Responding to COVID-19 in... Hilton Head, South Carolina

This post is the first in a series highlighting the responses of SECF members to the COVID-19 pandemic in their communities. We will use this series to highlight partnerships, coalitions and innovative examples of giving that help those affected by this crisis. If you are involved in a program you would like to see highlighted here, contact David Miller, director of marketing and communications, at


The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are being felt everywhere in the Southeast. But few communities are more vulnerable to its immediate economic impact than Hilton Head Island and nearby Bluffton in South Carolina.

The area’s economy is highly dependent on tourism and hospitality. The wave of closures and stay-at-home orders caused by the outbreak hit right before the spring travel season, including Spring Break, got underway. 

“Tourism and hospitality are the backbone of the local economy so almost overnight, a large percentage of the working community found themselves without a stable income,” says Katherine Louw, executive director of the Watterson Family Foundation. “This community knows how to rebuild after a hurricane, but this proverbial storm is different because hit at the start of our regular tourist season, and there is no clear end in sight.”

With scores of locally-owned businesses and their workers facing a dire situation, a group of foundations have acted quickly to establish Help4Hope, a program that supports both groups at once.

Here’s how it works: Money raised for the Help4Hope Fund will be used to provide $50 investment cards distributed to local families through area nonprofit organizations and churches. These cards can be redeemed at participating local restaurants for a meal fit to feed a family of four. The restaurants then submit the cards to the Community Foundation of the Lowcountry for reimbursement. 

Help4Hope is the brainchild of the founders of the Watterson Family Foundation, who are local business owners themselves.

“On the day the mandate went out from the governor to close all restaurant dining rooms, Billy and Brenda Watterson picked up pizza from their newly opened Hilton Head Island restaurant, Pizza Co. While eating in their car, the gravity of the COVID-19 pandemic and the effects it would have on the economy of their coastal community started to sink in,” Louw said. “Recalling a ticket system commonly used at food and wine festivals, where paying guests are given tickets to be redeemed for samples from the participating venders, the Wattersons wondered if something similar could be implemented under these circumstances.”

From there, the Wattersons worked with multiple partners, including the community foundation, to turn the idea into a reality. Help4Hope is also supported by the local Chamber of Commerce, local businesses, government, the faith community and nonprofits.

“The Lowcountry community has a long history of working together to address community needs, more recently through the impact of hurricanes in this area,” says Emmy Rooney, vice president for development and donor services at the community foundation. “Providing relief for those impacted in the Hilton Head Island and Bluffton communities amidst COVID-19 and its anticipated aftermath further strengthens and continues to bring together those bonds of working collaboratively to support the health and well-being of all residents.”

The area’s frequent experiences with hurricanes has had an unexpected benefit: Many of the partners involved already had strong remote-work plans and policies in place, making communication and coordination relatively easy. However, implementation did require some out-of-the-box thinking, said Leslie Vargas-Prada, the community foundation’s donor services associate.

“Nonprofit organizations and other participants who primarily rely on volunteers to help facilitate the program elements have had to make adjustments to assure the safety of both volunteers and program recipients,” she says. “One creative approach has been the use of ‘pop-up’ distribution spots where recipients can access food vouchers via these drive-up locations.”

Dozens of restaurants in Hilton Head and Bluffton are involved in the program – their employees are working and earning income by providing meals to those in need. For more information about the program, and to make a contribution to the Help4Hope Fund, visit

“This truly been a collective, community-wide initiative from inception,” Louw says. “Day after day this team has showed up with their A-game to make Help4Hope and its mission to feed families, support restaurants, and save jobs a reality.”

David Miller is SECF's director of marketing and communications.



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