“When First Tee was founded, it was kind of ‘Come one, come all.’ I made sure to keep it that way, just because it’s very inclusive to everybody,” says Noelle Larson, program director. As its website states, the organization’s main objective is “Building game changers by empowering kids and teens through golf.”
For years, chapters of First Tee have welcomed participants into the world of golf and instilled values that come alongside sportsmanship. Initially a collaborative effort among multiple golf associations, First Tee has continued to share the sport with young players by providing opportunities within an optimistic environment. The organization comprises 150 chapters across the world, with multiple chapters throughout Virginia.
As a nonprofit organization, the Virginia Peninsula chapter is a program “Powered by the YMCA of the Virginia Peninsulas,” says Larson, who also detailed the chapter’s history. First Tee –Virginia Peninsula was established in 2011 by Tom Carnevale, whose love for the organization still drives him to work with it today. As the chapter began, Carnevale was joined by Pat Parcell. Jessica Evans, a longtime part of First Tee’s ongoing mission, traveled from California three years later to share her expertise while the team expanded. “And that’s where, under the best mentorship and leadership, I was given this amazing opportunity,” says Larson.
Larson was first introduced to First Tee while working at the YMCA. As a parent in an Air Force family, she strove to find a sport in which her children would find a perfect fit and feel welcome. After signing her daughter and son with First Tee, Larson was approached by “the sweetest coach ever,” who asked if she could lend a hand since the group needed a volunteer that day. That was in 2015. Since then, her time with the organization has expanded into an important influence on her life. In order, her main priorities are “faith, family, friends and fitness.”
Larson eventually became a coach and administrative assistant. As program director since 2019. the Virginia Peninsula leadership base has expanded from two leaders and more than a dozen participants to a team of 15 and a collection of volunteers. Together, the group currently serves a participant base of more than 800.
“They are my backbone,” Larson says, regarding her “First Tee family” who help operations run most effectively. “I could not do any of it without them,” she says. While First Tee is not an all-volunteer organization, its volunteers integrally and essentially impact the accomplishments of the organization.
The Virginia Peninsula chapter maintains a presence at seven golf courses. In the process of furthering its reach through all YMCAs in the area, and also entering Fort Eustis, First Tee class content can currently be found within the P.E. plans of 58 area schools. It also works with the Boys and Girls Club to provide classes.
First Tee –Virginia Peninsula offers programming all year, including clinics and special events throughout the summer. It often works and communicates with First Tee–Hampton Roads. Golfers may attend a handful of events throughout the year. Many participants and team members strive to attend any possible opportunities. Its golf classic is its primary yearly tournament, which participants excitedly anticipate. The chapter’s second big annual event, held in December at the Vanguard Brewpub and Distillery, welcomed Phil Vassar and Deana Carter in concert, collecting proceeds for First Tee –Virginia Peninsula.
When asked about life-changing or pivotal moments at First Tee, Larson says, “Usually, you can think of one story… so many different things popped into my head because it seems like every day [or week], there’s something.” She recalls the growth of participants’ skills and accomplishments and watching certain members fight serious illnesses while First Tee became a great avenue of activity for them. She also says that events and donations in memoriam of certain individuals are significant memories of hers.
One such story took place last year, following the passing of R.S. “Mike” Piland, Jr. “[His wife] Susan knew how much Mike loved golf and knew that he would love the thought of being able to help young golfers learn the game,” says Larson. “So Mrs. Piland reached out to me and asked if donations could be made in lieu of flowers. The donations received were major and so much appreciated.”
While First Tee teaches the game of golf to younger generations, it also speaks to the positive abilities that players will need in life as a whole. First Tee –Virginia Peninsula illuminates the power of collaborative effort that positively impacts everyone involved. “This isn’t [just] a random sport that kids play for a semester or a year,” Larson says. “Golf is a lifelong sport and [so are] all of these life lessons.”