For Chilmark kids, the Center is where it’s at in summer

Emily Griffith looks like she's thinking, "Let's there anything else I can add to make this pizza the best ever?" — Photo by Susan Safford

Visit the Chilmark Community Center on any weekday morning in the summer, and you will see organized mayhem at its best. Children are on the basketball court playing dodge ball, they are running in and out of the art shack, or they might be reading under a tree with an older buddy.

The Community Center operates under the same mission it had when it was founded in 1956 – to be a place for families to gather and for children to spend their mornings playing sports, doing art projects, and making friends.

“The best part of the Center is the free will and spirit kids have to do what they want with lots of great staff,” Junior Farrell, director of the morning program since 2009, said one morning late last week.

To celebrate the Center and the conclusion of its recent Capital Campaign, “Funding Our Future,” the Center hosted a dancing and desert party last Saturday under a tent on the field between The Chilmark School and the Community Center.

Guests danced to the awesome music of Mike Benjamin’s band, ate delectable deserts made by Tea Lane Caterers, and bid on more than 40 items in live and silent auctions, including a guitar signed by James Taylor, a round of golf with Bill Buckner, a breakfast and boat trip to Cuttyhunk, and a cooking class with Joan Nathan, among other items.

The capital fundraising campaign was initiated in 2006, when the Center celebrated its 50th anniversary. The funds are to sustain and improve the Center’s programs and activities and build an even better Center to benefit seasonal and year-long residents for years to come, according to Marcy Gringlas, co-chair of the campaign.

The campaign has already benefitted the Center. The art shack, originally built 30 years ago based on a design done by Elise Elliston as a school project, was redesigned this year by Ms. Elliston. Her husband, Robert Elliston, and his company, Roaring Brook Construction, worked on the changes.

Just like the rest of the Center, the art shack has retained its original flavor while being updated — the staffers’ signatures stay on the walls, while new rolling storage units have been added under the counters. A sink was installed, and a permanent awning was built off the back so children can work on their art projects outside as well as inside.

The basketball court was also recently refurbished with new baskets and surface, thanks to a significant contribution from the annual Alex Cohen basketball marathon.

As times change, the Center changes as well, while working hard to maintain its mission and 1950s feel. Behind the scenes, the staff and summer programming committee strive to keep the traditional feel of the center from year to year, even as improvements in programming and infrastructure are incorporated as needed to keep up with the 21st century. In the last ten years a check-in and check-out policy was instituted, and this is the first year members can pre-register online and check the calendar on the Center’s up-to-date website.

Back in the day, programming at the Center focused more on square dancing and singalongs in the evening than the kinds of programs the center offers now.

Kate Solow of Chilmark and L.A. remembers lazy mornings in the 60s when she and her friends sat at the Center talking and admiring the older kids and especially the Island kids who, she says, “were the epitome of cool.” And she says, “We kids felt ownership of the Center.”

A generation later, she sent her three children to the center, allowing her free mornings to play tennis with some of the friends she made in the 60s. As her children grew older, they worked there, and, they too, felt ownership of the place.

Ms. Solow says her children’s generation needed the freedom of the Center even more, because their off-Island lives were so scheduled.

Wally Epstein, president of The Town Affairs Council, the 501(c)3 non-profit organization under which the Center operates, says the Center offers activities attractive to its current audience. Not only is there a morning program for children, but also adult offerings have grown in the last ten years. This summer, adults can take yoga and Zumba or play in a vibrant tennis program in the mornings. Evening programs include Tuesdays with the Chamber Concert Series, Wednesdays with the MV Film Festival, and Thursday Nights Out with a variety of speakers. There’s something for everyone.

As busy as the Center is during the summer, the doors don’t stay shut for long when seasonal residents leave. The Center is used daily during the year as a gym for the Chilmark School, a place for town meetings, the site for the film festival, a host to receptions for weddings and funerals, and a place for community organizations, as well as for town parties.

In summer the Center’s heart lies in the blending of town and summer friendships and connections that develop into lifelong relationships, according to Mr. Epstein. “If you ask someone why they became a long-term resident of Chilmark,” Mr. Epstein says, “they’ll often say it’s because of the Community Center.”

A long-time summer resident of West Tisbury and Chilmark, Morgan Baker teaches writing at Emerson College in Boston.