Randolph Park golfers

Students from Randolph Park Elementary School show off their golf skills during a kickoff ceremony for the First Tee, a national program aimed at teaching character values through the game. (Kirsten Fiscus/ The Anniston Star)

Malia Russell stepped up to a small plastic golf tee in the gymnasium of Randolph Park Elementary School on Monday and set her feet apart.

With her hands clasped around a plastic golf club, Russell, a fourth-grader, pulled the club back and swung forward, hitting the golf ball-sized tennis ball across half the room.

“I like this,” she said smiling. “I like it because it’s cool.”

Russell and about 20 other students on Monday practiced putting and driving the miniature tennis balls as members of the Anniston City Council, Parks and Recreation Department, Police Department and board of education celebrated the kickoff of the First Tee elementary school program.

In October, the Anniston Police Department hosted a golf tournament at the Cane Creek golf course to raise money for the program. On Monday, Anniston police Sgt. Kyle Price said the department gave about $3,750 to pay for equipment and training classes for teachers.

Steven Folks, parks and recreation director, said on Monday that for several years he’d hoped to start the First Tee, a national program aimed at teaching nine core values through the game of golf.

“It was a collaborative effort,” Folks said. “Today I saw some aspiring golfers and smiles but more importantly I saw young children learning life lessons.”

The program was introduced into schools’ curriculum in 2004, and more than 9,000 elementary schools across the nation now participate, according to the program’s website. Randolph Park Elementary is the first school in Anniston to have the program, Folks said.

“We’re hoping to expand it to 10th Street Elementary next,” he said.

Glenn Barefoot, the school’s physical education teacher, said he started the program with the students when they returned from Christmas vacation.

“The only way Anniston will succeed is for the community to come together and rally behind these children,” he said, speaking to everyone in attendance. “This is a great example of everyone working together to make that happen.”

Edward Montgomery supervised a group of five children as they encouraged one another to hit a flag about 10 feet away from them.

“I grew up in Anniston City Schools,” Montgomery said. “Mr. Folks took a chance on me after I graduated high school and gave me a job at the municipal golf course.”

Montgomery said it was after taking the job that he learned to play golf.

“My co-workers teased me about not knowing how to play since I worked at a golf course so they taught me,” he said. “Golf has taught me to have patience. These kids have a better chance to learn a lot from the game while they’re still young. Maybe it’ll help them stay focused and make better decisions when they’re older.”

​Staff writer Kirsten Fiscus: 256-235-3563. On Twitter @kfiscus_star.