Touched by an 'angel': Bluffton Self Help founder Ida Martin dies at 86

tbarton@islandpacket.comJune 13, 2013 

  • Funeral arrangements

    Funeral arrangements for Bluffton Self Help founder Ida Martin were still pending Thursday, according to Stiney's Funeral Home in Hardeeville.

    Those who would like to express condolences and appreciation for Martin's work, or make a donation in her honor, can do so at

Jerry Holmes lay in the abandoned house for three days with no food, no water and no way to call for help.

The diabetic reaction he suffered last year almost certainly would have killed him had the other volunteers at Bluffton Self Help not started to worry when he didn't show up for a few days.

That's when Ida Martin, the Bluffton Self Help founder who passed away late Wednesday, literally came to his rescue. She organized the search party that discovered him in the house near the corner of S.C. 46 and Bruin Road. And she found Holmes, who was homeless at the time, a place to recuperate when he was discharged.

Holmes says he owes Martin his life.

"She was like a mother figure to me," Holmes said. "She bent over backwards to help anybody, even if she had to go into her own pocket to do it. She will be sadly missed by the whole community."

Today, Holmes lives with his brother and continues to volunteer at Bluffton Self Help almost daily.

Martin, 86, died peacefully while surrounded by her family at Beaufort Memorial Hospital from a chronic lung disease, according to family members.

She left a legion of admirers and garnered a raft of accolades, including the Presidential Citizen's Medal, bestowed in 2011 by President Barack Obama.

"People have been overwhelmingly gracious to us," her husband, Jacob Martin, said Thursday. "Ida received much joy out of helping people. That was her life, and she lived it well and enjoyed it, and we are all satisfied with the end results."

From humble beginnings

Not long after the Martins returned to Jacob's hometown after 30 years in Detroit, Ida began noticing a startling number of neighbors who lived in poverty and often went hungry.

After learning of single a mother and her children who moved in across the street had a refrigerator containing only a bottle of water, Martin enlisted the help of fellow do-gooder Charlotte Heinrichs, founder of The Deep Well Project on Hilton Head Island. Together, the two women purchased groceries for the family.

"As we were leaving, after filling up the refrigerator, one of the little girls asked, so shyly, if we had any toilet paper," Martin said in a 2012 interview.

"I thought she was going to ask for candy. When I told that story to donors in the community, oh my, I had so much toilet paper," Martin laughed.

Martin started Bluffton Self Help from her family's garage in 1987, shortly after moving from Detroit. Today, the organization serves several hundred people each week by giving them food, clothing and financial assistance.

In between, Martin has been recognized at the local, state and national levels for her volunteer work. She is fondly remembered for asking Obama for a hug at the White House ceremony when she received the presidential medal, one of the nation's highest civilian honors.

"We knew an angel," said Bluffton Self Help executive director Lili Coleman.

In April 2012, Martin became the fifth person inducted to the town of Bluffton's Wall of Honor since Mayor Lisa Sulka created it in 2010. Martin was the first woman selected and the first person to receive the honor while still alive.

"She just believes ... that if people are happy, healthy and safe, then they are good for our town and it makes our whole town better," Sulka told The Island Packet at the time.

Attempts Thursday to reach her for comment were unsuccessful.

'Helping people is my stroke'

Martin said she chose her organization's name quite intentionally: She wanted to inspire people to help themselves.

"There are a lot of great organizations willing to help. But you have to first help yourself and show good manners," Martin said. "No one owes you anything, so when you ask for help, do so with respect."

Martin was still at the helm of Bluffton Self Help, despite retiring as director more than eight years ago. The staff called her regularly with questions, and she still handed out baskets of food during the holidays, Coleman said.Another piece of advice Martin learned: Never lose hope. Just when she thought a task was too daunting, someone would show up to meet the immediate needs.

"She reminded us that as Bluffton has grown and developed, there is another Bluffton that is still there that needs help," said John Orth, vice president of Bluffton Self Help's board of directors. "And not to give things away just for the sake of giving them away, but give them with a piece of your heart so the dignity of the person getting them is preserved."

Martin told Coleman: "There are different strokes for different folks.Helping people is my stroke."

Related content

  1. Bluffton Self Help founder says she's ready for the White House: Oct. 18, 2011
  2. Ida Martin: A retrospective of the Bluffton Self Help founder: June 13, 2013

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