When a Hilton Head Island man was sidelined from his job with an air-conditioning company several years ago with a diagnosis of prostate cancer, he didn't know where to turn.
As utility bills and medical expenses piled up, the man, who requested that his name not be used, said he found the help he needed at The Deep Well Project.
The organization, which on Sunday celebrates 40 years of lifting islanders out of hard times, defrayed some of his utility and medical costs while he focused on recovering.
"I had nowhere else to go, and they just came to my rescue," said the man, who soon will turn 50. "Without them, I don't think I would have been able to make it."
Over the years, Deep Well has collected many stories like his. In 2012 alone, the nonprofit organization assisted 1,970 individuals and families with food, bills, home repairs and other types of aid, executive director Betsy Doughtie said. In 2011, it helped more than 2,000 clients.
Since the economic downturn in 2008, Doughtie said, there has been a spike in the number of people seeking help.
But islanders who support the organization have also come to the rescue, she said, contributing more than $943,000 in cash and in-kind donations of food or furniture -- "certainly enough to meet our clients' needs," Doughtie said. The organization relies on private donations and receives no public funding. Since 1996, when it began tracking donations through a new system, it has raised more than $11 million in money and goods.
The founding principle of Deep Well is "a hand up, not a hand out." To prevent abuse of the charity, clients can receive help with rent, utilities or gas payments once a year. Volunteers also vet requests for assistance and require documentation of medical issues or job loss before offering payments -- almost like detectives, said Helen Hinds.
Hinds, who is one of about 35 regular volunteers, said the organization also asks if potential clients can contribute a portion before underwriting a request.
"People are so ashamed to ask for help," she said. "They don't quite feel that shame if they can pitch in, such as paying 25 percent on an overdue electric bill."
In more than two years with Deep Well, Hinds said she has realized how just one unexpected expense can wreck the budget of a family living paycheck to paycheck. A single mother who can't work because of a sick child or a person without health insurance who suffers an injury will get back on their feet eventually, but "we'll help until they get there," she said.
Despite rules on the type of assistance Deep Well provides and when, it tries to be flexible in the spirit of its founder, Charlotte Heinrichs, according to Doughtie.
Heinrichs launched the organization in 1973 to dig wells deep enough to reach uncontaminated water. As her reputation for helping others grew, people who needed other assistance went to her, Doughtie said.
"That's how we evolved into a social-service agency," Doughtie said. "As needs grow and change, we grow and change with them."
That means instead of following rigid rules or telling needy people, "We don't do that," volunteers try to be creative, Hinds said.
In recent years, that has included paying for school uniforms and supplies, creating a program for home repairs, and supplying gas cards so clients can get to work or doctor visits when they can't afford the price at the pump.
The charity has also shown it's a good financial steward. In November, it received an Angel Award from the S.C. Secretary of State for contributing 91.7 percent of its annual budget to the needy.
On Sunday, Deep Well's board members, supporters and volunteers -- who logged more than 11,000 hours last year -- will pause to celebrate. The event takes place from 1 to 4 p.m. at Honey Horn, with music, food, drinks and children's activities.
A story board will be set up to show some of the organization's milestones, such as its move in 2004 to permanent headquarters on Beach City Road after a Hilton Head Rotary Club fundraising drive.
The celebration, which Doughtie said is expected to draw thousands, is also a chance for Deep Well to be on the other side of the coin, by thanking a community that has helped it survive for 40 years.
Follow reporter Allison Stice at twitter.com/IPBG_Allison.