By Stacey Collins
Sometimes a person’s life comes full circle. For Jon Gomez, the game of golf has guided his journey since he was a teenager. In 2001, Gomez launched Training on Wheels, an SCGA Foundation beneficiary that introduces golf to underserved youth in Ventura County, where Gomez grew up. His passion for the game doesn’t stop at the sportsmanship of it, but the influence it can have on a person’s life. He teaches children basic instruction on golf, but also the life skills one can learn from the game—lessons that some kids may not have the opportunity to learn elsewhere.
Using golf as the rudder to help steer a youth’s life in the right direction is a familiar pattern for Gomez. When he was a teenager who was starting to drift toward trouble, an uncle introduced him to golf, hoping to maneuver him away from the wrong crowd. The plan worked, and the summer that Gomez turned 15 he’d play 45 holes of golf three times a week. “I’ve never not played golf since then,” says Gomez.
After considering a career as a police officer, Gomez realized what he really wanted to do was become a golf professional. Aware that he would benefit from some distance from the community in which he grew up, he left home to grow and change and learn new skills. His travels eventually took him to the foothills of Phoenix, Arizona, where he learned to teach golf professionally. His time there was a maturation process.
“It was the combination of the people I met and experiences I had,” Gomez says, “where I learned how to become a harder worker.”
It was during this time he discovered he loved to interact with people, and the seeds of giving back were planted. Gomez began to appreciate what had been given to him, and he realized he “wanted to take what people have taught me and help someone else.”
He returned to his home in Ventura County a matured man, with a knowledge of the game of golf and the desire to share it with others. As the director of instruction at Sterling Hills Golf Club in Camarillo, he wanted to find new and unique methods to reach kids in a way that hadn’t been done before. He approached local schools on his own and volunteered his time teaching kids the fundamentals of golf.
On a fateful evening in the Fall of 2001, Gomez attended a Ventura County Junior Golf Association board meeting to pitch his idea to introduce underprivileged youth to the game of golf. They gave him the financial aid to continue. About four years ago, the SCGA Foundation stepped in and began its relationship with Gomez’s program. His initiative has paid off—since 2001, Training on Wheels has served more than 4,000 students. He now has four paid instructors helping him.
The instructors visit local schools, the YMCA and Boys & Girls Clubs in underserved communities to find kids who may be interested in learning the game. Gomez and his instructors arrive with portable hitting nets and golf whiffle balls. If there isn’t a field, the group sets up shop in the gym or cafeteria. Some of the neighborhoods Gomez visits are in close proximity to where he grew up. He’s hoping that golf will have the same influence on these kids as it had on him, and keep them safe.
Gomez emphasizes that the poverty-stricken areas he visits can offer a harsh life. Because of SCGA Foundation scholarships, youth who otherwise couldn’t afford the program are able to enroll. “It’s because of the SCGA we’re able to do this for these kids,” says Gomez. “Some have seen some pretty bad stuff, such as stabbings and drug-dealing in their neighborhoods, and we’ll go anywhere to find kids to introduce to the game.”
Gomez’s program became the outreach for the kids who showed interest, and some continue on to a golf academy created by Rustic Canyon Golf Course’s director of instruction, Dan Martin. The great part about it is that some of the teens on Martin’s tour are put through a training session on how to become mentors as well. Much like Gomez, these teens are taking what they learn and sharing it with others.
The SCGA Foundation also helps fund a summer program Gomez set up at River Ridge Golf Club in Oxnard. On Monday evenings he takes different junior groups out to the fairway. Some weeks it’s the Special Olympians, other weeks it’s Pause for Kids, a program for children with autism.
Gomez’s struggles in his youth led to his redemption, transforming him into someone who is truly making a difference in the lives of others. At times it’s hard to measure the impact of programs like Training on Wheels. There’s the short-term gain of keeping kids off the street, but when one considers a different path students might have taken without the influence of golf and the mentors they meet on the fairway, it is clear that the program’s role in their lives is significant. Someday these children will contribute to society as productive adults. Perhaps among them is a future Jon Gomez, who will continue the cycle of helping those less fortunate.
Gomez encourages people to volunteer their time by becoming a mentor. Programs like Big Brothers Big Sisters, Special Olympics and Pause 4 Kids, along with local YMCAs and Boys & Girls Clubs, are always in need of people willing to help kids see a better way.
“You will never feel more fulfilled than by helping out someone who needs more help than you,” says Gomez. “It helps you grow as a person.”