Introducing Our Gamechangers: CEO Andrew Holets from Pro Kids | The First Tee of San Diego
Our Gamechangers series highlights different community leaders in City Heights who have committed their lives to the cause of others. Their work changes the socioeconomic and cultural playing field for their clients, which include at-risk youth, refugees, and the homeless. You're going to love their story just as we much as we do!
Introducing Pro Kids | The First Tee of San Diego
Dana here. I am super excited to introduce you to our first Gamechanger from Pro Kids | The First Tee of San Diego. I have been a Pro Kids member and scholar for seven years and this non-profit is all about golf, education, and character development. I wouldn't be the woman I am today if it weren't for Pro Kids. Pro Kids is like a second family to me and the least I can do is share what they have been doing to make our community a better place.
The mission of Pro Kids | The First Tee of San Diego is to challenge undeserved youth to excel in life by promoting character development, life skills, and values through education and the game of golf. They operate in City Heights and Oceanside. Founder of Pro Kids, Ernie Wright, had once said, "Golf is the hook and education is the payoff."
I sat down with Andrew Holets, CEO of Pro Kids | The First Tee of San Diego, to chat more about his story.
Dana (CHCH): Tell us a little about your background and how you got involved with your nonprofit.
Andrew (ProKids): I suppose it’s important to establish that I’m a nonprofit and cause-driven leadership nerd. I believe in the work of the sector and how it attracts good people to work in and in partnership with it. Because of that magnetism, I wanted to learn from some of the best, so I did some schooling at University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia a few years back and recently finished my master’s degree in Nonprofit Leadership from University of San Diego. But before all that, and many other things, I got an internship with the City Clerk and City Council in Reading, Pennsylvania while I was in undergrad at Albright College. It made me want to work directly with people, so I took the leap and joined the Peace Corps, and ended up serving at a NGO in Kazakhstan, which is a fascinating country. Something about that time having to listen to the needs of the local community and literally learn a different language has stuck with me. It also made me appreciate person-to-person discovery over a cup of hot tea or coffee.
Flash forward a few years, and it came time for me to grow up with my country, so I came West to San Diego. I ended up working with many families and youth from the Mid-City San Diego neighborhoods, and I was struck by the beautiful chorus of diversity there. I made a concerted effort to be here in City Heights, for City Heights, and started as a grant writer and community outreach specialist at the then 60+ year old Copley YMCA. That role gave me great opportunity to learn and grow, and ended up helping be part of the construction, community outreach and opening of the new Copley-Price Family YMCA. I was approached to consider the CEO role at Pro Kids | The First Tee of San Diego, and was attracted to the mission and flip-the-script approach to ensuring accessibility to a traditionally inaccessible sport like golf, and our emphasis on creating pathways to success and self-fulfillment well beyond the sport.
I’m very blessed to realize the opportunity to lead a visionary organization like Pro Kids, and it has all been driven by a hope to make a stronger City Heights and greater San Diego community.
Dana (CHCH): What kind of impact does your nonprofit make in our City Heights community? (What do you envision?)
Andrew (Pro Kids):Pro Kids | The First Tee of San Diego was one of the first (and continues to be a leading) organizations who created a safe space and structure for City Heights residents, as we maintain a large portion of Colina Park, right off of 52nd and University Avenue as a public golf course and learning center for neighborhood youth. While Colina Park has long been a city-owned golf course, it was not the gathering place most would have called positive, at least not up until the early 1990’s. With the vision of our founder Mr. Ernie Wright and others, this large city park run down by drugs, gangs and ill maintenance, was transformed into a place that was both striking and accepted by residents of all ages for its safety, cleanliness and purpose. Nearly overnight, the park went from a dangerous place to a place overrun with smiling elementary and middle schoolers, taking up a sport typically reserved for the country club crowd. Better housing and schools for the community have been built nearby as a result of our program’s positivity.
Like the challenges facing City Heights and our surrounding communities, Pro Kids continues to evolve. We provide even more structure for youth of all walks and means, with strong emphasis on character development, life skills and educational improvement. Not only do we want our hard working kids get the support they need to navigate the pathway to college, we offer direct scholarship funds for our program alumni, with over $2million given to local students since 2001. 73% of Pro Kids credit the program for their high confidence in their ability to do well academically. Over 85% express increased interest in pursuing STEM careers. And nearly ¾ of Pro Kids display improved resiliency and “grit”, an oft-cited attribute key to lifelong success.
I like to think that we also give City Heights a little added pride. Our program adds character to our neighborhood as one of the nicest par-3 golf courses in the entire country, and hosts the Junior World Golf Championships, an annual elite sporting event that brings over young golfers and families from over 50 different countries to our community. And most importantly, Pro Kids is the site that was the starting point for a number of local kids who turned into PGA and LPGA Tour players, doctors, educators, business leaders and more. The true impact is in the kids who go on and grow into hard working, wonderful human beings.
Dana (CHCH): What core values inform and shape your team’s culture and how you operate?
Andrew (Pro Kids): One of the coolest aspects of Pro Kids is that we put our values, known as our “Words to Live By," on every tee box on our golf courses in City Heights and Oceanside. So naturally, with 18 holes of golf, we have 18 “Words to Live By” (Honesty, Respect, Bravery, Kindness, etc.). Our values are right there for our kids, our families, the average Joe, everyone, to read and see.
And we want to truly welcome all and democratize the game of golf. We take the broadest possible view of diversity, going beyond visible differences to affirm the essence of all individuals including the realities, background, experiences, skills and perspectives that make each person who they are. Engaging and including the power of diverse talent and partners results in innovative solutions and the community ownership necessary to address complex community issues.
As a refinement to our program values, we recently spearheaded the formulation and implementation path of a new values statement for our working culture. Gotta get our team right if we want our program right. From this process and dialogue, our new values statement emerged:
Pro Kids | The First Tee of San Diego is a committed community of excellence through our shared values of:
• Perpetual Growth
• Building Community
• Good Stewardship
• Compassionate Communication
• Embracing Challenge
Dana (CHCH): Who’s your personal “Oprah, Michelle Obama, or Ellen” (aka personal role model or inspiration?) Why?
Andrew (Pro Kids): People are really generous with their wisdom, but my grandmother stands out. She taught me the very simple daily practice to rejoice and be glad. Optimism is best in full spirit and action, and she overcame some tough stuff and never went on about it personally (youngest in a family of 11 kids, raised by her mom in coal town West Virginia, husband in WWII, son in Vietnam, breast cancer survivor, having a grandchild like me, etc.). She projected kindness, could cut you down to size in a loving way (as she would put it, “talk to you like a Dutch uncle”), and could connect with just about anyone.
Dana (CHCH): Can you share a personal story that motivates you to continue making a difference in our community?
Andrew (Pro Kids): I’ve seen a lot of amazing stories of goodness emerge in City Heights, including many kids go onto colleges, families united after various challenges, or show that anyone can be great, damn the odds.
I saw true hospitality during my time in Kazakhstan. If one person took notice and complimented someone else for a garment they were wearing – hat, shoes, whatever – it wouldn’t be odd for the person wearing the object to immediately offer the item to the person giving the compliment.
So a few years back, I used to ride my bike to work every day to the old Copley Family YMCA behind Cherokee Point Elementary School. I would take the same route every day, and everyday I’d ride by an older man who lived on the streets. I’d see him around town from time to time, and one day I noticed him sitting down on the sidewalk without any shoes. I got off my bike, asked him how he was doing, and he jokingly complimented me on my shoes. So I gave him my shoes. I figured I had another pair at home and could wear my gym sneakers for the work day. I didn’t think anything of it for a few months.
I learned a lot during my first few years with the old Copley YMCA under the leadership of Leticia Leos, who grew up in Mexico and went on to run that gritty little City Heights YMCA for over twenty years. When she was moving onto her next career phase and saying her farewells, she gathered all the staff up and went around the room sharing her thoughts and appreciations. When she came to me, she said that she had worked with many people who wanted to help others in their time of need, but I was the only one she knew who would literally give the shoes off my feet. I was confused, as I didn’t tell her that story. She shared that a gentleman recently came to her asking for a job, telling her he received a small gesture of acknowledgement and generosity from a stranger when he needed it most, and knew he had to change something in his life. It worked, and he got a job.
A good pair of shoes won’t change your life, but they got that one man to stand up for himself and get moving.