Bonita Clemons is on a mission to ensure wellness for all in South Carolina
When we spoke, Bonita Clemons recalled an important lesson she learned as a little girl. “One day, when I was five years old, I wanted to go with my aunties, who were older, to pick cotton. When we finished, somebody put a coin in my hand. I knew at five that a coin wasn’t enough money. All that hard work for a coin? I knew then that wasn’t gonna work.”
Today, Clemons is a mother, daughter, and friend. She is also a health scientist, certified health specialist, and the executive director of the South Carolina Community Health Workers Association. But she will tell you that it’s taken a winding path to get to where she is now–one she calls her “wilderness life journey.”
Clemons’ first job was in Washington, D.C., with the Social Security Department. Later, she moved back home to South Carolina to work as an internal auditor. While she had graduated from Benedict College in 1987 with a degree in Business Administration, Clemons was still in search of her true calling. “I’m not an indoor kind of girl. When I was a little girl, I wanted to be a health teacher. I wanted to teach people about health and wellness,” Clemons said.
The death of her mother, which she views as preventable, was the catalyst in her decision to pursue a career where she could educate women – particularly women of color – whom Clemons emphasizes have “endured terrible injustice” and mistreatment by the medical establishment, on how to lead healthier lives. But just two years after the loss of her mother, another tragedy struck.
In 1992, Clemons was in a terrible car accident that would change her own health practices forever. Her injuries required a surgery involving an incision from her chest down to her pelvic bone. After spending time recovering, Clemons was determined to follow her true calling and enrolled in a master’s program at the University of South Carolina’s Arnold School of Public Health.
Completing her master’s degree in public health, Clemons was now closer to her goal of educating and improving the lives of others. But there was still one problem. Even after multiple surgeries, Clemons suffered from stomach pain, and doctors could not determine the cause. By the process of elimination, she discovered that certain foods triggered the pain. This prompted Clemons to adopt a vegetarian diet and pursue holistic health practices like walking and meditating. She discovered a juice drink that helped reduce her blood pressure.
Clemons told me that practices like these have had a profound impact on her health. Seeing how her own quality of life could be improved by better eating and health practices further inspired her mission.
For Clemons, it’s clear that her journey to make wellness the standard for all in her home state of South Carolina has only just begun. Her desire to pursue a career in health and wellness education stemmed from a major turning point in her life: the untimely death of her mother at age 42. “Mom passed away in 1990–she had a stroke. She had high blood pressure for years. Her name was Dianne. It took the culmination of the accident and my mom to change my own health. When your mom dies, it takes you to another place,” she shared.
Clemons acted on her calling by launching a health and wellness organization for Black women. The group’s first meeting was held at Clemson University’s Outdoor Lab near Anderson, South Carolina. It began as a women’s group she called SisterChat, where she says the group practiced “Tai Chi and meditation, which was not a household name in 2001.”
For several years Clemons held annual conferences open to women of all backgrounds and monthly meetings aimed at educating women on the benefits of holistic health practices. One of her goals was ensuring money was not a barrier.
“Whenever we would have the annual conferences, I would have a fee, but I would pay for the food, speakers, and conferences. Sometimes I broke even, [and] sometimes, I spent more. The time that I’d spend with people was free. It’s fun to me; it’s educating people, it’s changing their lives.” Until 2008, the organization did not have an official name. But when a friend suggested the name “Dianne’s Call,” Clemons knew it was perfect.
Today, Dianne’s Call has evolved into a grassroots organization with a mission of optimizing “community health through education and access to healthy foods in underserved neighborhoods,” Clemons says on the organization’s site. “We empower the community with knowledge, hands-on practical applications, and natural lifestyle modifications that will ensure a whole health experience to create a world of wellness.” She does this by offering “classes, seminars, retreats, art, music, culture, and community gatherings.”
Clemons runs a program that teaches kids how to farm and also takes women on nature walks. She is the founder of FarmaSIS, an all-Black women’s farming group that teaches women how to farm to provide for themselves, their families, and their community. She says that one of the group’s main goals “is to plant a positive seed for a better future to reduce the scarcity mindset of not having enough.”
In recent years the organization has combated food insecurity in and around Columbia, SC. During summers before the coronavirus pandemic, Clemons provided meals to children at summer camps and other programs. These are children who would typically rely on a free or reduced-price meal program during the school year. According to the USDA, there were close to 494,000 children in South Carolina during the 2019-20 school year eligible for free and reduced-cost lunches–“approximately 61% of children in participating schools.”
“We give to kids in Columbia and rural areas–wherever the need is. We feed kids 18 and under either breakfast and lunch or lunch and a snack. We make lunch based on USDA food standards. We have a commercial kitchen and go by all the food rules. Then we deliver it,” Clemons said. Clemons receives food for the meals from Harvest Hope, South Carolina’s largest food bank.
Clemons said that Dianne’s Call has also purchased food to create food boxes to provide to those in need. Since May, Clemons and Dianne’s Call volunteers have delivered more than 10,000 boxes of fresh produce to wellness centers, churches, and other pick-up locations up to 60 miles from Columbia in response to the COVID pandemic. Even after our evening interview, Clemons told me she had to pick up her truck to prepare for a significant delivery she was making the next morning. “I’m sending out 900 boxes tomorrow.” “Tomorrow at nine o’clock, I will meet the volunteers, and we will pass the boxes out to places that are food insecure.”
In addition to the many hats Clemons wears, she also owns and runs a health and wellness company called Bonita Global, which operates her South Carolina-based Bonita’s Tea brand.
Clemons recognized the value of her work from an early age. She also discovered the importance of self-care and the healing that can be derived from nature, and these are the kinds of teachings she has always desired to share with others. But most impressive of all is Clemons’ perseverance and ability to balance it all. Her unwavering commitment to helping others improve their lives is inspirational, and Clemons’ goals have no limits.