grant money helped cover busing to get kids to the golf courses as well as equipment purchases.
Beyond the golf training and exercise the kids get, we also want kids to be aware of good nutrition—drink more water, less juice and soda; eat more whole foods less candy and get more sleep.
We’re committed to developing the whole individual—mind, body and soul. We help develop the kids’ minds by academic mentoring/tutoring; golf develops their body and jazz develops their soul.
Golf is a difficult skill sport, how do you keep kids motivated? How do they feel a sense of success?
We start kids with putting—the simple act of rolling the ball in the hole provides them a tremendous sense of accomplishment. That’s where we usually start and it helps keep the kids interested.
However, it’s equally important to the kids’ parents or guardian to understand the value of golf.
It doesn’t matter how much the child wants to do it, if they parent doesn’t believe in the benefit of our program—the kid won’t come back.
The kids don’t mind coming out, as long as it’s fun to them.
So that’s why we offer the mentoring and tutoring. When the kids in our program start doing better in school, parents take notice of that and support it, which helps keep the kids in our program. We have our own curriculum that helps kids understand and use the math and science concepts they’re using in school on the golf course.
We help them apply arithmetic by understanding which club to use that will get them closest to the hole. We help them practice estimation skills as they assess distance from the flag.
They learn about the physics of the golf swing and that the golf is a refined “lever.” There are geometry lessons we teach regarding the arc and trajectory of the ball—these real world applications of their school work help kids pay more attention in class.
In Part 2 of the interview tomorrow, Bankhead shares how this program actually changes the lives of children for the better and the biggest challenges he’s facing. His non-profit organization relies exclusively on grants and donations. If you’d like to help him in his mission to help kids, you can donate at his web site—Golf Life Skills.
Photo Credits: Howard Bankhead