Hilton Head Island’s tourism industry has taken a beating from the COVID-19 pandemic, forcing laid-off workers to turn to food pantries and other assistance, many of them for the first time.
Since the mid-March lockdown in South Carolina, the number of people seeking help at Bluffton Self Help, a nonprofit assistance agency in Beaufort County, has reached nearly 1,000—the total number assisted last year.
Wages are high in the resort area of Hilton Head, but so is the cost of living, said Kimberly Hall, the group’s executive director.
“We’re serving a lot of people that might be above the poverty line but below livable wage,” said Hall. “So, when you have a livable wage issue and you’re one paycheck away from crisis, that’s when you see the need rise.”
Soon, though, Bluffton Self Help and other social service agencies serving Hilton Head Island will get a welcome boost from “Give 5,” a new voluntary initiative spearheaded by Palmetto Electric Cooperative. For one billing cycle, some members are adding at least $5 to their electric bills to go toward four agencies to help those in need to pay rent, mortgage, food and utility bills.
Amounts of $5, $100 and even $1,000 have begun to roll in, according to Palmetto Electric officials. The Ridgeland, South Carolina, co-op, along with its Operation Round Up foundation, will provide matching donations of up to $50,000 each.
“You want to do something to help out these folks who’ve really been struggling,” among them employees’ spouses, neighbors and friends, said Berl Davis, Palmetto Electric’s president and CEO.
Davis said business closures and restrictions turned coastal communities, usually bustling right now, into ghost towns.
“Even if hotels kept their doors open, their occupancy rates were less than 5% when usually at this time of year they’re 80 to 85%,” he said.
About 6.5% of residential accounts are 30 days past due—the typical rate is less than 1%— most likely due to COVID-19 job losses, according to Palmetto Electric. The co-op is starting to contact members to help them set up payment plans, said Missy Santorum, the co-op’s public relations manager.
Davis said Give 5 is based on similar giving programs launched by at least two other South Carolina co-ops, Laurens EC and York EC. He also said the co-op is considering extending the program another billing cycle.
As the region slowly begins to reopen, any extra resources would be welcomed by the organizations designated to receive Give 5 funds: Bluffton Self Help, Beaufort/Jasper Economic Opportunity Commission, Deep Well and United Ministries of Hampton.
Hall said the co-op’s “great culture of truly giving back” has helped her agency throughout its 34-year history.
“We don’t receive any government funding, so it truly is neighbors helping neighbors,” she said.
“And it’s our neighbors facing challenging times. We’re doing everything to uplift them right now.”
Victoria A. Rocha is a staff writer at NRECA.