Bob Gillespie



Charity is main focus of Heritage Foundation

Posted 4/14/2012 3:56:00 PM

This past Monday, tennis legend and long-time Hilton Head Island resident Stan Smith was watching the Golf Channel when he heard host Holly Sonders mention this week’s RBC Heritage, and how the tournament had raised “more than $1 million for charity since its inception in 1969.”

Bemused, Smith – who has served as head of the tournament’s Charities Committee the past three years – fired off a pleasant e-mail to Sonders. “I wrote, ‘It’s great to hear you talking about the tournament, but the reality is, we’ve raised just under $22 million for charity since 1987.’” He laughed. “And then I invited her to come down to see it.

“She wrote back and said, ‘Sorry, but I’m sure we’ll mention those numbers MANY times during the week.’”

Smith, best known for winning two Grand Slam championships as well as the 1971 U.S. Open and 1972 Wimbledon titles, doesn’t know why outsiders seem to underestimate the impact of South Carolina’s only annual PGA Tour event. “We’ve averaged just under $1 million a year” in charitable donations, “so maybe that’s where she got that number,” he said.

At the end of his tennis career, Smith was involved in charity work through that sport. But the money tennis raises “is nothing close to what is done in golf,” he said. Even the past two years, when the Heritage was seeing its longtime association with Verizon end and wondering where to find a new sponsor, the tournament continued to give at least some money each year, he said.

“The past couple of years, the Verizon Foundation has given us $1.5 million over three years: $500,000 last year, this year and next year,” said Smith, who first got involved through the Heritage Classic Foundation 10 years ago. “Hopefully that’ll continue on over the coming years. Half of that goes to our Scholars Program, which gives over $2 million in scholarships. About $500,000 goes to charities that meet the criteria of the Verizon Foundation as well as ours. We did that last year, and again this year.”

As the General Tournament Sponsor, the Heritage Classic Foundation serves as the operation and financial oversight group for the RBC Heritage. The Foundation also distributes all charitable funds generated from the tournament. Donations have grown form $139,000 in 1987 to $1.25 million in 2011.

Three programs form the core of the Foundation’s work. The Scholar Program, as Smith noted, awards Scholar Grants to the Hilton Head and Lowcountry area’s best high school seniors, students who not only achieve superior academic records but also demonstrate leadership in their schools and communities. Fifty-eight students currently receive grants at a cost of $257,500, with $2,580,000 having been awarded to 222 students since the program began in 1993.

A new program is the “Birdies for Charity,” where golf fans can contribute to charity by pledging funds for every birdie made during the RBC Heritage. Each participating charity receives all donations from the program, and the Heritage Classic Foundation contributes an additional $100,000 among participating charities. Since beginning in 2000, $3.2 million has been distributed to more than 50 charitable groups.

“Birdies for Charity has the most potential, not only here but around the state,” Smith said. “People can donate (an amount) for the number of birdies made during the tournament, and (tournaments) are doing this around the country.”

The most visible charity presence at the tournament is concession stands located along Harbour Town Golf Links’ holes and manned by volunteers. The organizations they represent receive all of the stands’ profits. Last year, nine groups shared $208,000: the Hilton Head Firefighters Association, Hilton Head Lions, Hilton Head Preparatory School, Hilton Head Recreation Center, Hilton Head Sertoma/Gators, Native Island Business Community Affairs Assoc., Sea Pines Montessori Academy, Sunset Rotary Club and Van Landingham Rotary Club.

“Charity is the main reason we do this (host the tournament),” Smith said. “When there was a possibility of losing the tournament, one of the main issues out there was that we were not going to be able to give to the charities.

“We are increasing the breadth of that, doing things in Spartanburg and Charleston. Boeing, of course, has committed $2 million, and they want to see $1 million go to charities, mainly in the Lowcountry.”

Smith remains a tennis-first guy, but he has become a solid golfer since moving to Hilton Head. Charity work, regardless of its ties to a sport, remains his main motivation.

Asked if he has a favorite charity, Smith grinned. “I was campaign chairman for the Boys and Girls Club 11 years ago, and I’m on the board and have been chairman of the (annual) gala for 11 years,” he said. “(Wife) Margie works there as volunteer four days a week, three hours a day. So that’s very close to us.

“But there are so many great charities here. I love Hilton Head Heroes (which brings seriously ill children to Hilton Head for vacations), but so many of them do a terrific job. The island is a very giving (community). People don’t realize we’ve given a lot, and we do as much as we can to help out.”

Certainly, Golf Channel’s Sonders knows how much now.