STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

He loves golf. His school didn't have a golf team. So he started one.

Dustin Dwyer
Michigan Radio
Devon Kitchen

The tiny white ball arcs against the cold gray sky, almost too hard to see.  

"That's a good ball," says Devon Kitchen, eyes focused as the ball drops quietly on the still-soggy fairway at Lincoln Golf Club on the northern edge of Muskegon.

It’s one of those days when spring backtracks, feels more like winter. Not a great day for golfing.

But it doesn’t seem to bother Kitchen. The 17-year-old is just happy to be on the course again. He's dressed in a bright orange cap, dark gray pullover and black pants. Tiger colors. Kitchen is a student at the Muskegon Heights Public School Academy, home of the Tigers. Before Kitchen showed up at the school, the Tigers didn't have a golf team. Now they do. 

"It was a challenge," Kitchen says, "but we got here."

Kitchen grew up in the Heights. His family goes way back in the town.

And it’s a place that has more than its share of challenges. Poverty, crime. At the high school, both the football team and basketball team had home games canceled this school year because opposing schools decided it wasn’t safe to come into the Heights.

Those are the kinds of things that you hear about in the news.

Meanwhile, there are the stories you don’t often hear. Like the one about the kid whose neighbor challenged him to a game of golf when he was seven years old. How he lost, but fell in love with the game, and has been striving to get better ever since.

And of how that kid went to a high school that didn’t have a golf team. So he decided to start one.

"First it was just an idea, like, ‘Hey, we should get a golf team." Kitchen says. "They must have just thought I was just going to leave it at that. No, I went to every board meeting for the next three months. I drew up big diagrams of how it could stop the crime rate, how it was going to take kids off the street for six hours at a time. I was coming up with a lot of facts, to the point where either they got really annoyed, or just bought into it. And just like, 'You know what, go for it.'"

"So, you just bowled them over," I say.

"Basically. I was persistent."

He was persistent in finding a coach. He was persistent in getting clubs donated by the Muskegon Heights Optimist Club, where he’s a member.

And, he was persistent recruiting players for the first team.

"The people that came out to play, and wanted to try, they fell in love with it like I did. So they were on me every day at school, 'Hey, when are we going to go out and practice?' ... I'm like, 'Let's go. I'm always down to golf.'"

"We had about six," he says. "Six to eight. Everybody kind of like dogged it out at first, like ... ‘Who wants to play golf? Golf is boring.’ That comes everywhere you go when you mention golf around people who’ve never played. So it’s like, you have to take your lumps and bruises. And the people that came out to play, and wanted to try, they fell in love with it like I did. So they were on me every day at school, ‘Hey, when are we going to go out and practice?’ ‘Can you take me here?’ ‘Can you take me here?’ ‘I just want to hit balls.’ I’m like, ‘Let’s go. I’m always down to golf.’"

And Kitchen says a couple of those kids bugging him to go out, they had dabbled in some of the things he sees as negative influences in the Heights. Golf, he says, gave them a positive influence, just as he predicted it would.

For him, it’s created a path to college. He already has a couple scholarship offers. He’s working hard to make it to the state championships in golf this year, then see if any other offers come forward. 

Dustin Dwyer is a reporter on the State of Opportunity project, based in Grand Rapids. Previously, he worked as an online journalist for Changing Gears, as a freelance reporter and as Michigan Radio's West Michigan Reporter. Before he joined Michigan Radio, Dustin interned at NPR's Talk of the Nation, wrote freelance stories for The Jackson Citizen-Patriot and completed a Reporting & Writing Fellowship at the Poynter Institute.
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