Women Empowered honors four Vineyard women at annual brunch

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The photo series "Island Women" by Paul Lazes adorned the wall behind the podium. — Photo by Monica Busch

Women Empowered, an Island life-coaching nonprofit, honored four Vineyard women at the organization’s fourth annual fundraiser brunch, held at the Harbor View Hotel Sunday morning. The program featured keynote speaker Jessica Kensky, a Boston Marathon bombing survivor and double amputee.

The honorees were Mary Beth Grady and Allison Burger, co-owners of Chilmark Chocolates; Betty Burton, founder and coordinator of Serving Hands and Family to Family food distributions; and Jo Ann Murphy, director of Dukes County veterans services and Martha’s Vineyard veterans service officer of the year.

Board president Vivian Stein introduced each of the women honored, and welcomed each to the podium for short remarks.

Ms. Grady and Ms. Burger, who was unable to attend the brunch, were lauded for their commitments to making their chocolate business an even playing ground among all workers, regardless of disabilities.

“Everyone is parallel,” Ms. Grady said. “And it remains our hope that more businesses will embrace the idea of teamwork.” Chilmark Chocolates resists mechanized production in order to continue to support manual workers.

Ms. Burton spoke about how she came to found Family to Family food distributions, which is a service that provides meals to families through the generosity and donations of others, while volunteering for Serving Hands.

“There are people in real need on our Island,” Ms Burton said, as she described a time in 2004 when the need at Thanksgiving was twice as great as what had been anticipated — 40 families asked for assistance when only 20 meals were prepared.

Ms. Burton traveled to the Harwich regional distribution for the Greater Boston Food Bank to pick up the remaining supplies. Moving forward, she established Family to Family, and told attendees that last year, the organization served 225 families.

Ms. Murphy was honored for her commitment to Dukes County veterans’ services. Appointed as the county veterans agent one month before 9/11, Ms. Murphy helps veterans on the Island with a swath of tasks, including filing pension claims, gravemarker applications, and generally assisting veterans in their postservice lives.

Ms. Murphy spent three years in the Women’s Army Corps, served on the National Guard, and has been an active Island scout leader.

“I repeat: She really cares,” Ms. Stein said.

Ms. Kensky took the podium to share her story about recovery post-Marathon. Ms. Kensky is an oncological nurse by trade, and her husband is a psychologist.

Ms. Kensky and her husband, Patrick Downes, were both at the finish line when the Tsarnaev brothers detonated two pressure-cooker bombs in 2013. Mr. Downes lost his left leg below the knee, and Ms. Kensky lost both legs below the knee.

Ms. Kensky recounted many medical visits, as well as emotional ups and downs, in the nearly two and a half years since she and her husband were severely injured at the Boston Marathon finish line.

“My husband and I feel like we’ve been recipients of kindness from organizations like this,” she said.

Sniffles echoed in the conference room as Ms. Kensky described the two weeks between the bombing and when she and Mr. Downes were reunited. Each had been sent to separate hospitals — Ms. Kensky to Massachusetts General Hospital and Mr. Downes to to Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center — after the attack, and they did not see each other until a team of nurses transported Ms. Kensky for a two-hour visit with Mr. Downes, where the two had a “date night” in their respective hospital beds.

Ms. Kensky told attendees about medical complications and adjustments that defined the next two years of their lives, including the difficult decision to amputate her right leg below the knee, a result of a complicated and incomplete healing process in her foot and ankle that made walking impossibly painful.

Mr. Downes sat in the audience with his aunt and mother.

Ultimately, Ms. Kensky told attendees that while she had planned to speak about human resilience, she realized while writing her speech that her experience was not about that, but that her story was dependent upon the help she and Mr. Downes received from their families and organizations like Women Empowered.

She was frank about the opportunities for help afforded those who carry the label “Marathon bombing survivors,” and said that equivalent assistance isn’t always available to those whose challenges fly under the radar. She emphasized the importance of helping everybody else, too.

“These women have also been hit hard,” she said referring to clients of Women Empowered. “They just aren’t making evening news.”

“We were gravely injured by two of our neighbors, but we were helped by thousands more,” she said. “I’m begging you to please continue the great work that you do.”

For more information on Women Empowered, visit women-empowered.org.

Correction: A previous version of this story said that Ms. Kensky was an oncologist. The correct profession is oncological nurse.