Bluffton Self Help founder Ida Martin remembered as 'vivacious' community activist

tbarton@islandpacket.comJune 20, 2013 

It began with a small act of kindness -- filling the empty refrigerator of a single mother with five children and nowhere to turn.

That simple gesture grew to fill needs -- and hearts -- across the Lowwcountry.

Ida Martin was 60 when she began the work that would grow into Bluffton Self Help, an age when most would have been be content to either rest on their laurels or simply rest.

Instead, she saw what needed to be done, stood up and went to work, family and friends recalled Thursday during her funeral at Campbell Chapel AME Church in Bluffton.

Hundreds, including local and state dignitaries, gathered to celebrate her life and the work that fed, clothed and otherwise assisted thousands in need.

Bluffton Self Help volunteers, clad in their signature red aprons, lined the church to greet friends and family and show their solidarity as "brothers and sisters in arms."

"She was a victorious, virtuous, vivacious woman of God," said the Rev. Reginald E. Jacobs Sr. "I can hear her tell us to 'press on.' "

Martin died June 12 at the age of 86 from a chronic lung disease.


After 30 years in Detroit, Martin returned to the hometown of her husband, Jacob, in 1979.

What she saw in Bluffton disturbed her.

Neighbors lived in poverty. Many often went hungry.

"I saw children sleeping on floors, while adults were two to three in a bed, and often there was no heat or sufficient food," Martin said in undated Self Help promotional materials displayed at the funeral.

Some of what she saw broke her heart.

"The mother appeared to be wearing a wig and was in desperate need of a hairdresser. I took her to mine, only to find out the wig had to be cut away from her head," she said. "Her son needed shoes, but his were so small that they had to be cut away from his feet. Both mother and son were hospitalized to treat the infection and sores on her head and his feet."

While she saw many areas of need, there was no single organization to meet them.

In 1987, she created one.

She collected food and used clothing in her garage, distributing it to those in need.

With that small beginning, Martin launched what would become a venerated and highly effective agency -- Bluffton Self Help.


Along the way, Martin earned local, state and national accolades.

In October 2011, she was awarded the Presidential Citizens Medal, one of the nation's highest civilian honors.

She is fondly remembered for asking President Barack Obama for a hug at the White House ceremony. He obliged. A picture capturing that moment was superimposed onto a large tapestry next to her casket.

There were words of comfort from the White House.

"Michelle and I offer our heartfelt sympathies as you mourn her loss and celebrate her extraordinary life," the president said a letter to the family, read by White House aide and Bluffton native Angela Tennison. "Ida poured her energies into lifting up the lives of others, and it was my distinct privilege to honor her at the White House. She touched countless families ... and, with her simple acts of kindness and devotion to her neighbors in need, represented the very best of the American spirit. I pray her selfless example will continue to inspire others to love and care as she did.

"I hope both time and fond memories will temper the grief you must feel."

State Sen. Clementa Pinckney, D-Ridgeland, read a General Assembly resolution expressing legislators' "profound sorrow" over her death.

"She was loving, determined, feisty, defensive, argumentative, and she stuck to her guns no matter what," said Pinckney, a former pastor at Campbell Chapel, where Martin was a longtime, active member.

"She reminds me of those great persons we often celebrate -- those titans of industry," he said. "It is said that Bill Gates founded his great company, Microsoft, in his garage -- tinkering and thinking and being imaginative.

"But Sister Ida Martin did something different in her garage. ... Whereas Bill Gates made money and connected people, Sister Ida mended hearts and kept families together."

Bluffton Self Help executive director Lili Coleman said she will never forget accompanying Martin to the White House.

"I came to know an elegant lady -- a truly humble and spiritual being," Coleman said. "... What she did wasn't easy, and none us could ever underestimate the work she put into this agency. There were times she was tired. She wanted to give up. But there was always somebody that came to her aid ... and kept that agency going."

Coleman assured the congregation that Martin's spirit would live on through the organization she founded.

"Mrs. Ida Martin made us as feel worthwhile and very, very special. She gave those she served respect and dignity," Coleman said. "We are so fortunate to have walked with an angel in our midst -- dressed so fashionably and remembered for her beautiful red suit. Mrs. Ida Martin, you hugged the President of the United States.

"Today, you're hugging Jesus."

Related content

  1. Ida Martin made Bluffton a better place to live: June 19, 2013
  2. Touched by an 'angel': Bluffton Self Help founder Ida Martin dies at 86: June 13, 2013
  3. Ida Martin, founder of Bluffton Self Help, dies at 86: June 12, 2013

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