By Vinnie Manginelli, PGA
The name Chi Chi Rodriguez conjures up images of smiling faces and fun on the golf course. Now 85 years of age, Rodriguez has more than given back what the game has provided him. One of his legacies is the Chi Chi Rodriguez Youth Foundation, located at the golf course that also bears his name.
James Poulter took over as CEO of the Foundation in January of 2020, after more than 15 years serving in other roles. He and the facility’s PGA Director of Golf, Al Arrigoni, a two-time North Florida PGA Section Youth Player Development Award winner, recently spent some time on the phone to highlight the course, the practice facility and the mission of the Foundation, efforts that go far beyond the boundaries of the course and driving range.
The Foundation was formed in 1979 by Chi Chi Rodriguez, Bob James (founder of Raymond James Financial) and Bill Hayes, after Hayes, a local educator, invited Rodriguez to give a golf clinic at a local juvenile detention center. They quickly felt there had to be a better way to help these young people turn the corner and succeed in life. “The Foundation’s early mission was to work with kids who had been in trouble with the law in an after-school program format. The Foundation partnered with the City of Clearwater, which provided use of an 18-hole par 3 golf course,” Poulter explained. The Foundation conducted fundraising events and implemented programming out of the facility, called Glen Oaks Golf Course.
After serving its mission throughout the 1980s, the Foundation acquired land in North Clearwater and opened the Chi Chi Rodriguez Golf Club to provide the community’s youth with services and programming initially implemented and developed at Glen Oaks. The Chi Chi Rodriguez Golf Club is an 18-hole par 69 layout. Across the street, they operate the Chi Chi Rodriguez Driving Range, a 30-acre facility that supports the efforts of the Foundation, and allows the club’s golfers the opportunity to warm up before a round or practice when they’re not playing.
“All the profits (from the course and range) go back to the Foundation,” Poulter detailed. “In fact, the primary mission of the Foundation today is a partnership we have with the local school system.” He further explained that they have 90 kids who attend school at the Foundation on a daily basis. These are students who’ve been cited as “academically at risk”, performing below grade level at the time. This facet of the Foundation is known as the Chi Chi Rodriguez Academy. In fact, the Foundation operates the Academy, as well as First Tee – Clearwater, truly living up to its mission of “Preparing Students for Success in the Game of Life”.
The Foundation and Academy are operated out of the golf club, where the kids arrive each morning with their backpacks on their shoulders ready to learn. “We work with them to get their grades back up and use golf as a vehicle to teach some vital life skills that will benefit them throughout their lives,” Poulter declared.
“We’ve been a chapter of First Tee since 2004 and serve thousands of kids in north Pinellas County. First Tee is a great partner of ours with a great curriculum, a wonderful avenue for kids to learn a good game and some lasting life skills, as well,” he explained.
The teachers at the Academy are Pinellas County employees, with the daily oversight conducted by Josh Meurer, Academy Director. He liaises with other principals and regional superintendents. “We want kids to take pride in where they go to school and want them to speak with confidence when out in the community.”
The Academy serves kids in 4th through 8th grades who have been identified by the school district as youth who would benefit from the attentive environment the Academy provides. “We meet with their parents and conduct a pre-enrollment meeting with the kids as well to ensure it’s a good fit. We want to make sure they will benefit from the smaller class sizes and more supportive atmosphere,” Poulter stated. He emphasized the importance of coming to school every day, highlighting that attendance is key.
I asked if golf was an integral part of these students’ everyday education. Poulter explained that the partnership with First Tee is utilized during the physical education portion of the day. They’ll have golf lessons two or three times each week. “Our kids get PE every day and golf is part of that curriculum,” Poulter added.
Speaking more about golf, Poulter stated that community-based programming around the game is also done through First Tee with weekly programs on weekday afternoons and weekend mornings during the school year, and summer camps when the kids are out of school. They also work with other school districts to bring golf programming to their school systems.
Karen Wise, the 2021 North Florida PGA Section Youth Player Development Award winner, is First Tee Program Director and, as mentioned, Al Arrigoni is the PGA Director of Golf, overseeing the course and Chi Chi Rodgriguez Driving Range, a 2020 GRAA Top 50 Stand Alone facility. John Hayes, a multiple-award winning PGA Professional in the Gateway and North Florida PGA Sections, works as an independent contractor in giving lessons to adult beginners and seasoned golfers seeking the next level of play. This former head professional in the St. Louis area even donates a portion of his lesson revenues back to the Foundation.
All buckets sold at the range and greens fees paid at the club help the Foundation as well. “Look at them like separate businesses. We have the golf club as one business and the range as another. The net profit earned at these businesses go to the Foundation,” Poulter explained. And it’s the Foundation that oversees the programming provided through the Academy and First Tee – Clearwater.
Arrigoni says that both the range and course have seen exceptional play throughout the pandemic. “It’s been fun to get to know the new customers,” he said. Arrigoni cites customer service as the primary catalyst in retaining the many new golfers who’ve come his way amid COVID. It’s important to him that they have a fun and memorable experience and want to return soon. He also enjoys sharing the overall story of the Chi Chi Rodriguez Youth Foundation and all the good work that’s done under that umbrella. After all, just by choosing his course that day, each of his customers is helping to serve the Foundation that serves so many.
“We just brought in a food truck to the range from Wednesday through Sunday to add another fun feature to the experience. And with more people working from home, they might have an extra hour or two to stop by, hit some balls and have a bite,” Arrigoni added.
The facilities host pop up and corporate events, as well as PGA Jr. League, and Hayes facilitates group clinics, as well as his private instruction.
Arrigoni concluded our chat by highlighting the importance of the funds that go from use of the course and range to the Foundation. “The golf course and driving range are sustainable operations. The giveback to the Foundation that we spoke about here is real. Money is coming from our customers who pay to play, and that goes directly back to the kids who we’re trying to reach and serve. There’s a lot to be said for the way we manage both facilities with that bigger picture and mission in mind.” Chi Chi’s team also tells the story in their marketing and social media presence. Word of mouth across the local golf community also serves them well.
Arrigoni highlighted the taglines by which they do business – “Play with Purpose” (at the course) and “Practice with Purpose” (at the range). That purpose is not the same mission as in most of the articles you’ll read in our publication. This purpose is for the greater good, the mission to serve the youth of Clearwater and Pinellas County, a mission Chi Chi started more than 40 years ago.
For more information on the Chi Chi Rodriguez Youth Foundation, log on to https://www.chichi.org/.