The Giving Tee: How one teenager has been using golf to help children in need

Rafe Cochran in Haiti

In 2017, Rafe uplifted the pretty darn natty students of Chester Primary, in Jamaica.

Courtesy of Palm Beach Day Academy

The drive to help others can take hold at any stage in life. Sometimes a specific experience changes a person and inspires them to give back. Others describe a philanthropic spirit that comes from the soul.

For Rafe Cochran, the calling came at the ripe old age of nine. When the now-14-year-old junior golfer isn’t swinging a 7-iron, he’s swinging a hammer, helping to build and raise money for new homes and schools for underprivileged kids in Haiti and Jamaica. He’s been at it for almost six years.

It all began for Rafe in third grade. A local organization called Food for the Poor visited his class at South Florida’s Palm Beach Day Academy to teach children about global citizenship, social responsibility and, specifically, the suffering of people in Haiti and Jamaica. The organization’s motto — Saving Lives, Transforming Communities, Renewing Hope — hit the youngster like a thunderbolt. 

“I just stopped for a second,” he says. “I thought, Look at how fortunate we all are in America, and look at what they’re going through in these other countries.”

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For Rafe and his classmates, Food for the Poor painted a vivid picture of kids their age living in huts without roofs and in homes that had been destroyed by storms, mudslides and hurricanes. Rafe needed to know more.

“I’d say that he’s a very compassionate person — curious, very driven, extremely competitive,” says Rafe’s dad, Jay Cochran, a former pro race-car driver. “Whether it’s school, surfing or golf, he strives for excellence.”

Rafe’s parents tagged along on their son’s third-grade field trip to the Food for the Poor headquarters in Coconut Creek, Fla., and that’s where the boy’s curiosity soared.

“We’re on this tour of the facility, and all of a sudden we realize Rafe is gone,” Diahann Cochran says of her son. “We eventually found him off on his own, talking with the projects manager, Delane Bailey-Herd. He was telling her his plan, and how he was going to help.”

“I was impressed with his level of intelligence,” says Bailey-Herd. “When he shared that he was going to help us, I had no idea it would be on such a grand scale.”

Rafe’s pitch was simple: Use golf to help those in need. And so a nine-year-old launched a golf tournament that would eventually raise more than $300,000.

Rafe balances his time between golf and his charity and cites Jack Nicklaus as an inspiration for juggling the two worlds.

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Now in its fifth year, the Rafe Cochran Golf Classic is supported by the Palm Beach community. Rafe’s well-networked mom and dad certainly helped get the tournament on its feet, but make no mistake, the kid runs the show. He finds sponsors, organizes the day’s activities and helps distribute the cash that’s raised.

“I don’t know where such compassion comes from, but it’s there,” his father says. “He saw what people were going through, it touched him and he decided that this is what he needs to do to make himself feel whole.”

On his travels to Haiti with Food for the Poor, Rafe has encountered some of the folks who’ve benefited from his charity event. “When I was in one of the villages,” he says, “I met a 15-year-old girl who had two children. The father of the children was gone, and she was living in this little mud hut. I felt the pain that she was going through. She was telling me how the roof of her hut collapsed every time it rained. At the time, she was only three years older than me!”

The next day, Rafe secured a few sponsors, emptied his savings account and donated a home for the young mom.

Last year was a banner year for the Rafe Cochran Golf Classic, as the tournament raised a record $118,000. The 2020 edition was postponed due to the pandemic, but Rafe continues to help. When he’s not virtual schooling or practicing his short game, he’s been raising money through social media to fund the construction of a new building at Holland High School, in Trelawny, Jamaica.

“I heard the principal of one school in Jamaica speak about the desperate and dire need for a safe building, and how his prayers were answered by a young boy,” says Bailey-Herd. “They were shocked.”

Rafe’s golf career — which got started with a class trip to the Breakers — is also ascendant. He’s transitioned from U.S. Kids Golf events to prestigious AJGA tournaments. He balances his time between golf and his charity and cites Jack Nicklaus as an inspiration for juggling the two worlds. And the kid has the Golden Bear’s attention. At last year’s Cochran Golf Classic, Nicklaus sponsored a hole and donated two autographed hats for auction. Rafe deemed it “really cool.”

This fall, Rafe started his sophomore year of high school at West Palm’s Oxbridge Academy with an improving golf game and an established charity. His advice for kids like him is simple: “You’re never too young to take action and make a difference.” 

To learn more about the Rafe Cochran Golf Classic and Food for the Poor, visit www.foodforthepoor.org.

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