Island mom sells jewelry with a heart

Rob'n Mussell
Rob'n Mussell of Vineyard Haven has launched a creative fundraising project to help her Vineyard neighbors. Photos by Ralph Stewart

By Pat Waring - May 10, 2007

It's nearly Mother's Day and many Vineyard moms may be dreaming of chocolates or that perfect piece of sparkly jewelry that could come their way along with the kisses, hugs, breakfasts in bed, and homemade "I Love You, Mom" cards. Rob'n Mussell is dreaming of jewelry too, but in her case she is hoping to sell bracelets, necklaces, earrings, and pins to raise money to help others. And as for chocolates, she's already been there and done that, having rolled and sold more than 2,000 truffles last winter to raise money for a Vineyard family in need. For this Vineyard Haven mother of four, it's all about giving back and trying to help her neighbors, especially when youngsters are concerned.

Last Friday afternoon, at a quiet table at the rear of Woodland Variety and Grill which she owns with her husband, Steve, Rob'n was sitting and taking a break, at least for this one hour. She handles the books, holds down regular shifts, and fills in behind the counter whenever needed at the busy eatery on State Road in Vineyard Haven. Countless Vineyarders would recognize her as the petite, dark-haired woman with a pony tail, wearing her trademark apron and visor cap, delivering sandwiches with a smile. But this day Rob'n had on a soft pink hooded sweater, her wavy hair falling to her shoulders, and was wearing several pieces of the glowing jewelry that she believes will provide a means to benefit other Islanders.

Steve and Rob'n Mussell
Steve and Rob'n Mussell, working together at their popular Woodland Variety and Grill in Vineyard Haven. "He's my backbone," she says.

Retiring and soft-spoken, Rob'n reluctantly talked about her own life, anxious to keep the focus on the jewelry that shimmered in a small glass case set up on the table. Between owning two businesses (the Mussells also owned 90 Main St., a Vineyard Haven deli and take-out, for 17 years before selling it this winter), and raising four children, the Mussells have always had more than enough to keep them busy. Now two children, Ashley, 21, and Ryan, 19, live off-Island, and Ashley has year-old twins, much to grandma Rob'n's delight. Still at home are 13-year-old Courtney and Mikey, who is 10. Rob'n moved to the Island with her family when she was a seventh-grader. She and her husband have many friends here and hold a warm affection for this community.

Along with a packed work schedule, Rob'n has always spent hours with her youngsters at home and on school and sports activities. She helps at the Tisbury School Store once a week, is assistant coach this spring for girls' baseball at the school, and drives her children to lessons and activities - "We're always in the car!" Rob'n seldom took a moment for other endeavors.

MV Heart Jewelry
MV Heart Jewelry offers clever items for sports enthusiasts like this sparkling golf bag pin

It all changed last winter when Mebbit Morano, a close friend of the Mussells, died of cancer, leaving behind a husband and two small children. Rob'n says the loss hit her hard, and admits she was too upset even to go to the funeral with her husband.

Alone at home, she recalls, she thought "Too many people are sick and dying of cancer.... There has to be a way to give back."

Struck by how many in the community were facing illness or other crises, Rob'n resolved to do something to help. The opportunity arose at once when she read in the paper about Hannah Vanderlaske, a young Oak Bluffs girl who is fighting leukemia.

"Everybody loves my truffles," Rob'n realized, and her first fundraising plan was born.

She solicited Cronig's Market, Our Market, Cash and Carry, and Shirley's Hardware. The businesses donated everything she needed for the candy and packaging. "They were very generous," she says gratefully.

Along with Rob'n selling the candies at Woodland and The Tisbury School, students at the Martha's Vineyard Public Charter School and the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School sold hundreds of boxes. The project netted $2,800, which was put in a special account for use by the Vanderlaske family in purchasing groceries, fuel, and other necessities.

Along with candy making, Rob'n also had a flair for jewelry design. After back surgery several years ago, a friend taught her to bead. She was both prolific and proficient at it, and has sold her work at the Aquinnah Flea Market as well as donating it to charity auctions. She began to think there was a way to capitalize on her jewelry interests to expand her fundraising mission. She continued making jewelry and then selected several wholesalers, filling out her inventory with a variety of striking items.

Although Woodland regulars were already purchasing many pieces, the challenge was how to bring the jewelry to the larger public. This is where Skip Dostal came in. The families had met through their children who are close in age and attend the Tisbury School and Skip, who co-owns Martha's Vineyard Real Estate and Martha's Vineyard Home Rentals, also had considerable computer skills. Together they came up with ideas for a web site, and Skip worked with Martha's Vineyard On-Line which created it. MVheart.com is scheduled to be up and running any day now. It will display all the jewelry inventory and allow customers to make on-line orders. Skip will manage the site and process orders.

Skip, who has lived here since 1988 and has three children with his wife, Susan - Lauren, 12; Kyle, 10; and Julia, 5 - shares Rob'n's concern about the many Vineyarders facing cancer and other illnesses, and, like her, he wants to help.

"It's a nice thing to give back to people who are in need," he said. "It's not going to be our bread and butter. We know this is not about us."

Rob'n plans to contribute 20 percent of each year's net sales to charitable causes. This year's funds will be donated to the Mebbit Morano Scholarship for an Outstanding Tennis-Playing Student Athlete at the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School. Each year the funds will benefit a different Island recipient, Rob'n explained, but the focus will always be on youth.

The jewelry offers, in Rob'n's words, "a little bit of everything for everybody." There are sparkling tennis bracelets, Island charm pendants, earrings featuring wampum, beads, or more simple designs. Necklaces range from delicate to ornate. A chunky motorcycle pin is already a hit, the "Baseball Mom" pin lets the world know you're a fan, and a sweet bunch of grapes pin was set with semi-precious purple and green stones while blue topaz accents a graceful silver cross. The web site will display many more designs, Rob'n promised.

Both Rob'n and Skip are excited about the new logo pendant that is in the works - an Island charm with a tiny heart hanging over it. Skip is working with an off-Island metalworker friend who will produce the piece which promises to be popular.

"I figured that a heart is a great symbol," said Rob'n. "You can wear it in memory, or to show you're thinking about someone."

Rob'n fantasizes about having a shop of her own. In the meantime the pair would love to find a few Island shop owners who would be willing to display and sell some of the pieces to expand sales further. Rob'n's daughter, Courtney, 13, and Skip's daughter, Lauren, 12, are emphatic supporters and have even made small heart-shaped pillows for sale on MVheart.com, which can be used as wrist rests for the computer or other purposes.

The pair feel good about the project and their merchandise. Rob'n chooses every piece based on what she thinks will appeal to local customers. She intends to keep costs moderate, but would be happy to order custom or high-end pieces on special request. So far, the jewelry has been a hit.

"It's nice to give customers a product they like and be able to give back to the Island, too," said Rob'n with a smile, before she and Skip headed off in separate directions to pick up children after school and get back to work. Certainly many Vineyard moms will get the gifts they are dreaming of this Mother's Day, whether flowers, or candy, a diamond or a fingerpainting made with love by a toddler. And if MV heart jewelry sales are brisk, Rob'n Mussell's Mother's Day dream will also come true.

For more information or to view the jewelry, see Rob'n at Woodland Variety and Grill or leave a message at 508-693-6795. For online orders and information, visit MVheart.com, coming soon.