Molly V. Strzelecki
Alex Lopez, JD, OTR/L, didn’t pick up the game of golf until about 5 years ago, when his wife and a friend turned him on to it. It didn’t take long before his newfound passion and respect for the sport started the wheels turning in his head.
"I came from the inner city, around gangs and drugs,” says Lopez, an assistant clinical professor of occupational therapy at Stony Brook University in Stony Brook, New York. “I had never been exposed to any type of alternative environment than just being around the projects.” Combining his upbringing with his background in law and career in occupational therapy, Lopez looked at how he could combine restorative and occupational justice to benefit others.
“I saw the value in looking at the occupation of golf, and then introducing this to kids who have not had the opportunity to experience it, and at the same time develop social interaction skills and be in a place that is diametrically different than the environment they’re accustomed to,” Lopez explains.
He hit on the idea of exposing kids from gang-affected areas in the community to golf, teaching them the sport and giving them the opportunity to experience something different. So he developed an occupation-based, after-school program that uses golf as a therapeutic medium, using occupational therapy graduate students as mentors for the kids. The program is called PAR FORE, an acronym for Perseverance, Accountability, Resiliency, Fellowship, Opportunity, Respect, and Empowerment.
“We’re primarily focusing on youth who have been affected by gangs, whether they have gang affiliations, or family members who are in gangs, or have been victimized by gangs,” Lopez explains. “Looking at the nature of that kind of group, you also look at the kinds of activities they engage in. Much of the stuff they get involved in happens after school, of course, and can involve violence, property damage, vandalism, and all sorts of other socially deviant behaviors.” Lopez likes the juxtaposition between those behaviors and the structured, rule-oriented sport of golf. “[Golf] has a lot of health-promoting behaviors; it’s a health-promoting occupation. These kids’ environments deprive them of social networks and they’re occupationally deprived with the limited resources they have. But on the golf course, everyone is an equal partner.”
It’s not just on the course that kids are learning. Besides the social skills and golf knowledge the kids gain amidst teeing off and putting, PAR FORE also includes a month of life skills training on the Stony Brook campus, covering topics like self-esteem, anti-bullying, and developing skills for school.
After forming his idea, Lopez held a pre-planning meeting with community members to see if it was feasible. “I brought in local councilmen and women, the chief of police, school administrators, and people from our campus child psychology and social work departments,” Lopez says. “When I presented my idea, everyone thought I should definitely go forward to make this happen.”
Lopez received an institutional grant from Stony Brook University, which provided the seed money for PAR FORE, and he worked with local community centers and politicians for help with other aspects of the program.
“Transportation was a major issue because we were taking kids from one community to another,” Lopez explains. A community youth service association was able to negotiate reduced transportation rates for the program. Also, Lopez says, local politicians were very active in getting the program up and running, and they worked with a nearby golf course to reduce course fees to $1 for both the kids and the mentors, though participation in the program free to both.
Most recently, Lopez received a grant from the United States Golf Association for $20,000, along with other grant money from the community. The boost means that starting this spring, the initial group of 17 kids ages 11 to 15 years old will swell to about 40 to 50 from nearby towns that have gang issues. The challenge now is to find enough mentors, and Lopez is reaching out to other nearby occupational therapy programs to find other students to help.
“They’re devoted to the kids for a 1-year commitment,” Lopez explains. “And only about 10% of the graduate students actually know how to golf, so they’re really learning side-by-side with the kids.”
Although PAR FORE will only celebrate its first anniversary in June 2008, it’s pretty safe to say program has hit many strokes of good fortune, and is on par for more good things to come.