Dr. Katherine Bihr escorted a guest into the Tiger Woods Learning Center lounge area, where there’s a view of the driving range but also a strange smell.
She apologized and offered a lovely explanation for the odor.
Fifth-graders had just been dissecting squid, and as part of that exercise, they pulled out the pen and ink sac and wrote their names with it.
That’s just one of the many cool projects that happens here, in Anaheim, at the flagship center hatched from the vision of Tiger Woods and his late father, Earl.
The 51-year-old Bihr is the executive director and vice president for programs and education for the Tiger Woods Foundation, a job she’s held since 2004. The Southern California native is one of five high-ranking female officials in the non-profit organization.
“In my heart of hearts, I just want to help kids,” Bihr said. “I don’t care where they’re from. I want young people to see what their place in this world is and that they can contribute to it in a meaningful way. That’s through education by helping them understand who they are and who they can become, by giving them the tools to discover that on their own.
“It’s very exciting. You start with the learning center here, and we were happy with the trajectory of how things were coming together and realizing, ‘hey, this is really working. We have something to say and something to offer.’”
The program benefits 4,600 students annually and has reached 145,000 students since the foundation began.
Bihr was in fifth grade when she knew she wanted to help kids. She was admittedly shy and bullied as a student at Mar Vista Elementary in Whittier. She read to kindergartners and was in her comfort zone there. Her teacher noticed and said she would make a good educator.
She graduated from Long Beach State, where she went on a golf scholarship, received her doctorate of education at USC and became a teacher and principal.
Bihr enjoys the creativity and options kids have when they attend after-school and summer programs at the learning center. She’s taught in the public school system and knows educational resources can be limited for so many.
“It seemed we got away from what kids needed to be successful and to help them think about their futures,” Bihr said. “To me, it was making the connection between school and future, and I think that’s what the learning center has done. When you look back over the past 10 years and 20 for the foundation, there’s substantial, amazing work happening on behalf of kids. Kids are coming through and having a better idea what they can become and how they can contribute to the world. I think it’s exciting for the foundation. I think we’ve been a huge part of that for lots of kids all over the world.”
Bihr has stayed in touch with many of the students who have come through the doors in Orange County. Jose Giron, who toured the facility before it opened and chatted with Woods that day, is one of the star pupils whose life was dramatically changed by the center. He first attended a meeting because there was free pizza, but became a permanent fixture as a student and then an employee. He now has his own family, a good job and is still friends with Bihr. He didn’t forget her recent birthday.
“If you’re a student in our program and need someone to listen to or have a special circumstance you’re dealing with, there’s no better resource than our staff,” said Emily Taylor, the vice president of communications and marketing. “And I think that approach is driven by Kathy’s ethos that is always `students first.’ This is a place where everyone’s names are known and students really feel seen and heard for the first time. It’s the environment and relationships that transform these kids.”
Celebrating the 20 years doesn’t mean the work is done. On the contrary. A new five-year strategic plan is being implemented. There are seven Tiger Woods learning center sites – Anaheim, two in Washington D.C., two in Philadelphia, one in Stuart, Fla. and one at the Marine Corps Base Quantico. There are plans for more.
“Tiger’s ambition is to reach millions of kids,” Bihr said. “To do that, we really had to take a good look at what we’re doing and how we scale these things.”
They are launching a program with professional development and training and expanding the scholarship program. Bihr said the foundation is partnering with Discovery Education to put learning center programs online, which could reach children internationally.
Bihr, who considers Woods a friend, has been a role model of consistency, stability and motivation for children and the Tiger Woods Learning Center staff.
“I know even in some of my younger staff members, they see the role I have and I’ve been really blessed to have a lot of success in my life,” said Bihr, who paused through tears. “I think it gives people inspiration. It’s part of my role, to help people realize that we can level that playing field and you can be anything you want to be, even things you couldn’t have imagined. I don’t think I imagined it. I grew up the only girl in a family of three older brothers, and they’re all great guys. But I don’t think I thought at that point and time about these things, particularly because I was so shy and picked on by my peers, that I would have enough to offer. To have a staff and be here to inspire them to become amazing people for kids, I think that’s why I’m on this planet, you know?”