- Associated Press - Monday, October 9, 2017

BATTLE CREEK, Mich. (AP) - With equipment that wasn’t working, unplayable turf and tall grass, Custer Greens Golf Course was sitting useless by the Battle Creek VA Medical Center.

There are all kinds of shows dedicated to fixer-uppers on television. Plenty of individuals take on fixer-uppers as personal projects. Golf courses aren’t what people usually have in mind in that situation.

For New Level Sports, a golf course was just a challenge and another way to expand its youth village. Without the help of Kalamazoo Country Club, however, fixing up the golf course would have been a hard goal to meet for New Level Sports, which lacked the expertise or equipment to do so.

Chris does such a great job with the kids and the VA really wanted to get the golf course operational too,” said John Fulling, the superintendent at Kalamazoo Country Club. “They use it for the vets and people coming through the hospital as well. Two great causes.”

Fulling brought others from the Kalamazoo Country Club as well as their equipment to Custer Greens in the afternoons and spent about a month getting it back into shape, he said.

“It really worked out well,” Fulling told the Battle Creek Enquirer . “It was really a labor of love, certainly not a hard choice. Was it substantial? Yeah, but that’s definitely not, certainly not the emphasis, not on what it took to do it. I’d do it again. I will do it again. And the club is totally behind it. The club loved it.”

The New Level Sports youth village is a comprehensive project with the goal of creating an afterschool safe space for children and provide resources and opportunities for them. It includes sports clubs, a farm, career advice, afterschool childcare and more. The golf course is just another addition to that list of resources for the children.

It’s New Level Sports’ second full year on the course. New Level Sports has also developed a partnership with Michigan State University to create a golf management program that will teach high schoolers turf and golf course management.

“We began to visualize a plan to introduce kids not only to golf, but the science and business behind golf,” said Chris McCoy, executive director of New Level Sports.

The pilot version of the program ran this summer, as a 13-week session, with five high schoolers from the Goodwill Connects program. Goodwill Connects is a Battle Creek program that aims to promote high school graduation, college and career readiness for students by exposing them to internships and other work opportunities.

“I think it’s wonderful,” said Trey Rogers, a Michigan State University professor whose specialty is turf grass management and science. “My hopes are they’ll enjoy it and they’ll want to pursue it and even if they don’t enjoy and pursue it that they gain respect for those that do.”

Rogers’s role with the program is as a resource. He’s done assessments of the Custer Greens course and equipment, helped educate staff and given lectures to the students on turf management. One of his graduate students, Thomas Green, helps out more directly with the golf course.

The program will involve an introduction to the game of golf at an elementary level, introduction to golf business management and science in junior high and a turf management elective at high school level that will let students graduate with a certificate in turf management from MSU. That certificate can help them get into the university’s turf management program.

The curriculum was adapted from MSU’s turf management curriculum to a more introductory level appropriate for the younger students. The pilot version went well enough that Kalamazoo Country Club is looking into running their own version of the program for Kalamazoo students, Fulling said.

The funding for it comes from different sources. Battle Creek Community Foundation helped fund the pilot program, and McCoy isn’t worried about continuing to get support. It also helped that Goodwill Connects paid the high schoolers in the pilot program for their summer work.

“As it evolves, more resources will come,” McCoy said. “If you got a good product, people will get behind your product, especially if it’s to educate kids. Especially with the partnership with MSU.”

McCoy is also looking to make golf club an option for children. Unlike the golf management program, for which the goal is to be free for students, this would be like a regular football club with membership fees.

Though the golf course is mostly being used by veterans and children, McCoy wants people to know that it will be a public golf course.

In time, New Level Sports will add a pro shop and bring the clubhouse to a level where it can function as a standard golf clubhouse.

“From there we want people to know it’s a public course, not just for veterans or kids,” McCoy said. “One of the challenges is getting people to believe in Custer Greens again.”

The infrastructure of the youth village is changing, especially with the addition of the golf course. But that isn’t a bad thing.

“There’s two thoughts here: I need the village built, I don’t necessarily need the money,” McCoy said. “I just need it built. So it helps people know if they can’t contribute money, they can help build, which reduces costs. Partnerships are really important.”

Those partnerships include the VA Medical Center, help from Fulling and Rogers, as well as other community members who volunteer with New Level Sports.

“You have different people or supporters who want to support different things within the village,” he said. “So if they give us resources for the farm, we’re going to develop the farm now. We’re not going to wait to gather a lump sum of money to begin.”

In that vein, the football field that was part of the original youth village plan is basically paid for, with plans for construction to start in early March 2018 and to have kids playing on it by August that year.

Other changes to the village include moving where the daycare was going to be built, which makes room for a career training center, repurposing a warehouse they originally intended to remove, as well as moving the farm. New Level Sports has already sold the farm and is in the midst of purchasing a new one.

“This village is creating unity in our community that has been unseen before, and I’ve been proactive and intentional about inviting people and organizations into this village, and it’s causing a unification” McCoy said. “I think it’s important to the development of Battle Creek, I think it’s vital for the survival for our youth, our urban youth.

“I’m just excited to see what else is to come. When we started New Level Sports, I didn’t think this is where we would come, to a village.”

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Information from: Battle Creek Enquirer, https://www.battlecreekenquirer.com

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