Large and small, a number of community efforts have flourished since mid-March to feed and support those who lost their jobs because of the pandemic, as well as those who were already struggling with poverty and hard times.
Despite the challenges, charitable organizations continued their work from the beginning of the shut-down.
“We did not miss one day of work and service to the community,” said Sandy Gillis, executive director of Hilton Head Island’s Deep Well Project, who said the food pantry is still open five days a week.
“We had to change a lot of our processes. We went from doing face-to-face client intake in offices to over the phone,” Gillis said. “We went from 40 pantry volunteers Monday through Friday down to about 12, so that we could more easily social distance and keep working. In April and May, the phone rang 300 times a day.”
Bluffton Self Help dealt with similar issues.
“It’s been very different. Safety has been our No. 1 priority for volunteers, staff and, most importantly, the clients,” said executive director Kim Hall. “We evolved the program to a drive-through food distribution and changed from twice a week to once a week drive-through to make sure we could serve everyone in need.”
The Bluffton nonprofit also whittled down its volunteer staff, going from about 220 to a dozen, “plus 5.5 staff members who early on decided they were going to jump in and take on new and different roles to execute the services we provide,” Hall added.
Bible Missionary Baptist Church in Bluffton has only a dozen members, yet they took on the Herculean task of filling and delivering lunch bags every Saturday for the past 17 weeks.
Parishioner Bridgette Frazier, who is also a member of Bluffton Town Council, said she was concerned about students missing out on meals when schools were closed. The school district initially had families pick up daily meals from their schools, but then changed to delivering via the bus routes.
Frazier knew that adding a Saturday meal to that schedule would give the children “a sense of stability and something to look forward to.”
In a food truck parked next to the church, Frazier waited for the deep fryers to heat up for the corn dog lunches. She explained how the tiny congregation got involved: The project began with a few of the church members and some of her friends on Facebook.
“It then morphed into partnerships with different groups sponsoring a weekend,” she said. “Then Live Oak Christian Church stepped in and they were like, ‘Let’s keep this going through the summer,’ and they raised $10,000 for this.”
Live Oak member Sheila Livesay said someone on their staff said this was a great program. “We were trying to figure out what we could do to help. Why reinvent something? Let’s help them,” she said. “Our board got together and decided that Easter weekend we would give them half of our general collection.”
Although it was typically not a good weekend for collections for Live Oak, once the word got out, the donation given to Bible Missionary was $10,000, far more than the $3,500 Livesay was expecting.
Livesay and fellow church member Tony Evangelista are among the volunteers who not only pack but deliver the lunches. Officers from the Bluffton Police Department can also be seen both packing lunches and delivering.
Officer Jose Martinez, who moved his family to Bluffton five months ago, attended one of the project’s planning meetings, and volunteered to see if officers who were off duty on Saturdays would like to donate their time to the project.
“None of this is possible without the volunteers behind the scenes. These lunch bags get filled throughout the week by those volunteers,” he said pointing to the hundreds of bags filling the church pews.
On Hilton Head Island, Rev. Dr. Nannette Pierson organizes the Sandalwood Community Food Pantry, which was forced to cut back from two days to one day a week. Pierson and a handful of volunteers normally serve about 850 families every year from the Queen Chapel AME Church on Beach City Road. They’re now doing triple the amount they normally do.
“We’ve been serving outdoors for the last four months. We’re serving a good 380 every Tuesday, and if it rains, we have to set up tents,’ Pierson said. “Prep takes about four days to get that Tuesday done. We provide enough healthy food for all the families for the week,” Pierson said. “We’ve been pushing hard. No one knows when we’re going back to a new normal.”
Members of Bluffton’s historic Campbell Chapel AME Church are supplementing their weekly soup kitchen and provisions from Second Helpings with distribution of USDA family food boxes every Thursday until the end of August.
Rev. Dr. Jon R. Black, the church’s pastor, said they have delivered as many as 2,030 boxes in a week.
“Right now, they are full of produce at the moment, all freshly grown South Carolina produce,” he said, “being distributed beyond Bluffton to share with our neighbors on Lady’s Island, Burton, Hardeeville and as far north as Johnsonville, in Florence County.”
One of the aspects of fulfilling needs that has astonished the various organizations has been the level of generosity. From March 1 to the end of June, Deep Well served 2,259 people with a week’s worth of groceries, translating to more than 40,000 meals.
“I want to give a big shout out to the community. They have been incredible – from little ladies with a few items to people bringing in big bags. Some communities have held food drives and we send out our truck,” Gillis said. “Hilton Head Plantation set the record with donating five tons of food in one day. It did create some serious unloading and storage efforts, but we got it done. They also held a fundraiser, too, and raised $23,000.”
As much as food was needed by the community, there were other needs that had to be met – and were.
Almost $1 million was distributed for emergency rent payments to landlords by the area’s nonprofits in Bluffton and Hilton Head since March 15.
“In that 17-week period, we have covered and paid directly to landlords 507 emergency rent and mortgage payments,” said Gillis. “That’s just under $405,000. For context, in all of 2019, the emergency rent budget was $125,000 for the whole year.”
Bluffton Self Help faced much the same situation, said Hall.
“In a typical year, depending on a hurricane, there are 200 to 300 families in that program. We saw 300 to 400 families per week and it’s leveled off. Our expenditures are $510,000 so far this year; normally it’s half that,” Hall said.
The program is 100% funded through grants and individuals, and makes a difference to the families it helps.
“It is critical because it truly does prevent homelessness and loss of utilities. When you’re worried about your health and getting sick, you don’t want to worry about losing electricity,” said Hall. “And a little investment on our part makes a big difference in a family’s life.”
It’s not as if these families have not been working to save money for emergencies.
“We know how to save for a hurricane, they’d tell me. We don’t know how to save for a pandemic,” Hall said.
In a recent board meeting of the Bluffton charity, members discussed how they had managed to continue operations. “We could have said, ‘Oh it’s too big and complicated for us,’ but that’s not who we are. We have to be there for our neighbors,” Hall said.
Human Services for Beaufort County maintains data about the county’s demographics, including how the area’s social services, charities, churches and other institutions serve the most needy and homeless. The pandemic might have put a crimp in a lot of routines, but not in neighbors helping neighbors, said director Fred Leyda.
“Folks are getting creative in ways to provide service. This community is extremely generous to provide donations, and people have sometimes used their supplement,” Leyda said, referring to the stimulus check received by many in April. “Despite that, we continue to need more resources. But then there are groups that pop up and announce that everyone will be fed by their organization.”
In what passed for a normal routine – before March 15, that is – Beaufort County’s nonprofits, social services, churches and similar groups served nearly 21,000 residents who sought help in obtaining food, clothing and other necessities, including shelter.
Ben Boswell, administrative manager for the Beaufort County Human Services Department, said the information came from CharityTracker, a database maintained by partner agencies in the Beaufort County Community Services Organization, a Together for Beaufort County Coalition. The agencies include Bluffton Self-Help, Deep Well Project, and HELP of Beaufort.
Nearly 11%, or about 21,000, of Beaufort County’s population of 192,122 live below poverty level, according to a 2019 U.S. Census Bureau population estimate.
“This fluctuates depending on what estimate you’re looking at, considering we’re in 2020 and the last census was 2010,” said Boswell.
What surprised Gillis and Hall was who sought aid.
“We have registered so many new clients. These are people who were more likely to be donors than clients, but now they can’t cut hair, they can’t bartend or wait tables,” said Gillis. “So many of the people we helped in the past few months were nowhere in our client data base. In fact, many were in our donor database.”
As difficult as things are at the moment, Beaufort County’s residents have vast resources for support, and asking any of the local charities, churches and social services will help open doors. There is, however, one abiding fact.
“You know hurricanes and pandemics come and go,” Pierson said, “but the hunger – it’s never-ending.”
Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.