Martha’s Vineyard Community Services: a critical player

— Photo by Whit Griswold

In difficult economic times, most organizations tend to become cautious, refocusing on core goals and trimming expenses and staff wherever possible. In the case of a social service agency like Martha’s Vineyard Community Services (MVCS), however, demand usually increases during tough times, and the challenge to meet that demand escalates.

“At the Island Counseling Center (ICC), we had about 5,500 visits for the year when I started here in 2006,” executive director Julia Burgess said in a conversation with The Times last week. “This past year, we ended up with 15,400.”

One of MVCS’s five core programs, the ICC “provides mental health and substance abuse counseling, medication evaluation and monitoring, case management, and 24-hour crisis intervention services.”

The other four are:

CONNECT to end violence, which “provides individual and group support, legal and medical advocacy, and 24-hour crisis response for survivors of domestic and sexual violence and significant others.”

Disability Services “provides employment support, vocational evaluations, and family support for persons living with disabilities.”

Early Childhood Program “provides infant through pre-school center-based childcare, a home-based Head Start program, a Supervised Visitation Program and supports the Martha’s Vineyard Family Center.”

The Thrift Shop “provides clothing and household items for those in need while raising significant funds to support [MVCS] programs.”

Ms. Burgess has high praise for the MVCS staff, to which two-thirds of the agency’s budget goes. “We need to make sure that staff is treated right,” she said. “And over the years, when there are budget cuts, those are the people who get sliced and sliced and sliced. Our staff take care of people who could not lead decent, quality lives without some help — and that’s most people.”

At one time, the clergy helped support those in emotional distress, while family members and even volunteers helped with children and older family members, Ms. Burgess pointed out, but times have changed. “A hundred years ago, or even fifty, women were at home, and they took care of the elderly and children,” she said. “Now, everyone goes to work.” And professionals are needed to care for children and the elderly.

MVCS is determined to maintain existing services, according to Ms. Burgess, even in the face of reduced funding from the state. “The board has been very supportive,” she said, speaking of Wiet Bachellor, Victor Capoccia, Paul Pimentel, George Davis, Doug DeBettencourt, Carole Cohen, Dianne Durawa, Sandra Grymes , Lucy Hackney, Allan Pekor, Elizabeth Rawlins, Elio Silva, Dianne Smadbeck, and Paula Smith. Board members have three-year terms, renewable twice for a total of nine years. An effort is made to ensure that each town is represented, as well as race, ethnicity, and age, although the latter is difficult because younger people tend to be too busy, between work and raising a family.

“And we’re actually expanding,” Ms. Burgess said, speaking of MVCS’s determination to answer the increased demand for services. “This year we added our New Paths to Recovery program, which is for people who are recovering from addictions. And we’re also expanding services to seniors, in conjunction with the hospital, and to their caregivers.”

To fuel the expansion, MVCS has to rely increasingly on individual donors. “Because of our location, there are not many foundations that will fund us, because we are out of everybody’s target area, and they assume that everybody here is extremely wealthy,” Ms. Burgess said. Fully 20 percent of MVCS’s funding comes from private institutions, individuals, and special events.

Chief among the latter, of course, is the annual Possible Dreams auction, which will be held this year next Monday, August 1, at Ocean Park in Oak Bluffs. Riding on the irreverent coattails of emcee emeritus Art Buchwald for many years, not to mention his gift of gab and his access to people in powerful places, the event loosened up many a checkbook when the economy was booming. But times have changed, of course.

“Three, four years ago, we accepted the fact that it wasn’t going to be what it was,” Ms. Burgess said. “The committee has rebuilt itself, and we have some really good dreams this year.”

No matter how successful the auction is, it won’t come close to fulfilling funding needs. With that in mind, MVCSA has come up with a fresh fundraising initiative that will be introduced soon.

Called “50 Gifts for 50 Years,” the program will identify 50 specific needs to which donors can dedicate their gifts. The list is incomplete, but Ms. Burgess offered several hypothetical targets that might attract the fancy of a donor. “We’re absolutely out of space,” she said, “and we need a new building. And our Daybreak House [part of Disability Services] needs a new van.”

There are many less glamorous needs, too, of course. “Someone could pay our electric bill for a couple of months, or donate a month of childcare,” Ms. Burgess said. “Evidently, when people know where their money is going, they feel more secure about giving money. And we want people to feel part of the 50th year celebration.”

At the same time, MVCS works hard to stay on the radar of state agencies that are constantly cutting back to meet tighter budgets these days. “We need to make sure that we still get the money coming directly to the Island and not to a larger organization that finds it’s so expensive to offer the service here, they say ‘we’ll offer it in Falmouth or Hyannis,'” Ms. Burgess said. “And then of course it becomes inaccessible, because it’s expensive and time-consuming [to get to].” And folks don’t get the help they need.

As great as the need is for continued fundraising, MVCS continues to face another challenge — becoming better known in the community. While someone in almost every household on the Island has had a professional contact with the agency at one time or another, MVCS is a mystery to many people. “So many times, people say they don’t know what we do. Partly because of our name, which is not specific. Some people know us just by the Possible Dreams auction, and they still don’t know what we do.”

While some of the agency’s services are also available either privately or through other Island organizations, others are only offered by MVCS. Emergency Services, for example, which is part of the ICC, is called in by the hospital to evaluate and refer patients in emotional distress.

“We’re the one thing the community can’t do without,” Ms. Burgess said emphatically but also somewhat wistfully, obviously scanning somewhere inside for a way to make Islanders sit up and take notice, with pride, every time they hear the name Martha’s Vineyard Community Services.