Sense of Wonder: Making a difference
There are few people who find a way to combine all of their passions into one cohesive way of living. And there are fewer still whose demonstrated passions are directed toward making a contribution locally and globally. Pamela Benjamin is one of these.
Ms. Benjamin, whose looks reveal her Scandinavian heritage, has a smiling face, soft voice, and rich, earth-born laugh. While her manner may be soft and thoughtful, her impact is large.
Ms. Benjamin founded Sense of Wonder Creations in 1991, a small, year-round nonprofit educational organization based around heightening appreciation for diversity and concerns about the environment through artistic experiences.
"I always wanted it to operate year-round," she says, recalling her initial intention. "Over the years more ideas would come to me." She laughs and adds, "I never have a shortage of ideas. We keep doing more and more things. It's evolved over the years just through working with the children."
During the school year, Sense of Wonder initiates projects with students in different Island schools. In summers, she operates the Sense of Wonder day camp for children ages 5 through 13. Through art, they learn about things like accepting diversity, taking care of the environment, and working for peace and justice.
"To me these are basic things we need to do. I feel like it's my purpose for being here. It's like this," she says, tugging at the neck of her shirt, miming a puppet controlled by an unseen puppeteer.
Mornings at the camp are spent in creative activities such as painting a mural to send to an orphanage in another country, or building solar cars. At midday, campers join together in a circle on the lawn, to talk about issues that relate to them all as a group.
"When they first come, you can see their personalities from where they sit in the circle - who sits in the middle, who sits outside of it, who sits in it, but facing the wrong way." The circle is a symbol of unity on the basis of equality, she says. "Everybody can see each other and hear each other."
Even moments requiring discipline, rarely an issue, are turned into a learning experience. "If kids aren't getting along, it's an opportunity," she says, explaining she asks the group if there was ever a time when they were upset with someone, and decided not to get angry, but to do something else instead. "There are always a lot of hands raised. That helps the other kids. They seem to understand that it is important to get along and be kind and not fight. It's more fun."
Photo by Danielle Zerbonne
Sense of Wonder is based in a Vineyard Haven studio on Grove Avenue, attached to the home Ms. Benjamin shares with her husband, Nat Benjamin, of Gannon & Benjamin, wooden boat builders.
The couple met when she was working as an au pair on a boat in St. Thomas. She explains that he was on "the proverbial boat next door." They moved to Martha's Vineyard in 1972, where Ms. Benjamin got her first job, bottling milk at Nip 'n' Tuck Farm.
Three years later, in 1975, Ms. Benjamin helped start the Montessori school on Martha's Vineyard, but it wasn't until 1991 that she was able to fully combine her three main loves - children, art, and activism, into one project: Sense of Wonder Creations. "I had been working up to that point of figuring out what I wanted to do," she says, "And suddenly it all came together. I feel like I'm giving [children] an opportunity to have fun, while telling them a lot of things they should know in order to be good citizens. At the same time, I feel it's a great honor to be in their presence. They seem to have a clear viewpoint that hasn't been clouded yet."
During the school year, Ms. Benjamin presides over a dizzying array of community art and activism projects. One project she hopes to repeat is a mural, painted by Martha's Vineyard Regional High School students on the walls of the hospital. Hospital changes necessitated the removal of one mural, while another remains on the wall across from Dr. Goldfein's office.
Another project is a documentary movie that she began with Wesley Look just before the outbreak of the Iraq War. The documentary is in the editing process, and when finished, will be made available to teachers "so that they can use it as a springboard for discussion," Ms. Benjamin says. The film features Martha's Vineyard Regional High School students who were interviewed about their feelings about peace and justice. Ms. Benjamin says, "I was trying to have the young people think about it more deeply."
Photo courtesy of Pam Benjamin
In addition to planning to make objects whose sale will benefit charities, she is also working with Jim Parr at his Oak Bluffs recording studio to produce a CD of songs that her campers wrote and performed this past summer. The proceeds from sales of the CD will go to organizations working for social and environmental change on a global basis.
Ms. Benjamin will be teaching art classes this winter at her new 24- by 32-foot studio at her home. The new studio contains an abundance of room, supplies, books, and, under Ms. Benjamin's tutelage, all the inspiration necessary to produce creative solutions.
For more information go to: senseofwondercreations.org.
Sofi Thanhauser is a musician and freelance writer who lives in West Tisbury.