HAINES CITY – If there’s one thing people can always count on doing in large numbers across Central Florida, it’s playing golf.
“It’s the thing to do around here,” said Betsy Weddington Aycock, executive director of the Haines City/Northeast Polk County Chamber of Commerce.
And when a community like Haines City hosts a nationally-recognized golf course like the Southern Dunes Golf & Country Club, that makes it even more irresistible to hold a fund-raising event there, particularly if an organization like the Chamber is hoping to raise money for a youth scholarship program.
There’s only one problem, Aycock said – a lot of other communities have the same idea.
“We hated to reschedule it, but we really wanted it to be successful,” she said.
With an offer for players to win cash and raffle prizes at the Chamber’s Invitational Golf Tournament on Friday, May 4, the Haines City Chamber had high hopes that they could raise money to keep alive the Youth Leadership & Scholarship programs. Teams were slated to play a 4-person scramble format at Southern Dunes, with hole sign up sponsorships for $100.
But on Tuesday, the Chamber’s executive board voted to postpone this fund-raising event until October. The problem: competition from other local golf tournaments, including one in neighboring Lake Wales on the same day.
“We had a golf committe meeting this morning, and we have had to reschedule it until October because we just found out we were up against a big tournament at Mountain Lake (Golf Resort in Lake Wales) on the same day,” Aycock said on Tuesday. “A lot of our members are split members.”
Rather than force those members to pick between the two tournaments, Haines City decided to host its fund-raiser in October, which is what they’ve done in the past.
“That’s when we had it last year and it was very successful,” she said.
The reason it was pushed up to May this year, Aycock added, is because “When we were looking at it last year, we ran unto high school football games, and it was put together at the last minute. It was a success, but we felt in May we’d still have some of our winter visitors here.”
But now the May tournament is out – although the program that this fund-raiser was designed to benefit is not.
“It is strictly to benefit our Youth Leadership Program,” Aycock said. “That program is about 13 years old, and it’s for 11th graders in our area high schools.”
In the past decade, more than 156 students have participated in this leadership program, which serves up to 13 eleventh grade students. It started in 1998, when a group of Chamber volunteers developed it to raise awareness among the high school students about opportunities in their community. Students with a history of volunteer activities and a high academic performance get selected each fall from dozens of applications, and start an eight-month curriculum that exposes them to the inner-workings of local, county and state government, as well as Haines City area businesses.
Students travel together to different venues each month for an entire day of hands-on learning.
“We take applications from the high schools and have our chairs interview the students and pick 13 out of that, and then for one day a month they will meet at the Chamber and go to Bartow and learn about the government, or have a technology day,” Aycock said. “Each day is dedicated to a certain industry. They learn what’s here in Haines City, and they have some leadership training.”
Part of their goal, Aycock said, is to encourage students to think about coming back to Haines City after they graduate from college, and settling down here.
“The whole idea is that being that they’re 11th graders, we pick the best of the best, and hopefully when they graduate and go off to college, they’ll have a reason to come back here and settle down and work here,” she said.
“They take a trip once a month to understand the basic components that make up their community,” said the current leadership co-chair, Jenna Register Emerson, who graduated in Leadership Class II.
“They meet with the presidents and CEOs and owners of these companies, so that puts them in connection with people they can potentially work for,” Emerson said. “Then they get to see behind the scenes how things operate. It definitely helps in those capacities, and it just shows that these kids are leaders in their schools. I know they really enjoy it when they make those connections.”
It also helps them understand there definitely are opportunities here for them in the future, she added.
“A lot of times, they think there’s nothing to do in Haines City, there’s no opportunities here, and this shows them that — yes, there is,” she said. “They’re able to hear information they would never hear otherwise.”