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Putting People First

HEATHER RATH IS PASSIONATE ABOUT UNITING HILTON HEAD

HHM RathIf you live on Hilton Head Island long enough, and if you travel in the circles through which policies are set, courses are charted and decisions are made, there is one question you will inevitably be asked: “Do you know Heather Rath?”

If you travel in these circles, and if you’ve been here long enough, you’ve probably both asked and answered this question. And while you may answer yes, do you really know Heather Rath? You might think you do, but the fact is, the more you learn about her the more you come to realize how much richer our community is for her presence.

Not that you’d ever hear that from her.

“My family… it lends itself to being humble yet very persuasive, and doing the right thing always,” she said. “Always serving others, but doing it in a way that isn’t flashy or out there.”

Even before setting foot on Hilton Head Island, she had shown her tremendous ability to effect positive change. As a teenager, she was featured in Seventeen magazine for filing a lawsuit against her own high school. The principal had forbidden her from selling ad space in the school paper to a gay and lesbian outreach center, so Rath took it to the school board and got the whole community involved.

Selflessness comes naturally to Rath. As she puts it, it’s in her DNA. Her great-grandparents migrated to Hawaii in the late 1800s to help found Palama Settlement, an organization that to this day provides a wide range of educational and community services in Honolulu. The Rath family stayed and immersed themselves in the community because, “it was very important to live the life of the people they were serving in Hawaii.”

That family legacy of enriching communities and their people is strong with Heather. After splitting her childhood between California and Hawaii, she attended college at University of Wyoming where she worked on the Fort Collins redevelopment project. She was there when the nation’s eyes fell on Laramie and the university following the death of Matthew Shepard.

“It was an important reminder to why we need to be committed to all people, especially in difficult times,” she said.

In that moment, her natural impulse to always stand with those who need an ally was galvanized. In the summer of 1998 at a professor’s recommendation, she took classes at Alabama State University and traveled the state documenting elementary school history books that were still portraying slavery in a positive light. “I met with a lot of principals and superintendents that summer and received a HBCU experience,” she said

Eventually she’d wind up on Hilton Head, where she began to make her mark on the island and also met her husband, Joe Dimaria.

The couple has raised three boys together — Graydon, Hale and Reed — sharing in the adventure of parenthood.

Amid all the coronavirus debates surrounding masks and lockdowns, Rath was a near-constant source of facts and positive change, sharing the latest numbers, working with leaders to create public testing events and advocating at the state level to ensure CARES Act money was used responsibly. 

As a community advocate, her CV reads like a list of the island’s greatest hits. She championed a master plan during her tenure on the town’s parks and rec commission and Greater Island Council that was recently approved. She was chair of the parks and rec commission during the creation and implementation of the rowing and sailing center, Lowcountry Celebration Park and Shelter Cove Community Park.

She became heavily involved with politics as a means to influence policy, counting people like former governor Mark Sanford among her close friends. She worked alongside community leaders on events like the 350/30 Celebration and One Island One Community One Hilton Head. The common thread running through these events, you’ll notice, is community unity.

And that unity lies at the heart of what Heather Rath brings to the island. When she talks about her work, she talks about it in terms of people.

Whether it’s the native islander working to enhance community and culture, retired CEO’s, fellow parents, or the person driving the school bus, she believes each person is an indelible part of our community.

“I find value in the people that weave together the fabric of our community, and I strive for us to stand together to better the Island,” she said.

And along the way she’s found mentors at every turn, whether it’s Linda Piekut formerly of the Heritage Library, Leslie Richardson, Sen. Tom Davis, the late John Curry and Bob Masteller, and community advocates like Frank Babel, Thomas Barnwell Jr. or Morris Campbell, who recently brought Rath to tears in the best way.

Rath had been a big part of Alex Brown’s successful town council campaign, and Campbell’s accolades on a recent Zoom call started up the waterworks.

“When you have somebody like Mr. Campbell, who believed in me 20 years ago, who didn’t know investing in me would make me stay…I cannot tell you how meaningful that is to me,” she said. “One of my greatest prides to have these community leaders say, ‘Your work matters and you’re doing great things for the community and I want to be on your team.’ ”