2006: Tiger Woods - Pitching In
Thursday, July 7, 2011
By Gene Yasuda
Kevin Tarona is impatient, eager to tackle a grand tomorrow he’s confident awaits him. So he gives a firm handshake that belies his youth and gets down to business. He rattles off the classes he has recently completed: Electricity. Energy, Power and Mechanics. Creative Solutions. Robotics. And golf.
A college grad possibly leaning toward a career in engineering? Not exactly.
“I want to be a nurse,” says Tarona, a high school sophomore who has spent a good deal of time lately at the Tiger Woods Learning Center. Thinking a bit more, he adds, “And a video game creator.”
You mean one or the other?
It’s the wide spectrum of his career choices that baffles at first, but then clarity sets in. At that moment, one’s understanding of the TWLC crystallizes: This is not a place to rigorously study one pursuit. Rather, it’s for youth like Tarona to explore all they can possibly be when they grow up. It’s an incubator of dreams.
The TWLC is a one-of-a-kind institute that exposes students to a seemingly endless menu of courses – all designed to spark career interests. The 35,000-square-foot center is packed with computer labs, classrooms and a recording studio. It opened here in February to serve fourth-graders to high school students in the region.
Thanks to Tiger, many of them will attend virtually for free.
At the center’s ribbon cutting, Woods, flanked by President Bill Clinton and other dignitaries, said: “The things they will learn here they can’t learn in their schools. For me to see that they’re going to have a better chance to succeed in life is a dream come true.”
It’s no surprise Woods takes so much pride in the facility. This was not a loan-my-name-to-it project. It’s a result of his vision, his hard work and not insignificantly, his money. Day-to-day execution was left in the hands of staff at the Tiger Woods Foundation, but it was Woods who made the project possible: He attracted 25 donors and gave $6.5 million personally, raising $27 million to cover the building’s construction and launch.
The TWLC is an example of the body of work Woods is compiling in the philanthropic arena. Such activities don’t attract as much attention as the majors piling up on his professional resume, but they may well prove to be his greater accomplishment.
Critics grumble that Woods isn’t hands-on enough in these endeavors. But what they fail to understand, his supporters say, is his true value: Woods has become a human magnet, an almost irresistible force that pulls resources and people together.
Indeed, those who recognize Woods’ potential urge him to become even more of a catalyst for social change. One of their biggest concerns is that he will retreat from these front lines like his iconic Nike predecessor, Michael Jordan, who still is criticized for ducking tough issues for fear of hurting his marketability.
Richard Lapchick, a renowned advocate for diversity in athletics, worries that in some aspects Woods already may have stepped back. When Woods was a freshman at Stanford, he and Lapchick took part in a university-sponsored forum about athletics and racial equality. Based on Woods’ comments then, Lapchick thought the golfer had the makings of a champion for diversity. That opinion was bolstered when Nike and Woods teamed for one of their first ads, which addressed discrimination in golf.
“When he started out with ‘Are you ready for me, world?’ I took it as a courageous move that would be ongoing,” says Lapchick, director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida. “But Tiger and Nike were lambasted for it (accused of exploiting race), and since then he’s basically withdrawn on social issues.
“I hope that will change because, with the distinction of his career and his intelligence, Tiger would be listened to more than any other athlete,” Lapchick says. “You may ask, ‘Who has the right to make expectations of anybody?’ Is that fair? I don’t know. But it is my hope.”
Whether he fulfills the expectations of others or not, it’s clear Woods is evolving as a humanitarian, much the way he’s changing as a golfer. In both cases, it appears to be for the better.
The TWLC is the most ambitious undertaking tackled thus far by the Tiger Woods Foundation.
Created in 1996 by Woods and his father, Earl, the nonprofit foundation began modestly, mostly holding golf clinics for children. But the father, who wasn’t bashful about sharing his thoughts on parenting, and the son began steering the organization to help youngsters build their lives.
To take on this greater role, the foundation needed more money. So in 1998, Woods created “Tiger Jam,” a benefit concert that has become an annual showcase featuring entertainers such as Stevie Wonder, Ray Romano and Celine Dion.
With an assist from one of his biggest sponsors, Woods followed that with another fundraiser – The Target Challenge, an invitational tournament for which he selects a dozen of the world’s best players.
Fueled primarily by these two events, the foundation now runs a sizable grant program that provides aid to a variety of youth-oriented groups nationwide. Last year, it awarded nearly $2 million to 122 initiatives, ranging from the VH1 Save the Music Foundation ($15,000) to the Hurricane Katrina Education Fund ($200,000). The Tiger Woods Foundation and TWLC fundraisers also cover the learning center’s entire $2 million annual operating budget, meaning students pay no tuition.
The genesis of the TWLC occurred shortly after the devastation of 9/11, when Woods walked into the office of Greg McLaughlin, the foundation’s president, and said he wanted to do more.
“Tiger said, “Hey, I think we’re ready to do something, a physical structure, a building of our own,” McLaughlin recalls. “He wanted it to make a difference in children’s lives. He wanted it to be technology-rich and give them a chance to learn a little bit of golf. But those were (his only parameters).”
This was not to be a story about a celebrity imposing his pet project on a community, no matter how well intentioned. Rather, Woods and McLaughlin invited community leaders to be stakeholders and charged them to create something they needed. Business executives, educators, politicians – all were brought to the table. After all, when Tiger knocks on the door, you open it; when he calls, you answer.
“We all got together and began coming up with different ideas. We even had focus groups with students to see what they envisioned,” says Sandra Barry, superintendent of Anaheim city schools, one of three districts that serve as TWLC feeders. After numerous meetings, they narrowed their focus to create a program that would complement existing California education standards, yet provide a service that the school system itself could not.
What they came up with is an educational laboratory with a smorgasbord of hands-on learning opportunities and state-of-the art technology. Among the many corporate partners that stepped in to help was AT&T, which provided a $300,000 grant.
“We love being associated with people like Tiger who stand for excellence and integrity,” says Karen Jennings, an AT&T senior executive vice president. She says the company had only once before supported an athlete’s community project – a school created by former NBA great David Robinson – underscoring Tiger’s clout.
Among the TWLC’s programs: A Dell Computer initiative that allows participants to disassemble obsolete models, install state-of-the software, then rebuild them to be as good as new. The reward? The students get to keep the revamped computers.
The learning center’s many offerings resemble a college course catalog: Subjects range from astronomy to forensic science, interior design to water management. But it isn’t a “drop-in” facility where students come and go at their leisure, according to Katherine Bihr, TWLC’s executive director. Her staff grants admission to students based on the merit of their applications and teachers’ recommendations.
Though it is open to all students, the TWLC is neither intended to serve the extremely gifted nor those needing remediation, McLaughlin says.
“Our target demographic is the B-, C+ students,” he says. “They’re the ones who can go either way.
If given a chance, they can maximize their potential. If they don’t, (they may struggle in life).”
The scope of the TWLC, as well as its alliances with neighboring educational institutions, has impressed lifelong educators, including Marian Bergeson, former California secretary of education. What’s next, she says, is to establish a means to evaluate the center’s long-term effectiveness. TWLC recently received a $500,000 grant from the prestigious Mott Foundation for the task.
“I believe this is truly unique,” Bergeson says. “And it’s because Tiger has the ability to draw the best there is.”
Discussions already are under way to expand the learning center. McLaughlin says it’s premature
to consider building similar facilities elsewhere.
But it’s conceivable, he adds, that the TWLC will export some of its programs to existing academic centers. That means Woods’ reach would stretch yet again, inspiring more youngsters to pursue meaningful careers.
Or, as in Kevin Tarona’s case, maybe two.