Golf helps 17-year-old from Florida build homes and schools in Haiti and Jamaica

WEST PALM BEACH – Nine-year-old Rafe Cochran was missing and his parents were “frantic”.

But Rafe had a plan. He knew what he wanted, and during a visit to Food For the Poor’s Coconut Creek headquarters, he decided to put that plan into action. He separated from his parents, Diahann and Jay Cochran, and applied for the principal’s office. He then entered unannounced.

“I want to help you,” he said. “I’m going to fundraise.”

And that’s how it all started. An idea that began with a guest speaker when Rafe, now 17, was in third grade at Palm Beach Day Academy led him to raise money through golf to build 10 homes in Haiti and rebuild and renovate four schools in Jamaica.

And he’s not done. The sixth annual Rafe Cochran Golf Classic was held Friday at the Trump International Golf Club, with proceeds going towards the renovation and reconstruction of McGrath High School in Treadways, Jamaica. The event is expected to raise around $150,000.

“Rafe was born for a purpose,” said Delane Bailey-Herd, director of partnerships for Food For the Poor and a guest speaker that day at the Palm Beach Day Academy. “I reiterate the things that Rafe says – ‘You are never too young to step up and make a difference.’

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“Rafe is a leader of his generation to be able to do this.”

Bailey-Herd was 17 when she arrived in this country from Jamaica. She recounted her experiences of having to walk 7 miles to and from school to Rafe and his classmates that day eight years ago.

“Some of the kids were laughing but Rafe took it seriously,” she said. “He came up to me at the end of my presentation and he was like, ‘I’m going to help you.'”

The next stop was a conversation at home that Diahann and Jay hadn’t seen coming.

“From that time when he was on Palm Beach Day, Delane talked at school and he came home, he said, ‘Mom, I gotta be a part of this. I have to help,'” Diahann said. “Rafe really wanted to get involved.

“He took us on the most incredible journey.”

Two missions: helping the poor, playing pro golf

In this age of name, image and likeness for college and, in some states, high school athletes, Rafe Cochran is the antithesis of the growing greed and selfishness in athletics.

Rafe is a junior at Oxbridge Academy who played varsity golf in his first and second year and has decided to play tournament golf this season. He has raised over $600,000 since taking up this vocation. Now he has two missions in life: building and rebuilding homes and schools in poor countries and playing professional golf.

“When I was exposed to it, it hit me hard and I realized I really wanted to help,” Rafe said. “Something inside me told me that was what I wanted to do. After talking to Delane and discussing the magnitude of what was happening in these countries, I knew I had to do something. “

So 9-year-old Rafe has built a spreadsheet for people to commit to when he scores an eagle, birdie or par at his next tournament. He shot a 34 for nine holes at Osprey Point in Boca Raton and quickly raised about $6,000 which went to Food For the Poor and was enough to build his first home in Haiti.

“I went to Haiti a few years later, and that’s where the impact was felt,” said Palm Beach native Rafe. “It’s one of the most incredible experiences that anyone, especially in a country like ours, can have. The magnitude of what’s happening there is so powerful. That’s kind of where the will for what I’m doing has really started to pick up.”

Rafe Cochran teeed off during Friday's sixth annual Rafe Cochran Golf Classic at Trump International Golf Club in suburban West Palm Beach.  Fundraising, Cochran's idea, has helped build homes in Haiti and schools in Jamaica.

About three years after raising his first dollar, Rafe had bigger dreams that went beyond Haiti.

The Rafe Cochran Golf Classic was born.

At that point, Diahann and Jay were probably ready for anything and just listened that their 12-year-old wanted to start raising hundreds of thousands of dollars through a golf tournament.

They listened to Rafe’s idea to organize a charity event and asked questions. A lot of questions. Neither parent is a golfer and they told him they wouldn’t know where to start with such an ambitious project.

“He just said, ‘Yeah. I know how to play golf. I know what I want. If you worked for me, I would collect the money,’ Diahann said. “And he did.”

The first event raised approximately $50,000, which was used to build more homes in Haiti. But Rafe quickly turned to rebuilding and renovating schools and headed to Jamaica.

Students sit outside under a gazebo that doubles as their classroom and lunch spot due to overcrowding at McGrath High School in Treadways, Jamaica.  Friday's Rafe Cochran Golf Classic will fund the construction of two buildings with six classrooms at the school.

Education is the way

Rafe was proud of the homes he built in Haiti and called it life changing for him, but said building a home was a “band aid” to a much bigger problem.

“Poverty as a whole is what I really want to have the most impact on,” he said. “I believe that education is one of the best ways to break the cycle of poverty in these developing countries.

“I wanted to reach out to young people. I wanted to reach out to the education of these children because in these regions a good education is rare. I want to build this environment where children can be educated because education will last forever with them.”

Rafe made several trips to Jamaica, many with Bailey-Herd, and rebuilt four schools – Chester Primary and Infant School, Runaway Bay School, Iona High School, Holland High School – all on the island’s northern coastal area.

In all of these schools, roofs were leaking and classrooms were in such disrepair that students were forced to sit outside. The Runaway Bay manager told Bailey-Herd he had been waiting for help for 10 years.

And the country’s education minister was stunned to see that the man behind these fundraisers and rebuilders was a child.

“He thought Rafe was an old retiree,” Bailey-Herd said. “Rafe’s presentations are way beyond his years.”

Rafe doesn’t just inspect each project, he pays close attention to the ones he chooses. It selects the schools that have the greatest needs. And he sometimes meets and talks with the kids first and even plays football with a group from a school.

With construction complete, it’s time for Rafe and his team to get to work. Often he will fly away with his family, Bailey-Herd and others to check on the work and help paint the school.

“It wasn’t enough for him to do the funding,” Bailey-Herd said. “He wants to touch it and feel it and put his work into it.”

Work harder than ever on the game of golf

Rafe was around 7 years old when he started playing golf. He said it came “naturally”, but added that he needed to work on his game and keep working “harder than ever”. His handicap is about 2.

He has put together a team for Friday’s event, one of 24 foursomes.

“A driving factor (to stick with golf) is helping Food For the Poor because the way we fundraise is golf-focused,” he said.

“But my love for golf and my passion for golf and my goals for what I want to do with golf is because I want to be a pro. I want to be the best I can be. I want to win. sort of where my drive for golf is. It’s kind of what I’ve dedicated my life to.

This dedication goes far beyond golf.

Tom D’Angelo is a reporter for the Palm Beach Post, part of the USA Today Florida Network. You can reach him at [email protected] Help support our journalism. Subscribe today.