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Mother Teresa of the Sea Islands

Rural Mission director gets Order of the Palmetto for lifetime of service

By Jessica Connor

JOHNS ISLAND–The woman known as the Mother Teresa of the Sea Islands has received the state’s highest honor for her longtime service to the rural poor.

Rural Mission Executive Director Linda Dingle Gadson was presented with the prestigious Order of the Palmetto in November for 38 years spent improving the living conditions of migrant workers and the impoverished island people.

Given annually by the state and the governor, the award goes to a select few who have exhibited exceptional humanitarian service. Sen. Chip Campsen, who nominated Gadson for the award, called her “an unsung hero and Samaritan who has touched many lives through the incredible work of the Rural Mission, Inc.”

The Rev. McKinley Washington, one of Rural Mission’s founders, said her contributions have been immeasurable.

“Linda Gadson’s humanitarian giving has been for a lifetime,” Washington wrote in a letter of recommendation to Gov. Mark Sanford.

Sanford especially noted Gadson’s service to missions and faith, indicating how her leadership has brought thousands of volunteers to the islands to help others in dire need and hardship.

But on rural Johns Island, Gadson isn’t sitting on her laurels. The award festivities over, she’s back to work with a vengeance, determined to do all she can to help the island people, many of whom live in substandard homes with no running water or electricity.

Gadson has been at the helm of Rural Mission for most of the nonprofit’s 41 years of existence. A United Methodist Advance Special Ministry, Rural Mission started in 1969 to improve the lives of migrant families at a time when the Sea Islands were chiefly agricultural. It has evolved as the island evolved, and today, the organization primarily helps repair the homes of very low-income people. It also has a migrant childcare center.

“Rural Mission gets in your blood – it’s authentic love,” Gadson said, citing the deep needs of the people the organization helps. “You can’t help yourself.”

Indeed, their needs do run deep. The organization said requests for assistance have more than doubled since mid-2008. More than a quarter of the island population lives below the poverty level. One in every five rural low-income homes is severely substandard.

Jean Doscher, S.C. United Methodist Women representative to Rural Mission, called Johns Island one of the poorest places in the state.

“There are people living in deplorable conditions,” said Doscher, who is thrilled that Gadson is finally being recognized for all she has done. “Linda has almost given her life for Rural Mission – worked tirelessly, sometimes going without paychecks. I can’t think of anybody in the state who would be more deserving.”

Deep roots

The youngest of seven children, Gadson found her passion for service at Big Mama’s knee. Big Mama, Gadson’s maternal grandmother, was the matriarch of the family and raised Gadson and her siblings on the island while their mother found the only work she could: at a hotel on the mainland.

“Big Mama had a third-grade education but the wisdom of Job,” Gadson chuckles, recounting how she and her brothers and sisters grew up washing clothes and wiping snotty noses because Big Mama’s house also doubled as the island’s free daycare. Farm workers would drop their children early in the morning, where they would play under the sycamore tree until their parents picked them up at the end of the day.

“I learned early on to take care of people,” Gadson said.

Big Mama instilled heavy values: help each other. Be your brother’s keeper.  Believe in the Bible, every word.

As the last of seven, the lessons hit Gadson especially hard. Years later, as Big Mama got older and sicker, roles reversed and Gadson became her grandmother’s caregiver: “That taught me even more.”

Integration also profoundly shaped her. Gadson was one of a handful of black students to integrate St. Paul’s High School. It wasn’t easy – as the only non-white in her political science class, and the kids would put bubble gum on her chair and do other mean things. But she learned to navigate interracial lines early on, something that would serve her well as she transitioned to a life of charitable service.

After attending S.C. State College and graduating from the College of Charleston (the first African-American female), she stumbled into destiny. The Rev. Willis T. Goodwin, one of Rural Mission’s founders, asked her to help him organize the organization’s work camp. It was supposed to be temporary – Gadson planned to go to law school.

But Rural Mission caught her heart and wouldn’t let go. Thirty-eight years later, she has led the organization from nascency to its status today as a nationally renowned ministry, drawing volunteers from all over the U.S. to help build and repair homes for the rural poor.

“God had another plan for me,” she said.

Now, she serves as a bridge between the haves and have-nots. She works with millionaires and migrants, with well-off retirees and the working poor, bringing people together to help the impoverished get a new lease on life one plank and one nail at a time.

“One thing I’ve learned over the years: we are all the same,” said Gadson, a lifelong member of Wesley UMC in Hollywood. “No matter how poor or rich, there are needs everywhere. We are God’s children.”

Out of the darkness

Gadson has seen some dark times in her life. Over the years, she has worked with drug addicts and people with emotional problems. Her family, too, has struggled – with depression, drug and alcohol addiction and obesity.

Gadson herself, from health issues and exhaustion, nearly died in 2006, requiring four heart bypasses and flatlining twice.

Rural Mission, too, has seen some hard times. There were years when she thought it was going to close, and she didn’t take a paycheck. Even now, it struggles. They had to let three staffers go in the spring, and there is a $200,000 note on the property that has to be paid in June. While she and the board of directors can renegotiate the loan, it still needs to be paid.

But over and over again, God has brought them out of the clutches of despair. When the Advocate visited Rural Mission in December, a surprise donation had staff blinking back tears and keeping their hopes alive.

“We believe the same God who has kept us has decided He will not close the doors,” she said.

The lessons she has learned, personally and professionally, allow her to have both sympathy and empathy for the people Rural Mission helps.

“My theme in life has been from the outhouse to the White House,” she said, laughing. “That says it all.”

A supreme reason

Gadson feels God spared her life for a reason: ˆ

“He brought me back because it wasn’t over; I hadn’t reached where He needed me to be,” she said. “I made a vow that, whatever you want me to do, Lord, that’s where I am.”

Every morning, she anoints the Rural Mission gate with oil and prayer, blessing the work the organization will do that today and b
eyond.

Staff, board and other supporters are just thankful she is there to lead the nonprofit through its next phase and into a brighter future.

“Ms. G’s got a compassion for people that just rubs off on you,” said Nancy Butler, who worked for Rural Mission 19 years before she was laid off in March.

“She’s as good as gold,” said Dana Rogers, the group’s Migrant Head Start director. “We can’t say thank you to her enough.”

To help Rural Mission, visit www.ruralmission.org .

Jean Doscher contributed to this article.

 

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