Growing up in an abusive home, Zack Sielck of McHenry, Illinois, was always looking for an escape from his hardscrabble life.
“My dad was a drinker,” Zack, 17, told NBC News. “By fifth grade, we were living in poverty. My home life was horrible and I was always wondering whether my father would come home at night with food. I had to grow up to defend myself.”
Zack’s parents divorced when he was 2. His mother was largely absent, and his father was jailed after a shooting incident. He ended up in three different foster homes.
Amid all the chaos and unpredictability at home, Zack found solace in two places: school, and work. During weekends and holidays throughout high school, he worked as a golf caddie, living on the country club bench in front of the pro shop, waiting for loops and a chance to earn tips.
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Now his hard work in the classroom and as a caddie have combined into something even better: Zack overcame all odds and was awarded an $80,000 scholarship to attend Purdue University in Indiana this fall — all because of golf.
He's one of 910 caddies attending 19 universities with free tuition and housing on a Chick Evans Scholarship from the Western Golf Association. But it’s been a hard road that required persistence and vision.
In his scholarship application, Zack wrote: “School became my escape from the troubling scene at home. School was my true home. There I had support. It was the one place where I felt like I belonged. But returning home every day was the real battle.”
By eighth grade, he moved to a more welcoming home with foster parents Brigid and Jason Sterwerf. Soon, he went after a job as a caddie at the McHenry Country Club.
“It was hard transitioning, trying to get used to a completely different family,” he told NBC News. “So I tried to find somewhere where I could make money and do something for myself. I just wanted to be a normal kid with a job.”
“The best I could do is hope someone would see my effort and take me under their wing.”
His golfing mentors and fellow caddies became a second family.
“I did my best in school and worked my heart out as a caddie,” he said. “The best I could do is hope someone would see my effort and take me under their wing.”
And the country club did just that, pointing him to the scholarship opportunity. And now, because of his strong caddie record, outstanding character and good grades, Zack has a bright future.
“His story is truly compelling,” said Jeff Harrison, senior vice president of education for the WGA and a scholarship alumnus. “He’s overcome a tremendous amount in his life. He has a great attitude and he’s going places.”
Zack has a 4.6 out of 5.0 grade-point average and will graduate sixth in a class of 196. In addition to serving on the student council, he is on the football and wrestling teams.
The Chick Evans Scholarship has also helped Jacob Mosely of Farmington Hill, Michigan, go from homeless to Michigan State.
And Malachi Zeitner of Sioux City, Iowa, lost his father at 13 to alcohol and his mother was in and out of prison. He attends Miami University.
“Being a caddie is not easy work,” Harrison told NBC News. “But it creates great lifelong qualities such as hard work, communication skills and team work. It is an opportunity to be around successful adults and mentors. It teaches you how to dream.”
Meanwhile, Zack Sielck will be the first in his family to go to college. His dream is to be an engineer. He has nurtured a good relationship with a biological brother, who is in the Marines, and with an aunt and grandparents.
He says after bouncing around foster homes, he has finally found family.
“My foster parents have done so much for me,” he said. “It’s not about blood, it’s about family. They stand with you through anything, regardless of how you push back. That’s what family is.”
The country club has also been critical to his development.
“They were the key to my further education and shaped who I was as a person,” he said. “I really developed a good work ethic and it pushed me to the limits.”
Zack tells others who experience hardship to not “feel sorry for themselves.”
“A lot of times, people lose hope,” he said. “Not only people in poverty, but every day I see people who don’t want to put the effort in and don’t think they have a chance or opportunity.
“But there are plenty of good people in the world willing to help.”