This is a spotlight in our emerging leaders series where we profile under-30 changemakers doing great work with youth.
The Chuney sisters are triplets and, as such, tend to do things together. That was especially true in their youth. Always involved in extracurriculars, the Chuneys were active kids, joining the Brownies, Girl Scouts, and whatever other after-school programs they could find.
So it wasn't unusual when Alandra Chuney's two sisters, Alycia and Alayna, came home after school from Cass Tech one day saying that they found a new after-school program. And it definitely wasn't unusual for one sister to enlist the other two.
What might have been slightly unusual, however, was the fact that this program centered around something that Alandra had never given much thought: Golf.
"We did everything together. So, if they're going, I'm gonna go," Alandra says.
Funny, then, that Alandra's the one that ended up with a career at Midnight Golf Program
, which uses golf as a means of youth empowerment. This November, she celebrates two years as director of student support, where she works one-on-one with the students enrolled in the program, helping them apply for colleges, fill out financial aid forms, and much more.
"It started as just another thing to get involved in. I didn't think it would end up being so prominent in my life," she says. "It was the fact that twice a week, we had somewhere to go. In addition to golf, we learned so much more: Life skills, the networking, the mentoring. It helped me become a better citizen, better at life."
That's because Midnight Golf is bigger than the sport itself. While it uses golf as both a hook and a teaching tool, Midnight Golf is actually a self-empowerment and mentorship program. Participating students enroll in a 30-week-long life skills program where they're assigned mentors that help them transition from high school to college. What's more is that Midnight Golf mentors stick with students through college, making sure they complete their higher education, too.
After enrolling in the program her senior year of high school, Chuney went on to earn an undergraduate degree from Michigan State University and a masters in social work from Wayne State University. She became a Midnight Golf mentor at 25 years old, the minimum age.
Though she loved it, Chuney's workload as a children's mental health therapist meant she was squeezed for time, threatening her ability to continue mentoring. She was faced with the prospect of leaving the program, but then was offered a position as director of student support.
Now she gets to practice what she studied and work with the young people of Midnight Golf.
Students of the program learn everything from networking skills to sex education. They even get lessons on topics smaller in scope, like how to tie a tie or write a thank you note.
Students and mentors also gather twice a week for prepared dinners. Chuney says that, as a mentor, she's fielded late night calls and texts from students regarding the seemingly banal to the unquestionably serious.
"Sometimes all they need is that one push," she says.
There's a week-long road trip, where students are given golf clubs, jackets, polos, book bags, and more while they and their mentors take a bus ride to college campuses around the country and play golf along the way. Locally, students golf at Beech Woods Golf Course in Southfield. They also receive golf lessons from PGA professionals.
While golf, and sports in general, weren't initially a big passion of hers, Chuney has ultimately learned a lot from it. Golf demands loyalty and honesty. As a sport primarily for individuals, it teaches you that you can be your own competition. Golf can be frustrating, so it requires persistence and patience. And it gets you outside.
"It is a quiet sport. It is a quiet game. It helps you be there with yourself," says Alandra. "You realize how beautiful nature is, how stillness can be, how patience can be."
Model D asked Alandra Chuney about herself and her work in Detroit.
How is being 28 years old an asset in the work you do?
I can still have empathy. I can still say what was it like to be 18, what was I like when I was 17. I'm not too far removed. I was there about ten years ago: You might not wanna do this, or that. It helps being relatable and creative.
Students don't learn or take stuff in the same way that we used to. When you are still youthful, and you are still somewhat wise, it helps you get a nice blend. I know the latest songs, the latest trends, but it's being youthful and wise. Being a mentor and being a mentee in the program, I was sitting where they're sitting.
How do issues like race and diversity affect or inform your work?
Our students are still applying for college now. Some other places, the kids already know where they're going by now. Our students are still trying to figure that out, because of systematic racism when it comes to education, to poverty. They're still trying to figure out what they want to do and how they're going to do it.
We also have students that come from the more elite schools where they're the only black kid in the school. And they come to Midnight Golf and they're like, "Oh my God, I can be around black people that are successful and not be talked about, and not face racism here. I can literally come here and be my black self, be an African-American and just be comfortable doing that. Instead of being in a school and having to change a few things to fit in."
I think we help with that, too. It's fine to be an African American. It's fine to be intelligent, it's fine to be successful.
When they go on campus, we teach them to sit in the front of the class, to ask questions. We teach them how to network. We give them all those skills that can help them advance.
This article is part of Michigan Nightlight, a series of stories about the programs and people that positively impact the lives of Michigan kids. It is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Read more in the series here.
All photos by Nick Hagen.