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Tiger Woods Learning Center continues to help kids with education

Tiger Woods
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BETHESDA, Md. – Yes, this is another story about Tiger Woods, but this isn’t another story about Tiger Woods. There will be no debate here over the quest toward a major championship record, no breakdown of distance control with his wedges and no conjecture about an impending return from elbow injury.

That’s because this isn’t about Tiger Woods the golfer. Or Tiger Woods the pitchman. Or even Tiger Woods the celebrity.

This is a story about Tiger Woods the educator – or perhaps more to the point, Tiger Woods the facilitator of education.

You’ve undoubtedly heard of his eponymous Tiger Woods Learning Center, which now consists of five facilities around the country with one more opening in the next few months. But maybe you don’t quite realize how each of these provide invaluable educational resources for underprivileged children. Perhaps you’re pessimistic about Woods’ personal commitment, believing they serve more as tax shelters and public image boosters.

Even for those less skeptical, there’s an excellent chance you still don’t understand just how much Woods is involved – if not on a daily basis, at least as part of the overall mission. Well, start taking notes. The man is far from a philanthropic figurehead.

“People don’t really see what we’re doing here,” he says from the AT&T National, which will once again benefit TWLC. “Whether I’m recognized for that or not, who knows? Right now I’m a player and that’s what they see a lot of times. Most people don’t really understand what we’re doing for kids and how many kids we’ve helped so far.”

The numbers are staggering. Since the implementation of the first TWLC in Anaheim, Calif., seven years ago, more than 100,000 students have been served by the programs. Almost every one of them has come from less than modest means. Many were on the road to becoming high school dropouts. Now they’re either in college or on their way there.

One by one, the stories are uplifting and inspirational. Even the most jaded souls among us will recognize how a little help can make a big impact.

“It’s helped me learn how to lead better, especially during my video production classes. You have to be able to communicate with everybody and make sure you, the director, the cameramen and the actors all know what they’re doing. You’re putting together a piece that not only takes one vision, but all united to make it come through. It’s helped me build structure and incorporate that.” – Elmu Sadalah, TWLC student, 2010-present.

The staggering numbers don’t just come in volume.

There is the breakdown, with minorities serving as a majority in these programs. According to the TWLC’s own demographic research: Hispanic/Latino make up 75.2 percent; Asian 11.6 percent; White 8.32 percent; Black 3.9 percent; American Indian/Alaska native 0.5 percent.

An average of 15 students each year are named Earl Woods Scholars. Of these, 87 percent are first generation college students. They come from an average family income of $36,000. Their top areas of study are biomedical sciences and engineering; psychology; computer science; and political science.

Their college retention from first year to second year is 100 percent. They’ve traveled to more than 15 countries to study abroad. They’ve interned and worked for places such as NASA, Pixar and PricewaterhouseCoopers.

And every single one has obtained a bachelor’s degree.

“The first class I took five years ago was an engineering class. Right away, I thought it was the best thing ever. The teachers are really what make the experience great – they make you enjoy what you’re learning about and they engage with the students.” – Edgar Perez, TWLC student, 2008-13.

Kathy Bihr has served as the vice president of education and programs since before the first TWLC facility was ever established. Even she remains surprised at the program’s outreach during such a limited time frame.

“We all thought it would be a very slow growth model,” she explains. “It took off almost immediately. Initially we would have just been happy slow-growing it over time, but it’s resonated with kids; it’s put college on the radar for kids who wouldn’t have considered it. There are more young people now who are more confident with what they want to choose as a career path.”

For his part, Woods credits those chosen career paths with a conscious decision to teach students about various occupations within a chosen field.

“Our centers have created this great environment for the kids to learn,” he explained. “We ask them what they would like to learn. One kid might say, ‘I want to be a rapper.’ Well, you may not become a rapper, but what about the recording industry? We explain to them all of the different types of things that go into being an artist. You don’t have to be the singer. There are so many different jobs and opportunities. Don’t be so pigeonholed in your views.”

“I’m the oldest of seven children. I have three brothers and three sisters. I’m going to be the first one going to college and I get to be a role model to my brothers. It’s exciting.” -- Marcus Edwards, TWLC student, 2010-13.

“How vital is Tiger?”

Bihr repeats the question to herself, a question that nearly everyone who knows the name attached to TWLC asks sooner rather than later.

“He’s critical,” she claims. “He really had a vision for what he wanted to see accomplished for kids. In that regard, I think he’s really critical. He’s interested in what we have going on, he makes suggestions on different things. He’s our biggest cheerleader and supporter. Forget about the money for a minute, which is substantial. He’s our biggest cheerleader because he’s seen a change in these kids.”

Don’t take her word for it, though. Ask the students.

“He’s a leader,” Sadalah says. “He’s always taken the lead to do something no one else has done. Creating the Tiger Woods Foundation is something you don’t see many people doing. And he goes above and beyond the call of duty. To come see our students like he did a few weeks ago. He talked with us, he interacted with us. He’s a pretty cool dude.”

Sadalah, a native of Sierra Leone who moved to the Washington D.C. area at age 7, will return for his senior year in the fall. He plans to mentor younger students and hopes to become a lawyer someday.

“Everything he’s done for us, he made all of this possible,” Perez says. “Whenever someone asks, ‘Who’s your hero?’ Tiger is the person who comes to mind because he led to all of the possibilities that will help me become successful in the future. He doesn’t know what a difference he’s making in some of our lives.”

Perez has enrolled at Reed College, where he will dual major in electrical engineering and physics.

“I feel like he’s a role model for me,” Edwards says. “I can reminisce back to when I was in first grade, my art teacher had a picture of Tiger Woods hanging up. He was always an inspiration to me. I was like, I want to be like Tiger when I grow up. Thanks to him establishing the Tiger Woods Learning Center, it’s given me the opportunity to better my education.”

Edwards will go to Kentucky State University this fall, the first person in his family to attend college. He plans to become either a police officer or a federal agent.

As for Woods, he’s proud of the students and proud of the teachers that have worked with them to achieve goals they previously didn’t even know they had.

Asked whether people would be surprised if they knew Tiger Woods – the golfer, the pitchman, the celebrity – was so heavily involved in the learning centers with his name on them, he doesn’t hesitate.

“Probably,” he says with a shrug. “Probably.”