You’ve heard Tina Simmons’ story before. Perhaps not specifically hers, but you’ve heard some variation of it. The particulars may change, but the story is sadly familiar. A single mom, doing the best she can to raise a young daughter. Struggling to make ends meet, juggling the demands of a job with the demands of a child. Wondering how she’s going to get through the next month.
“My story is like a lot of people’s I know,” she said. “I’d been a CNA (certified nurse’s assistant) for eight years, but I’d had a baby, and finding good affordable childcare was difficult.”
Fortunately, unlike so many variations on this story, Simmons’ has a happy ending. It began with a visit to St. Gregory the Great, where she sought out assistance with rent. Instead, parishioner Tom Alaimo saw an opportunity to do more.
“He wanted to know more about me and my plans, and how I was keeping up with bills,” Simmons said. “I was working, but I was trying to get back into school to get a better job. He could see I had goals.”
Alaimo recommended that Simmons stop by Bluffton Self Help, where a pilot program was quietly changing the scope of the organization’s mission. For years, it was about giving clients what they needed to get by. Now, it is about giving them what they need to get ahead.
Through this program, Simmons found mentorship, financial education and a support system designed to empower her to pursue her goals. It represents the next step in what Bluffton Self Help can deliver, and already, for Simmons, it has changed everything.
“I gave it a shot,” she said. “Sometimes you just have to do things to see where they lead.”
If there’s a sentiment that might have defined the early years of Bluffton Self Help, it’s that. Mrs. Ida Martin, gathering items in her garage to give to her neighbors back in 1987, was just giving it a shot. She knew there were neighbors, people she loved and cared about, going hungry. So, she thought she’d try to help and see where it led.
If you’ve been living in Bluffton for any amount of time, you know where it led. It led to Bluffton Self Help, the non-profit organization she founded, becoming the gold standard of human service agencies in Beaufort County. It led to countless families enjoying a warm meal, a little extra security and the occasional present under the Christmas tree.
It even led to the White House, where in 2011, Mrs Ida Martin was awarded the Presidential Citizens Medal for the shining example she set and the lives she transformed along the way.
Mrs. Ida left this world in 2013, but that example has become a legacy which continues with every full stomach and every life transformed by Bluffton Self Help. And that sentiment of trying something new to see where it leads? It’s still around. It’s just that these days it’s a little more intentional.
“There’s no doubt Bluffton is growing and evolving, and as the leading human service agency in the area, we feel like we also need to grow, evolve, be innovative and shift the way we deliver our services,” said Kimberly Hall, executive director of Bluffton Self Help.
That shift sees Bluffton Self Help going beyond simply providing for that night’s meal or that month’s rent check. Today, they are focusing more on their clients’ future, giving them a support system, mentorship and a solid foundation upon which they can build.
“At our core, we’re not changing. Our core values will always be the same to the root of what Ida started 35 years ago,” Hall said. “We’re more focused on education and training and workforce readiness. Basic needs, that stabilization, will not go away. But what we’re really doing is giving our mission, our programs, everything we do, a more holistic approach.”
And far from seeing where it leads, these new programs were crafted following exhaustive, data-driven research into how Bluffton Self Help can do more. Working with the Joseph P. Riley Jr. Center for Livable Communities, they embarked on a strategic planning partnership with a broad focus on expanding the mission and serving people the best they can. The results of this partnership saw Self Help expanding its focus to more of a regional service, leading to satellite locations in Hardeeville and beyond, as well as partnerships with other non-profits in the area.
But for Simmons, the most important thing to come out of this planning partnership was the notion that Bluffton Self Help can do more by giving their neighbors the tools they need to succeed.
“To be most effective, we must move beyond a singular focus. We meet the client where they are and then work with them every step of the way to achieve success—at home, at work, in the community,” Hall said. “This is our path forward. Our clients’ path forward. Our community’s path forward. And we’ll be there with our neighbors every step of the way.”
Today, thanks to the guidance and mentorship she was given, Simmons is working towards the life she’d long dreamed of. Enrolled in TCL (Technical College of the Lowcountry), she’s pursuing a business and accounting degree.
“They helped me get a better-paying job that I love,” Simmons said. “Not only did they help me earn more money, but they’ve made it so I’m not depending as much on looking for resources to pay bills.”
That change will ripple out through Tina Simmons’ life and through her family’s life for generations.
“I want to be able to give my daughter a better start than I ever had,” she said. “And I’m going into accounting so I can pass that knowledge down to my child, my nieces and nephews… I just want to help my community so we can grow together.”
That goes for Simmons and for the organization that helped her set herself on a better path.