Survival of the Fittest
by Katie Gantt
It is not so much that Richland County’s newly elected coroner Naida Rutherford can’t be stopped, but that she won’t be stopped. Playing the underdog is a role this way maker got comfortable with decades ago – a side effect from a childhood fraught with obstacles. Now, thanks to an influential social media presence and her ever growing IRL footprint, Naida’s successes have become larger beacons of hope for those who see parts of themselves in her story.
Elected Official. Nurse Practitioner. Founder of a Non-Profit. Social Media Influencer. Boutique Owner. Mother. How does she pull it off (and seem so put-together in the process)? You may have heard of Robin Sharma’s infamous 5am wakeup club. Well, Naida is in the 3am club. Unapologetically ambitious? Yes.
Naida reports having been a morning person since college. She ran track on full scholarship at Benedict College where morning practices began at 4 a.m. “Five hours of sleep and I’m good,” she said. “On a typical day, I wake up around 3:30 or 4 a.m. and start my day with meditation or prayer, depending on what’s going on. But my routine always starts with morning gratitude. Then I will do some work. I tend to do my best work in the wee hours of the morning when my mind is clear. I can even wake up at 1 or 2 and get my things done, then go back to sleep.”
She was elected to the office of coroner in 2020 after defeating 20-year incumbent Gary Watts in the Democratic primary and ran unopposed by a Republican candidate in the general election that followed. At the time of the interview for this story Naida was exactly one week into her term, reporting 14 to 20-hour workdays. Things had yet to slow down when two days later, a small plane crashed into a home in the Rosewood neighborhood of Columbia.
She describes the coroner’s role as: “The elected official responsible for helping to determine the manner of death and the cause of death. Cause is the medical reason someone died. Manner speaks to whether the death was a suicide, a homicide, natural, undetermined, or an accident.” Unlike her predecessor who had a background in law enforcement, Naida came to the position via a medical route. Among other degrees, she has a master’s in nursing (see her profile on page XX for the full list) and has worked in a variety of care settings, the most recent being a correctional facility. She’s making her mark on Columbia, but it’s only by chance that she found herself here to begin with.
Naida grew up in Miami, Florida’s foster care system and describes her childhood as a survival of the fittest. “The area I grew up in wasn’t good, it was poor, and they didn’t really check on us to see what was going on at home. For the longest time I thought that I would get out of the situation and that someone would come for me,” she said. When that didn’t happen, she found an outlet in school sports and a much-needed sense of acceptance with her coaches and teammates. Two days after graduating high school, she found herself homeless when her most recent foster mother kicked her out with no warning. With the future looming uncertain, she couch-hopped with friends for the next few weeks.
Fate extended an olive branch at last when she met former Benedict College track and field coach Arthur Davis. Naida had visited the campus with a friend who was auditioning for the track team and the friend’s mother shared bits of her story with Davis. He took an interest in Naida and offered her a chance at her future. After trying out for the team, she secured a full athletic scholarship and by the end of her freshman year had also secured enough academic scholarship money to cover her tuition if she could not run track. She graduated with her bachelor’s degree in biology four years later and the rest is history in the making. Her vision for the future is about community.
“I am going to accomplish my personal goals because that’s what I do. I set a goal and go after it. But my bigger goals and vision are community driven.” Specific aims include assisting in the implementation of programs in lower income areas that provide a pipeline to education. “Poverty is a crippling hurdle that people often can’t get over. For kids who come from areas like me, I want to teach them how to monetize their talents,” she said. Her non-profit organization, The Styled by Naida Foundation provides apparel and toiletries to individuals in need on the first Saturday of each month. The foundation also gives free items to foster children, DSS, and other non-profits.
Birthplace: Miami, FL
Family: Sons, Ty and Tripp
Education: Bachelor’s Degree in biology; Associates Degree in Nursing; Bachelor’s Degree in Nursing, and Master’s Degree in Nursing.
Job: Richland County Coroner, Entrepreneur, Philanthropist
Community Service: The Styled by Naida Foundation
Favorite Book: “The Temple of my Familiar” by Alice Walker and “The Count of Montecristo” by Alexandre Dumas
Favorite Quote: “I refuse to put myself in your box when God gave you infinite space.” Naida Rutherford