Deep Well Projects more in need than ever as holidays approach

Bailey Pritchard, 12, helps his brother Jacob, 8, as they sort through canned goods while helping to organize donations at Deep Well on Wednesday morning on Hilton Head Island.
Bailey Pritchard, 12, helps his brother Jacob, 8, as they sort through canned goods while helping to organize donations at Deep Well on Wednesday morning on Hilton Head Island.

When volunteers at The Deep Well Project met Gregory, he was living alone in a rundown condominium on Hilton Head Island that was filled with water from leaking pipes and littered with animal excrement. The 72-year-old man had called Deep Well to pick up a sofa he wanted to donate. The volunteer who first arrived saw that Gregory was ill and needed help, said Betsy Doughtie, executive director of the volunteer-based, nonprofit organization.

"The home was in deplorable condition," Doughtie said. "It was obvious that his mind was on a sharp decline." The Deep Well Project provides a broad range of social services for the working poor, disabled and sick on Hilton Head. It funds half of those services through the annual Empty Well campaign, which starts today and runs through the first of the year.

Money from the Empty Well helped Gregory, who was about to lose power to his home. It paid his electric bill until he could be admitted into a Department of Veterans Affairs hospital, Doughtie said.

The Empty Well provides about half of Deep Well's annual $650,000 budget. Last year, the holiday campaign raised $311,000.

This year, the need has increased because of the poor economy, Doughtie said.

Deep Well served 1,822 families in 2008. So far this year, it has helped 1,833 families, and Doughtie expects a record-setting year.

"A family might be one person or it might be eight people," she said. "Some of the 1,822 we may have helped just once, or we might have helped multiple times."

Doughtie said the organization will have to raise more this year to keep up with the growing demand."Requests for everything we do -- food, rent, help with utilities -- in the past 18 months have been so much greater," Doughtie said. "But food has by far been the biggest request."

Deep Well offers a variety of services for low-income residents, people with disabilities and those like Gregory suffering from mental illnesses. The organization provides food, assistance with rent and other household bills, transportation to medical appointments or government offices, school clothes for children, furniture, home and septic repairs and prescription medicine.

Deep Well operates with two full-time employees, two part-time employees and a multitude of volunteers. In 2008, the organization's volunteers worked a total of 10,359 hours, Doughtie said. Most of the time, the center depends on about 30 volunteers, but during the holidays, the number swells to 100.

The annual holiday Adopt-a-Family campaign matches donors -- both businesses and residents -- with the children of needy families. The staff gives donors the children's holiday wish lists, and the donors provide gifts and groceries for a holiday dinner.

Recipients must demonstrate a need for help, such as a copy of an overdue electric bill or confirmation of a layoff. The organization is designed for short-term aid and often provides immediate assistance.

The nonprofit agency was started in 1973 by Charlotte Heinrichs, a former New York City nurse. Heinrichs discovered Hilton Head children were becoming ill because of shallow wells contaminated with sewage. Over 15 years, her program dug deep wells that produced clean water.

The program was recognized by President Ronald Reagan and South Carolina Govs. Richard Riley and Carroll Campbell.

Today, Deep Well still provides septic-system and well repairs but has expanded to meet the needs of the community, especially around the holidays.

"When your hours get cut and you're fighting to pay your rent and utilities," Doughtie said, "there's not much left to pay for gifts and a turkey dinner."