Hilton Head Island has an underbelly of poverty few people see.
Betsy Doughtie has stared at it since 1996. As executive director of the Deep Well Project, she has led the community’s primary “hand up” to the poor.
She will retire in April.
“It’s been a good run,” she said. “I’ve been honored.”
She was a neighbor and close friend of the late Charlotte Heinrichs, the tiny retired nurse who in 1968 set out to address unfathomable problems in paradise — including children with worms — that resulted from shallow wells, no running water and no indoor plumbing.
With the help of Esther Williams, born on Hilton Head in 1933, the problems were tackled, one home, one elderly woman, one child, and one sandy road at a time. And they saw more problems, so many that the nonprofit safety net incorporated in 1973, working from a kitchen table and a couple of cars, with tabs kept on index cards.
Williams knew who needed what. Heinrichs organized the response. Charitable donations made it happen.
Doughtie has seen the face of Hilton Head poverty change.
But the Deep Well mission remains: “Help neighbors in need by providing basic assistance in emergency situations. This assistance is immediate and non-bureaucratic, intended to provide clients with a ‘hand up, not a hand out.’ ”
Doughtie was a familiar face.
She and the late Tim Doughtie were married in 1967 and moved to the island in 1970.
“We had no plan,” she said. “No plan at all.”
He had come to the island as a teenager when his dad chucked his Madison Avenue advertising career for a sparse island where he could sail to work and fish a lot. Charlie and Sally Doughtie opened an eclectic gift store, The Island Shop, in the old William Hilton Inn. He was a leader of the Chamber of Commerce, a founder of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and a force behind the Human Relations Council that opened dialogue between newcomers and native islanders.
Tim got a job with Sea Pines and Betsy went to work at the shop.
Later, she created the Gourmet to Go business in Coligny Plaza, working 80 hours a week, she said, but not making any money. She did some volunteer work at Camp St. Mary’s in Okatie, which primarily helped pregnant and parenting teenagers.
All along, she knew Charlotte Heinrichs. They were so close that when Heinrichs had a shoulder replaced, Doughtie went to her house every morning and helped her put her pants on.
When Doughtie took on Deep Well leadership, she knew its heartbeat — and she knew the real Hilton Head.
Face of poverty
Poverty hasn’t gone anywhere, but it’s not the same.
Deep Well still addresses urgent needs for heat, food, water, rent, medicine and furniture.
But it now helps more than 700 children get ready for school with uniforms and school supplies. It added a “Santa Shop” to enable parents to select what they want to give their children. It offers healthier food.
But the fastest-growing need is for livable housing. Rita Jones organizes volunteers who repair homes and add wheelchair ramps.
“People would be shocked if they could see how some people are living on Hilton Head,” Doughtie said.
Trailers are falling apart. Some are being put out for rent when they shouldn’t be lived in. She mentioned one with the back seat from a car as its only furniture.
Today, more than half of Deep Well’s clients are Hispanic.
“They come and go pretty fast, so we need to dig deeper and quickly find out their situation,” Doughtie said.
Plumbing and transportation aren’t the problems they used to be. Because there is no public transportation, the working poor buy cars, which adds a lot of expenses to tight budgets.
The huge problem now is rising rent costs, Doughtie said. What used to be $750 a month is now $900, or $1,000 or $1,200.
“So it doesn’t take much to throw people off,” she said.
A lot of new tools help fight poverty, like a computerized database, and countywide collaboration with the Human Services Alliance and Charity Tracker. Today, the Community Foundation of the Lowcountry and the Heritage Classic Foundation are in place. A number of new thrift stores have joined the Bargain Box in funding Deep Well, as have new charitable foundations in Wexford, Colleton River, Long Cove and other communities. The Hilton Head Rotary Club built Deep Well its first true headquarters. When it had to get out for airport expansion, it moved to 80 Capital Drive off Leg O Mutton Road.
But with a fast-changing population, a lot of people don’t know Deep Well’s story. Many charities, old and new, have the same problem today.
One thing that hasn’t changed is the need for islanders to open their eyes.
“We need to get people to open their eyes to people living on this island who are living hand-to-mouth,” she said. “And what would this island be without these poor island workers — without landscapers, dishwashers, cooks, maids? The whole thing would fall apart.”