Rancho Santa Fe resident changes the game for kids through golf


For more than 20 years, a local nonprofit has proven that the game of golf can be a game-changer for kids. Pro Kids provides golf training and school tutoring to underprivileged children in City Heights and Oceanside.

“It’s unbelievable to see the impact our program has on these kids,” said Rancho Santa Fe resident and Pro Kids Board President Bill Fontana. “It’s an amazing program.”

Founded in 1994 by former San Diego Chargers tackle Ernie Wright, the organization partnered with the city of San Diego and the San Diego Unified School District to use Colina Park Golf Course to teach life-skills and golf to inner-city children. Pro Kids later become an affiliate of The First Tee, an international youth golf and education program that has helped more than 10.5 million children since 1997.

Pro Kids started a scholarship program in 1999, which has since awarded $1.8 million in awards to 141 students. In 2001, the organization opened its more than 7,000-square-foot Learning Center, which houses a community room, computer lab, classrooms, pro shop and swing simulator room.

Replicating the success of its flagship program in City Heights, Pro Kids opened a second facility in 2011 in Oceanside. Today, the organization serves more than 1,500 students ages 7-17 throughout San Diego County each year.

“We’ve got a dynamic group of people who are giving their time and their effort to make this program something very special,” said Fontana, whose wife serves as a mentor for the organization.

Born and raised in San Diego, Fontana earned a bachelor’s degree in business at Pepperdine University and went on to work as a developer for decades in the San Diego region. He was the co-founder and president of Westana Builders, a company that constructed about 2,500 homes in a little more than 10 years.

After he retired, Fontana and his wife purchased a second home in Hawaii, where the couple stayed for several months out of the year. Struggling with this new phase in his life, a doctor suggested Fontana get involved with the community when he returned to San Diego.

That’s when a close friend connected him with Pro Kids and he got his first look at the City Heights site. Pro Kids founder, the late Ernie Wright, was there that day.

“He was a very engaging personality,” Fontana recalled. “He convinced me, after I had a chance to listen to his story, to go on the board.”

Fontana joined the board of directors in 2002. He has served as president of the board for the past few years.

“It is an absolutely unbelievably great organization,” said Fontana, a father of three and grandfather of six. “If Ernie Wright was alive right now, he would just be blown away, I think, about how successful this program he got off the ground with virtually nothing has become.”

To continue to grow the program, Pro Kids is holding its annual fundraiser, Celebrates, May 7, at the Hilton La Jolla Torrey Pines Hotel. The organization will honor Peter Ueberroth for his lifetime of contributions to sports and sportsmanship.

From 1980 to 1984, Ueberroth was president of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee, the organization responsible for staging the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games. He served as commissioner of Major League Baseball between 1984 and 1989.

Ueberroth is currently managing director of Contrarian Group, an investment and management company. He is also owner and co-chairman of the Pebble Beach Company.

“Peter Ueberroth exemplifies the nine core values we promote in delivering character development and life skills to the young people we serve: honesty, integrity, sportsmanship, respect, confidence, responsibility, perseverance, courtesy and judgment,” said Pro Kids CEO Keith Padgett.

“He agreed to honor us by serving as the honoree,” Fontana said.

The reception starts at 6 p.m., followed by the dinner and program at 7 p.m. A table for 10 at the event is $3,000. Individual tickets are $300.

“Our whole organization is geared around providing opportunity for kids,” Fontana said. “We’re really there just to provide a helping hand for these kids.”

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