Leading Ladies of Bluffton

Over a century ago, the first Women’s Day was held in New York to honor ladies of every stripe and show appreciation for the contributions they made to society and our hearts. Today, this celebration of mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, teachers, friends, leaders and inspirational figures continues and is held annually on March 8. So, in recognition of International Women’s Day, this month The Bluffton Breeze showcases a few leading ladies of our community, and hearkens their words of wisdom.

Bluffton Mayor Lisa Sulka is a wonderful example of a woman making her way in a traditionally male world—politics—and doing so with distinctly pleasant, feminine grace. She gets these traits from her mother, one of the first female real estate brokers in the state of South Carolina, who ran for mayor of their little town at a time when that was just not done.

Mayor Lisa Sulka

Mayor Lisa Sulka

“I was so proud of her!” recalls Mayor Sulka, who is now a mommy herself. “As a mother, you do all these things for your children, so this is just taking that service to the next level.”

Not surprisingly, one of Sulka’s top priorities as mayor is paving a smooth road for the next generation. She wants to keep Bluffton young and vibrant, and ensure it remains an economically viable place for people to start a life. “A town is built on family legacy,” she says. “So, I want to encourage our youth and let them know someone has their back.”

Mayor Sulka confides she loves it when people seem a little confused about how she manages to get three kids to three separate sporting events in different towns—all at the same time—run her own business and serve in her third term as mayor. According to Sulka, women are just better multitaskers! She considers it an important part of her role to encourage young women to step outside their boundaries without fear. “Everywhere I go, I am usually the only female,” says Sulka, who is currently the only woman on Town Council and the first female mayor of Bluffton. “I’m not an activist, but I was brought up to be strong, smart and comfortable standing my ground—and to be respectful.”

Echoing similar values but embodying them in a totally different realm, is lifelong Bluffton resident, Jennifer Green. Though she may not necessarily see herself as a leader, the generous, positive spirit she shares has certainly been a bright spot in the community. Green describes herself as a Christian who, while not perfect by any means, tries to practice the values of kindness, acceptance and encouragement.

“I think one of the things that draws people to Bluffton is the small-town community aspect,” said Green. “Yes, we’re having some growing pains, but deep down I think we are still the loving, caring community that we were when I was growing up—I mean the hurricane proved that. It’s just now we have a whole lot more people.”

Jennifer Green

Green has been president of the May River Theatre for four years, although her involvement stretches back a decade further. Now with a young daughter of her own, she sees the need for arts not only in schools, but also in the community, as a mode of self-expression and a way to build confidence or public speaking skills.

“If you can get onstage and act a fool in front of whomever, you can do anything!” said Green, adding that she hopes to implement more youth programs with the Theatre. “I think it’s so important for kids to get encouragement from a young age so that they can build their confidence. We need to keep them grounded and positive about themselves so they can stay strong enough to face peer pressure and all the horrible things that unfortunately are out there right now.”

Another leading lady who has taken on great responsibility toward the next generation is Dr. Christina Gwozdz. Like Mayor Sulka, she brings the uniquely female experience of balancing motherhood with professionalism and service, operating her own successful medical practice and giving back to the community as a member of the Beaufort County School Board. After putting three sons through public schools here, then sending them off to Princeton, she continues to feel personally committed to helping children get the highest possible quality of education in Beaufort County.

Dr. Christina Gwodz

“I make decisions based on values,” Dr. Gwozdz declares. “It is important to me to be honest, trustworthy, dependable, reasonable and respectful of others and their ideas, even if I don’t agree with them. I’ve been very fortunate because I don’t feel any disadvantage as a woman in obtaining a leadership position, especially in the medical field, which is almost a 50/50 split. I think it’s good for women to have a bond with other women, and men with men. But we have to remember that we are a society of both men and women, so we need to work together as a whole.”

Shelly West, Photo by Rob Kaufman.

Native Blufftonian Shellie West, CEO and founder of the Greater Bluffton Chamber of Commerce, has a similar ideal of an inclusive and sustaining community. Her work with the Chamber involves using her knowledge, experience and connectedness to not only help small businesses succeed, but to promote mutual support and develop strength in the community.

“I wanted to use my entrepreneurial background to give back,” says West, who has a master’s in hospitality management and started the Chamber single-handedly while raising three kids and running her own business. “I don’t claim to know everything, but I am going to seek out people who do. I know how to be resourceful.”

Though West hasn’t necessarily wanted to get into politics, she sees an opportunity to advocate at the local and regional level—or even at the state and national levels. “I feel like I’m one of the few out there who’s really listening to people,” she says. “I talk with them all day long, I know where they’re coming from, and I want to make sure the small voices are heard. I try to see all sides and consider the big picture.”

Constance Martin-Witter with a portrait of her mother.

Yet another role model is Constance Martin-Witter, a retired educator from Michigan with Lowcountry roots extending back to the pre-Emancipation era. Her father is from Bluffton and her mother, Ida Martin, originally came from the Charleston area, but became a local icon whose legacy continues to benefit residents today.

“My mother started Bluffton Self Help out of the trunk of her car, and now it’s practically a Fortune 500 company,”says Martin-Witter, adding that in 2011 President Obama handpicked Ida Martin as one of 13 out of 6,000 nominations to receive the Presidential Citizens Medal, the second-highest honor awarded to a civilian. Back in the ’70s, little Constance used to go around with her mother in the car gathering food and clothes to distribute to those in need, and later someone donated a tool shed in which to house the budding mission. Ida Martin has now passed on, but her daughter carries the torch with a permanent chair on the Bluffton Self Help’s board of directors, among many other service activities.

“Everyone has a purpose and it’s up to each of us to find and achieve it,” says Martin-Witter. “It’s our charge from God. We can’t hold anyone else accountable but ourselves. We all have in us a greatness that will take us from needing help to turning it around and being able to help others ourselves. We just have to have faith and determination, and not worry about the naysayers. Then we can make a positive difference in other people’s lives—that’s what Bluffton is about.”

Donna Huffman

No one knows this better than Donna Huffman, founder of this magazine and president of the Bluffton Historical Preservation Society (BHPS). “I have understood from day one the importance of what I call the Bluffton Trinity,” says Huffman. “That means the May River, the history and the people. I have always been happy to support the Town and do whatever I can to bring that Bluffton Trinity together.”

Starting The Bluffton Breeze magazine in 2003 was one of the most important culminations of her vision because it highlights within its pages the unique local people, environmental richness of the estuary and history, such as the Burning of Bluffton and the Secession Movement that originated here. Now Huffman’s work with the Preservation Society gives her a chance to focus on projects like restoring the Historic Heyward House—which doubles as the Bluffton Welcome Center—an undertaking for which they just received a significant federal grant. She is also very pleased about the Society’s relationship with the Town.

“With all the development going on, it’s nice to have a voice at the table for the historic aspect,” Huffman says. “Because this is the heartbeat—there wouldn’t be a Greater Bluffton if it weren’t for the Trinity.”

Huffman has served the community for years wearing many different hats, but always as a strong, caring female presence. “The women of Bluffton are very compassionate, very apt to give of themselves and their time,” she says, adding that the Historic Preservation Society has relied heavily on volunteers and is always eager to accept new members. “And the men of Bluffton don’t mind for women to be in leadership positions—they accept us. This is a small town that has a lot of friendship, so we can agree to disagree and still love each other.”

Written by Michele Roldan-Shaw.