Coming to America Drove Mercedes Epondulan to Success

posted 3/27/2021 Mercedes Epondulan knows how to get things done. She has to. She’s the youngest of nine siblings and arrived in the United States from the Philippines in 2006 at the tender age of 12-years-old, which is an important inflection point in the lives of virtually every pre-teen. Mercedes (L) with her sister Mary at First Tee - Pittsburgh When she arrived in Pittsburgh, her older sister’s husband suggested they get involved in “something.” One of the things he recommended was First Tee – Pittsburgh to both Mercedes and one of her sisters. Mercedes hated it. It was hard to adjust. She barely spoke English and the coaches were moving fast. She had to translate what they were saying into her language and then translate it back into English. She pushed through the early, tough times, just like they teach you to do at First Tee. As she entered Allderdice High School, her love for golf blossomed. She became a First Tee volunteer to pass on what she was learning to younger kids. She was selected for the Hank Haney Golf Academy based in Hilton Head, SC, and the Future Leaders Forum at Disney World in Florida. “I volunteered as much as I could,” she said recently. “The coaches at First Tee – Pittsburgh made learning golf fun, but they also made learning life skills interesting off the course and I wanted to pass that on.” After high school, Mercedes attended California University of Pennsylvania where she completed her degree in International Studies with a focus on business and economics. Golf and the pull of First Tee, however, kept calling her back. Now 27-years-old, Mercedes is putting her love of golf to work, helping out with the Junior Golf Program at Valley Brook County Club in McMurray, PA, as well as coordinating women’s golf activities, providing lessons and assisting in the club’s Pro Shop. She also is currently completing her LPGA certification course. “Coming from a different background all those years ago was hard,” she said. “But the coaches understood that and took the time to work with me… helping me to achieve success on and off the course. They let me know I was not alone – they were there for me.” Mercedes is aiming to pay it forward by continuing to work with young adults in their golf and life journey, including her numerous nieces and nephews in her still-growing extended family. “A long time ago I was a timid little girl but First Tee – Pittsburgh instilled confidence in me and it’s those principles and values I tapped during college and now in my professional career,” she said.

An Ace Journey 

There and back again - a Windsheimer tale: The Ace level in the First Tee Life Skills Curriculum is the highest level a participant can take part in.  A participant must be at least 14 years old and have passed all the other levels. The Ace level is made up of four projects that require introspections, exploration, and evaluation.  I like to call it the graduate school of the First Tee. First Tee of Pittsburgh has had a number of kids qualify for Ace. However, only four have completed Ace and have become part of a select national group that makes up less than 2% of First Tee participants overall.  We currently have 7 participants working through Ace. Pictured left to right: Coach Leslie Russell, Tori Slagle, Coach Eric Kulinna, Jamie Rush, Victoria Witouski, Patrick Bush, Dylan Matthews, Benito Taormina, and Coach Eric Amato. Andrew Windsheimer recently completed Ace and is now a freshman at the University of Pittsburgh studying statistics.  He started with us at age 7 and became infamous shortly thereafter. Coach Marc and Andrew were picking up from a clinic and Coach Marc had the cart.  He asked Andrew if he would like to come along. What 7-year-old wouldn’t? Unfortunately, we hadn’t gotten to the Judgment class yet. Andrew decided to dive headfirst out of the cart.  A shocked Coach Marc, concerned with Andrew’s well being, asked why he did it and his answer was simply, “I wanted to see what happened.” Luckily, everyone was ok, but it set in motion a journey that would lead Andrew to experience many unbelievable opportunities-  in a safe environment.  His outgoing spirit led FTP to ask him to be a part of our club drive at a local private club where he was asked to meet and greet members.  He was not afraid to demonstrate his skills and walked right up to hockey legend Mario Lemieux for support.  As he completed PLAYer, Par and eventually Birdie, he participated in a number of Regional and National Opportunities: the Northeast Regional at Merion CC outside of Philadelphia and Rivers Cup (a competition with Cleveland team member) were a few regional opportunities.  He was selected to the Life Skill and Leadership Academy at Michigan State and the USGA STEM camp in New Jersey (his personal favorite). He built his own stimp meter to read the speed of the greens while at the USGA STEM camp. (Andrew is on the left) His love for math and science was a driving force behind his college selection.  One of the Ace projects is to do an internal audit of what you like and dislike doing and what careers you might do that fit your interests.  This led him to explore options at a number of colleges and universities before selecting the University of Pittsburgh where he is completing a 5-year Masters program in statistics   Prior to starting college, he had a cancerous tumor, Ependymoma, removed from his brain. The tumor can cause seizures.  He is doing well now and considers himself very lucky to have caught it when he did. During his time with FTP, he informed us that the most important thing he learned was to overcome obstacles because the end result was worth it. The second hole at the Bob forces players to hit over the road, over a  fence with cars zooming by. He stated that this was very intimidating for him at a young age but, if he was going to be successful on the hole, then he had to overcome his fear.   Andrew considers himself a life-long golfer and through project 1 of Ace he learned what areas he needed to improve upon and what areas were his strengths.  His fondest memories are the friends he made locally and nationally. Andrew’s journey through Ace allowed him to discover a passion for the game, the challenges that make life worth jumping out of a cart for, and friendships that will last a lifetime. Submitted on 3-19-2020 by Coach Eric Amato, President and CEO

2019 Notes and what's coming in 2020

by Coach Eric Amato, President and CEO Thank you to everyone for a successful 2019.  We couldn't do it without all of our friends and families.   In 2019, we watched as the construction crews broke ground on the new Arnold Palmer Learning Center at The Bob O'Connor Golf Course in Schenley Park, and now we can see actual steel beams and walls in place. The expected late summer opening of the APLC can't come soon enough!!!  You may have noticed that I referred to us above as FTP and not TFTP.  That's because we are dropping the word "The" from our name, as is the entire First Tee network.  Going forward, we will be called "First Tee of Pittsburgh" and "FTP".   Also in 2019, our programming locations expanded to include Black Hawk Golf Course, Mars-Bethel Par 3, and PA Golf Academy.  This growth allowed us to provide more programming options for our kids. We also expanded our PGA Jr. League to include Victory Hills GC and All About Golf, exposing these kids more opportunities that provide positive golf experiences.   As 2020 begins, I would like to share some organizational changes.  Marc Field, former President and CEO, will be moving to the role of Director of Capital Projects, focusing on the completion of the APLC.  We hope this will be completed by late summer 2020.  Marc has guided us through tremendous growth and expansion of positive impact throughout Western PA.  I want to personally thank him for all he has done for the chapter and for me as a mentor and friend.   The board has selected me to be the new President and CEO of the organization.  I have been with FTP for 12 years in a variety of roles, most recently as the Vice President.  I am excited about the opportunity to lead FTP into the next phase of its development. The organization is almost 20 years old, and we have done some amazing things, but we have most importantly positively impacted thousands of kids in Western PA.   Please don't hesitate to reach out to me with any questions.  My email is [email protected].  I look forward to working with you and our team to make the First Tee of Pittsburgh the best it can be.   Read more about Eric in our Blog.  Click HERE for the FTP Blog.

2019 - Two area teen girls Selected for First Tee’s National Joe Louis Barrow, Jr. Life Skills & Leadership Academy

96 teens tapped nationally to attend academy in Boise, Idaho July 24-30 Canonsburg, PA Jamie Rush and Upper St. Clair, PA Victoria Slagle from First Tee of Pittsburgh are headed to the Joe Louis Barrow, Jr. Life Skills & Leadership Academy in Boise, Idaho July 24-30. Jamie and Victoria will join more than 90 junior golfers, ages 14-17, from First Tee chapters around the country at the youth leadership event. Hosted by First Tee headquarters, the academy recognizes and rewards exceptional teen participants who are prepared to build upon leadership skills introduced through programs at First Tee chapters. Top coaches in First Tee’s network deliver the golf and leadership instruction that incorporate the First Tee’s Nine Core Values in a concentrated, week-long event. Participants build skills preparing them for success beyond the golf course. They will experience championship golf, career exploration, dorm living at Boise State University and meeting other teens from around the country sharing golf as their common bond. “I am excited to meet new people, experience my first trip away from home and the opportunity to play golf every day.” Jamie Jamie is 16, will be a junior at Canon McMillan High School where she plays on the boys high school varsity team.  Jamie also is part to the Big Mac marching and concert band as well as involved with the musicals at school.   She has been part of The First Tee of Pittsburgh for 9 years and is part of Girls Golf, Travel League, the Junior Advisory Board and is a TFTP Ambassador. Tori is 15, will be a sophomore at Upper St. Claire High School where she plays on the varsity golf team and is involved in Student Council and STEAM.  She has been a part of The First Tee of Pittsburgh for 7 years and is part of Girls Golf, Travel League, the Junior Advisory Board and is a TFTP Ambassador. “We could not be more proud of the young women that Jamie and Victoria are and we are extremely excited for them to experience this amazing opportunity to meet other kids throughout The First Tee network.  I know they will come back with new friends and leadership skills that will last a life time.”  Coach Eric First Tee is a youth development organization dedicated to helping youth build character through the game of golf. Through in-school and after-school programs, it helps shape young people’s lives by reinforcing values like integrity, respect, and perseverance embedded in the game of golf. For more information, visit To request an interview with Jamie or Victoria call 412-622-0108 About The First Tee of Pittsburgh The First Tee of Pittsburgh is a nonprofit youth development organization whose mission is to impact the lives of young people by providing educational programs that build character and instill life-enhancing values through the game of golf. Since its beginning, The First Tee of Pittsburgh has expanded to reach 28,000 young people annually on golf courses, in elementary schools and at other youth-serving locations. The First Tee of Pittsburgh is one of 145 First Tee chapters across the United States and select international locations. Media Contact: Eric Amato Vice President and COO, 412-622-0108

2019 - Victoria Slawinski named 2018-2019 The First Tee Scholar

The First Tee of Pittsburgh is thrilled to announce that our participant, Victoria Slawinski was named a 2018-19 The First Tee Scholar. The Scholars Program is a distinction awarded to participants who excel in academics, leadership, character development, and chapter and community involvement. The designation of Scholar brings with it eligibility for scholarship opportunities and national events. Accepted Scholars are eligible for scholarship opportunities and the funds are paid directly to the institution of the recipient’s choice. Victoria with Annika Sorenstam In addition to being named a The First Tee Scholar, Victoria received the Chick Evans Scholarship that provides full housing and tuition for her to attend Penn State University next fall as well as the Bob Ford Leadership Award. Victoria is an ACE level participant who is active on the Junior Advisory Board. She has also played golf with Annika Sorenstam at the Broadmoor Resort in Colorado, attended a Life Skills and Leadership Academy at Michigan State University and competed in The Ace Tournament in Naples, Florida. Victoria’s opportunity to caddy at Oakmont, which led to the Evans Scholarship, as well as her many national and local opportunities has come from her participation in The First Tee of Pittsburgh programs. Victoria’s mom, Lisa, says “I'm very grateful to have found such a great place to learn golf and help reinforce all the values and lessons I teach her at home.  It takes a village of caring people to help raise great kids.  I am thankful for all the wonderful opportunities that she has been given, the people she has met, and all that she has learned over these 8 years.  Most importantly, I am so proud of her, her character and all she accomplished.  I can't wait to see what's to come!" The First Tee of Pittsburgh is also very proud of Victoria’s accomplishment. They represent the many opportunities available to all First Tee participants in addition to weekly clinics and leagues. These program opportunities are open to all young people ages 5–18 as they progress through the clinic levels. To see our spring schedule and register your child, please CLICK HERE. Submitted by:  Coach Marc Field, President and CEO

More About Victoria


2019 - First Tee Pittsburgh Ace participant wins Evans Scholarship

Victoria Slawinski, an Ace level participant from Bethel Park, has been announced as one of the 2019 Western Golf Association’s Chick Evans Scholarship winners for outstanding caddies around the country. Victoria, 18, will be attending Penn State University in the Fall, where she plans on pursuing a degree in Mechanical Engineering. The Evans Scholarship covers both tuition and housing, a value of $120,000. Through existing relationships between the First Tee of Pittsburgh and Oakmont Country Club, Victoria was recommended for a caddy position in the summer of 2016 as a 15 year old Freshman in high school. In winning this scholarship, Victoria has met high standards in academics, character, and having a record of consistency and reliability as a caddy. She currently carries a 3.83 grade point average at Bethel Park High School. Victoria came to the First Tee at the age of 10 and now, at 18, she sees how her time in the program has shaped her. “Through golf, The First Tee, and Girls Golf, I have been introduced to a multitude of people who have impacted my life in such a positive way. There are numerous amazing coaches that have influenced me and helped shape my core values. They have taught me the life skills and leadership qualities that I will need to succeed in college and beyond.” Victoria has been a junior volunteer with The First Tee of Pittsburgh for 7 years at clinics in the South Hills and at the Bob O’Connor golf course. “Volunteering is important to me because when you are serving others and making an important impact in your community, you also make an impact on yourself. It makes you feel good and gives you a sense of accomplishment too.” First Tee parents like Lisa Slawinski can appreciate the role that The First Tee plays in being an additional positive influence and support system in a child’s life. “The First Tee has been a huge influence in her life.” said Lisa. “Her interactions with coaches, staff, volunteers, and donors have given Victoria better communication skills and confidence when interacting with adults and peers.  The life skills, core values, and healthy habits that The First Tee teaches help support what I have been teaching her at home since she was a toddler.  Not only has she learned golf skills, but has learned so much more... how to be a good person!” Victoria’s transformation from a shy young girl hiding behind her mom has left a memorable impact on her long time First Tee coach and mentor, Leslie Russell. “I look back on old pictures of her now, and am amazed how fast our time together has gone, as well as Tori's incredible growth as a golfer and young lady. I am so happy for her. She has worked hard and has earned all of the wonderful opportunities she has received. It will be fun to see what is next for her!” As Victoria prepares to make her way in the world after high school, she reflected on her time in the program: “All the life skills The First Tee has taught me will help in any situation I am faced with. Whether it is a dispute on the golf course, an argument with a friend, or a low test score, I am prepared for anything life throws at me. The values I have learned helped form a basis for the leadership skills I have gained and developed through the years. Some of the most important lessons I have learned have taught me to be more confident and lead more effectively with integrity and compassion. The small steps I have taken have led to greater confidence in taking on larger roles in life. I am well prepared for college and beyond because the life and leadership skills that The First Tee has provided me will allow me to grow as a person, inspire others and lead by example.” Consistent participation in First Tee programming helped Victoria accomplish great things. Your child can begin or continue their journey this upcoming Spring with outdoor clinics beginning the week of April 22. Registration for Spring clinics begins Monday, March 25 at 9:00 a.m. Be sure to register early since some clinics fill up quickly. To see available clinics, CLICK HERE. Submitted by: Coach Jeff Lebedda, Southern Regional Manager

2019 - Victoria Witouski and Victoria slagle represent tftp at the chubb classic in naples, florida

Along with Coach Rio Hawkins, Victoria Witouski and Victoria Slagle attended the Golf to Paradise First Tee Champions Challenge at Quail Creek Country Club and Lely Resort in Naples, Florida. "It was a wonderful experience and a quite a privilege for our girls from Pittsburgh," said Coach Rio. Two participants from 12 different chapters were invited to compete against each other in a three-day event.  The participating chapters were: Philadelphia, Indiana, Chicago, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Twin Cities, Naples, Northwest Arkansas, Triangle, West Michigan, Washington DC, and Roanoke Valley. The Chubb Classic once again partnered with the Naples, Marco Island & Everglades and The First Tee for the annual Golf to Paradise—First Tee Champions Challenge. This three-day competition, Feb. 15 – 17, 2019, gave two participants from 12 different First Tee chapters (24 total participants) an opportunity to play at the Quail Creek Country Club in Naples during the Chubb Classic. During the February 2019 event, 24 participants played a total of 27 holes of competition (nine holes each day) with a different format each day. On Friday, the teams played in a "scramble", followed by a "modified alternate shot" on Saturday and closing with a "better ball" format on Sunday. Final scoring was based on total points earned each day.  Following play on Sunday, Catherine Vivongsy and Tyla McAffity from The First Tee of The Triangle and Ryan Myer and Brendan Cleary from The First Tee of Greater Chicago were announced the winners of the 2019 event. All participants also had a chance to participate in a clinic and they all attended a PGA TOUR Superstore private event filled with fun putting games, prizes and shopping. The private PGA TOUR Superstore event concluded with a trip to the Naples Beach. Although we didn’t win the tournament, we did win a lot of new friends and connections.  When asked if they had fun, the girls said, "indeed we did". Submitted by: Coach Rio Hawkins, City Regional Manager

2019 - Michael Quallich headed to Augusta

Michael Quallich, a participant of The First Tee of Pittsburgh in the South Hills, will be on his way this April to the Augusta National Golf Club for the finals of the Drive, Chip and Putt competition. Michael, a 9 year old (Par 3 level) player, finished first in his age group at the Drive, Chip and Putt regional qualifier in September 2018 at Muirfield Village in Dublin, Ohio.  His regional victory qualified him for the finals at Augusta National during this year’s Masters week. Michael said he really enjoys clinics, and especially likes the golf related games he gets to play.  He identified Perseverance as the Core Value that has helped him the most, “Because when you hit a bad shot you shouldn’t walk away, you should redo it until you hit a better one.”  Michael credits lessons learned at The First Tee of Pittsburgh with having, “helped me do better and keep going on hard questions in school, and have confidence on a test.” Michael, and his sister Bea, have been a part of The First Tee programs for the last three years, and he currently participates in Winter indoor programming at the Wallace School Building in Baldwin. His parents, Justin and Missy Quallich, believe that The First Tee of Pittsburgh has benefited their children in many ways.  “The Core Values that The First Tee is based on are values that we have tried to instill in Mike and his sisters since birth.  The First Tee has provided the added outside assistance of driving those crucial points home with them. The First Tee allows them to experience and practice those values in an uncommon scenario (golf) which they then carry over to school, home or any situation.” Participation in The First Tee of Pittsburgh programs not only prepares kids like Michael for life’s challenges, but also offers national leadership and scholarship opportunities otherwise unavailable to students outside of the program. Watch for Michael in the finals of this year’s competition to be broadcast live on the Golf Channel on Sunday, April 7. If you want your child to learn the skills that Michael is learning, choose a programming location near you, and register for our Spring Classes that begin April 22, 2019.  Registration will open March 25, 2019. Submitted by: Coach Jeff Lebedda, Southern Regional Manager
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