Former East Lake Golf Club caddy returns to pursue dream — as teacher

Rob Richardson quickly fell in love with golf after being given his first set of clubs at age 9.

He started competing in junior tournaments within a matter of weeks, and by the time college rolled around, he was swinging his way to playing the game professionally. But while studying at Winthrop University in South Carolina (on a golf scholarship), he decided to switch career paths and become a teacher.

So he moved back to Atlanta and enrolled in a program at Georgia State to become a math and science teacher. But golf would remain a central part of his life with the East Lake community becoming the place where his affinity for golf and his passion for teaching would be woven together.

While pursuing his degree at GSU, he secured a job as a caddy at East Lake Golf Club to help pay for his education. The course will be the host of the annual Tour Championship by Coca-Cola on Sept. 11-14.

The East Lake Golf Club’s founding sponsor companies have contributed more than $20 million to the East Lake Foundation to revitalize the neighborhood. Net proceeds from operations of the club along with the Tour Championship also go to the foundation to support East Lake community programs.

The foundation also played a role in Richardson’s path.

While caddying between 2006 and 2012, Richardson obtained almost $9,000 in college scholarships from the East Lake Foundation’s Charlie Harrison Scholarship fund, which helps employees at the East Lake Golf Club and the Charlie Yates Golf Course obtain college degrees. (The fund is named after Georgia Amateur Golf Hall of Famer Charlie Harrison, an East Lake resident and instructor.)

While working as a caddy three to five days a week, Richardson watched the East Lake neighborhood, long mired in poverty and violence, undergo a dramatic transformation — brick by brick, and book by book. Much of the changes centered around Drew Charter School, which opened in 2001 and sits on the edge of the Charlie Yates and East Lake Golf Club courses.

The East Lake Foundation raised $15 million to build Drew Charter School in 2000 and raised millions more funds to build other new community assets, including affordable mixed-income housing, an early learning center and recreational resources in East Lake. A community once known as “Little Vietnam” was beginning to thrive and providing education for children from 6 weeks through the end of high school, with the addition of the new Drew Charter Senior Academy.

“The East Lake Foundation made an investment in this community and they made an investment in me,” said Richardson, now 27. “I felt a special connection here.”

Once Richardson obtained his master’s degree in teaching from Georgia State University, he got jobs at Tucker Middle School and Chamblee Middle School. Still, he felt a pull to Drew Charter School, so when an opening came up last year, he jumped at the chance.

“This is a place where students are set up for success,” Richardson said. “This is something I wanted to be a part of.”

As 30 of the best golfers from around the globe compete in the Tour Championship, the final stop in the PGA Tour, the tournament is expected to raise at least $2 million for the East Lake Foundation.

The foundation not only helps fund Drew Charter School, but also several other cradle-to-college education programs including early learning services, after-school and summer programs, and college and career prep programs, and community wellness programs.

On a recent morning, Richardson teaches a lesson about meteors and meteorites, while a group of sixth-graders jot down notes in colorful flip books. Virtually every student meets or exceeds standards in reading, math and language arts on state standardized tests.

Eleven-year-old Eryn Boone, a sixth-grader who’s in her first year at the charter school, praised her teacher for being upbeat and creatively approaching science lessons. She particularly loves Friday science experiments. Richardson started the year with a lesson on teaching his students about developing a scientific method (stating the problem, gathering the information, forming a hypothesis and so on) by getting kids to answer the question of how many colors of each M&M filled each bag.

More recently, students went outside and measured how far they jumped on Earth (she jumped 6 feet) and translated that into distances on other planets. (Eryn learned she would be able to jump a whopping 36 feet on the moon.)

In many ways, it’s not a surprise Richardson ended up becoming a teacher. Both of his parents are retired high school teachers. (His mother, Jean Richardson, taught high school math; his father, Steve Richardson, high school English.) Richardson, who graduated from Parkview High School in 2005, recalled growing up marveling at his parents’ unwavering enthusiasm for teaching.

“Everyone would come up to me and say, ‘Your dad is so great’ and ‘Your mom is so great.’ They were very well respected,” he said.

And now, Richardson is becoming one of those kinds of teachers.

“He probably is my favorite teacher,” Eryn said. “He just makes school work a lot of fun.”

His sport of choice is now triathlons — he completes Olympic distance triathlons in just over two hours, placing him in the top 10 percent in his age group. But golf remains a major piece of his life.

In a room full of natural light and models of planets, Richardson looks out a window in which you can see the East Lake Golf Club in the distance. He plops down into a swivel blue chair. He is where he belongs — inside a classroom.

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