Laura Bush: Better to Give Back

“Opportunity” is a word that comes up a lot with Laura Bush. The opportunities she’s been given, and those that young folks enjoy today. Hers is a story of opportunities seized, envisioned, and given back.

Laura is a Bluffton native whose people go as far back as can be traced—to Spring Island on her daddy’s side, and Buckingham Plantation on her mom’s. You don’t get any more local than Laura Bush. She recalls playing in the dirt streets of Old Town with her friends, attending segregated schools, seeing her daddy fish and farm; watching everyone eat from the river and the earth and share whatever they had.

“If I look back from where I’m sitting now, I’d say it was hard,” said Laura, who will tell her story at an honorary banquet this month at Campbell Chapel AME in Bluffton. “We didn’t think of ourselves as poor or deprived. We were all in the same situation. But now, after all the work I’ve done, I can see we were in dire straits.”

Nearly a half-century later, Laura views the Lowcountry through eyes that have seen what newcomers never will. A lot has changed, and she played a major role in that. As one of 14 siblings, Laura knew college was out of the question, so upon high school graduation in 1962 she headed north to live with an elder sister in New York, and then a brother in Washington, D.C.

“Coming from a little old country town and the freedom that I had, I did not like the city,” Laura admitted. She had yet to find her niche when life took her in another direction: her father suffered a debilitating stroke, so Laura returned home to help her mother care for him. In those days, the job prospects in Bluffton were limited, so she found work on Hilton Head in hospitality, housekeeping or groundskeeping, just like the rest of her contemporaries. “That was life as I knew it,” she said. “I didn’t think there would be anything else and I didn’t see a problem with it.”

Fate had bigger things in store for young Laura.

The first twist came when former South Carolina Governor Fritz Hollings embarked on a statewide poverty tour. At that time, a doctor in Beaufort was speaking out about children falling sick and even dying from malnutrition, iron deficiency and stomach worms. No one had indoor plumbing in those days, only shallow wells with pumps, and sanitation issues like using the bathroom outside, unwashed hands and playing in the same dirt were causing children to become infected with parasites. (Laura recalls her mother treating them once a month with Castor oil to flush their systems.) As awareness exposed these living conditions, former Governor Hollings and his team decided to come see for themselves. Someone recommended Laura as a guide, and despite having little personal interest in the issues at the time, she led the delegation on an in-home, eyewitness experience. This was the unwitting start to Laura’s career in public health and service.

Later, as she worked at what was then Bluffton’s dry cleaning service on the corner of Calhoun Street and May River Road, she was approached with another opportunity. The University of South Carolina was implementing a program to study and combat intestinal parasites, and asked Laura for help with outreach, data collection and community education. Suddenly, she was testing soil samples, holding community meetings, conducting “dietary recall” fieldwork, going into homes and convincing mothers to get their children treated.

“I realized I had the ability to impact people,” Laura said. “When I spoke, they believed in me. I would tell them, ‘These doctors aren’t going to harm your kids, and they trusted me. I was able to get almost 200 children to participate.”

It was a true awakening for her—not only to the issues she’d been unaware of growing up, but also to her own ability and desire to do something about them. In 1969, a Senate hearing on Nutrition and Human Needs was held to report the findings of their groundbreaking work, resulting in the creation of the Beaufort-Jasper Comprehensive Health Center, which remains a cornerstone of the community today (it now includes Hampton County, as well.) Soon after opening their doors, they hired Laura as Health Education and Action Assistant, the first of several positions she would hold there over the next decade. “It was a fantastic 10 years,” she said. “We did so much work.”

Laura went on to become a consultant for the Beaufort-Jasper County Water and Sewer Authority on a project to bring potable water to folks in rural communities.

Again, she realized her ability to “organize, plan and implement” was making a difference. She grew in knowledge and skill, networking and gaining the community’s trust. By this point in her career, you could give Laura Bush an assignment, and she would sit down and study the proposal before hitting the streets to make it happen.

“Even though there were periods of time where I didn’t have a job, people always found me,” she said. “The native blacks have a song that every round just goes higher and higher [“We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder”]—that’s how my jobs went.”

Next, she was hired by the Institute for Community Education and Training to conduct a statewide project on the needs of low-income women, despite her limited knowledge of the field.

“I think from there I felt I could do anything,” she said. When the executive director left, Laura stepped up; the role presented new challenges, because for the first time she was responsible not only for her own livelihood, but everyone else on the nonprofit’s staff, as well. She’ll never forget when the Ford Foundation gave them $300,000, the biggest funding proposal she ever wrote.

From there, Laura went to the Beaufort County Department of Social Services, where she coordinated an emergency assistance program to help people facing such hardships as illness, disaster or the loss of a job or a spouse. She created a system whereby local charitable agencies could access records of who had been given assistance—when, where and how—thereby preventing abuse.

She even helped nab a criminal during those days! Laura knew something wasn’t right about the individual posing as a homeless man with a broken ankle in need of a bus ticket home to Virginia, who turned out to be an escaped convict from Florida. But mostly her office was the conduit through which help flowed.

“Say someone has a $200 bill, their lights are going to get cut off and they have children in the house,” Laura explained of her work during those years. “I would ask that person what they could contribute, then get pledges from churches or other local groups that wanted to help. You could take a special form signed by me to the light company, and that was like money in the bank. I established all those relationships. There were times I actually had law enforcement in people’s yards getting ready to pull their mobile homes, and I would say ‘Sir, how can we buy some time?’ I helped take a lot of stress off people, and I enjoyed that a whole lot. I really felt I was making a difference.”

In 2007, after 15 years with DSS, Laura left to battle breast cancer. She feels blessed to be a 10-year survivor, however she doesn’t consider herself retired just yet.

“I don’t see that my work is done,” she said. “There are still some issues, especially with our children.” In 1988, she got on the school board thinking she’d do a single term, but four years turned into 26. After all that experience, she is able to identify two target areas that still need improvement in our schools: diversity and achievement.

“We need to always keep diversity at the forefront,” she said. “We live in a community of blacks, whites and Hispanics, so I would like to see that reflected more in our teachers and leadership.”

Always one to speak her mind, Laura also sees a need for sensitivity training in schools, as she feels cultural differences might account for the higher numbers of African-American students getting referrals, suspension or expulsion. “I don’t think our kids are any worse than anybody else’s,” she said. “So, we need to turn those numbers around.” It disturbs her that African-American students are still on the bottom in terms of academic performance. “Apply resources! Give them a double-dose of reading or math or whatever they need to get them up to the level where they should be.”

True to form, Laura is taking action. In 2016, she founded the “Better to Give Back Fund,” inspired in part by her son’s mentoring of young black males on Hilton Head, and the desire he expressed to see them improve their self-image.

“These kids think they’re not worth anything,” said Laura, “that people have a certain image of them and they can’t be anything beyond that. So, we have to keep encouraging them to see that doors are opening, that they need to not squander those opportunities.”

Laura’s non-profit, which gives money toward local scholarships and other programs, is committed to the “Five E’s”: Empowerment, Experience, Education, Exposure and Entertainment. An upcoming banquet at Campbell Chapel will benefit the fund, as well as celebrating Laura’s life and 48 years of community service, while giving people the chance to hear her incredible story in her own words.

“I think those moving here today have no earthly concept of what Bluffton was like,” she said. “For those of us who lived it, there needs to be more opportunities to share both the good and the bad. We had black entrepreneurs! We had a black movie theatre on Calhoun Street; we had an undertaker, grocery store, a lady who owned an apartment complex, two brothers who captained their own boats, and a cooperative of black fisherman who actually bought and owned the Bluffton Oyster Factory for a while. Where is that in the Bluffton history books? There are people out there who have stories to tell, so hopefully by telling mine it will open the doors for others.”

It is remarkable what Laura Bush has accomplished without a college degree, simply through work ethic, desire to learn, and commitment to serving her community. She is the first to express gratitude to all those who supported her, particularly her husband who helped take care of their four children all those years she was working.

“I have availed myself of all kinds of opportunities,” said Laura. “I can tell you all the people who gave them to me, and I appreciate them when I see them. I always try to treat people decently, never speak ill of anyone, but listen to their opinion and give them mine. When people don’t respect and trust you, you’re not going to get anywhere. So, I think people have seen in me the kind of character that made me respected, and I thank God for that.”

Article written by Michele Roldán-Shaw

Photos courtesy of Jaala’s Photography