Charity begins in Island homes, but reaches beyond

LIz DaSilva keeps track of the toy requests for the Red Stocking Fund. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

It is the season of giving, and most everyone is of good cheer, after all. But this year, Martha’s Vineyard has outdone itself, with extraordinary compassion. What prompts a dishwasher to give $100 at a fundraiser for a co-worker who has run into some tough luck? Why does a carpenter with his own financial challenges give so generously to someone he has never met? How does a local resident put up his premium Celtics tickets for a charity auction, and then kick in on a flight to Boston and a hotel room, too? And what is it that makes a local business, in the middle of a tough winter economy, answer every request with a donation?

Every week, someone walks into Sharky’s or the Martha’s Vineyard Chowder Company in Oak Bluffs, or Sharky’s location in Edgartown, asking for a donation to raise money for a good cause.

“When somebody comes to eat 50 times a year, then all of sudden their brother is sick, why would you say no?” owner J.B. Blau said. “That’s the way it should work in a small town. When somebody helps you, you help them.”

On November 30, more than 400 people turned out at the Portuguese-American Club in Oak Bluffs to support Jim Moore and his family. Mr. Moore is battling a second bout with cancer.

The event raised more than $50,000 for the father of three, to help with transportation to the hospital in Boston, and pay bills in a family that has to cut back its work schedule to take care of Jim’s health. It was the latest in a series of community fundraisers that has yielded more than $100,000 for people in need this fall.

Patricia Bergeron puts in long hours as president of the P-A Club, after her nursing shifts at the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital.

“So many times, I ask why am I doing this,” Ms. Bergeron said of her exhausting schedule. “That’s why I do this. This community is so amazing.”

The P-A Club is a popular venue for these events. Ms. Bergeron said the club offers its facilities at no charge. “It’s what we do,” she said. “It’s about helping our community. That’s our whole mission. If you’re helping somebody, come on in.”

Those who host and organize community charity events are left in awe of the exceptional generosity. “I have seen people give money, who we could have had a fundraiser for an hour earlier,” Mr. Blau said. “They’re reaching into their pocket to give money. It’s unbelievable.”

Mr. Blau started dine-to-donate events in response to the many requests for donations. He fills his restaurant on what would otherwise be a slow night, and he donates a percentage of the receipts to the organizers. It’s the kind of thing that keeps him motivated when his job gets tough.

“If I weren’t involved in a community like this, I probably wouldn’t be in this business,” Mr. Blau said. “It’s a hard business. I don’t get warm and tingly from an August night when we serve 1,000 meals. We might serve 110 on a Tuesday in February, and it feels awesome.”

Jack Law thinks Islanders develop a self-reliant streak living on an Island of small towns. He has helped as an auctioneer at several recent fundraisers with a firsthand chance to observe the kindness of his Island neighbors. Mr. Law says his wife puts it best when she says sometimes you wish everybody didn’t know everything about you, but when you get sick, you’re glad they do.

“Lately, it’s really hitting home with people that everybody knows well,” Mr. Law said. “The people that are giving money are everyday working people. They’re all different.”

Mr. Law says he is amazed how quickly the community pulls together when someone they know needs help. “It was phenomenal how fast that thing moved, and how many people came to it,” Mr. Law said of the recent fundraiser for Mr. Moore.

While putting a face on a family crisis certainly spurs people to help, many of those involved in organizing local charity events say they are touched and amazed at people who donate, though they may have never met the people they are helping.

Dozens of volunteers wrapped presents and prepared holiday food baskets for the families of more than 400 Island children this week as part of the Red Stocking Fund effort. The parish hall of Grace Church was a model of efficiency, with charts on the wall showing a code number for each child, and huge rolls of wrapping paper mounted on the end of the church tables.

“Nobody in this room knows who the presents are for, and they still do it,” said Lorraine Clark, who along with Kerry Alley and the help of hundreds of others, organizes the event each year.

“This effort has been going on for a hundred years,” Mr. Alley said. He thinks the spirit of giving is institutionalized on Martha’s Vineyard, with parents, teachers, and business owners passing the tradition on to children.

His voice catches when he tells the story of a Montessori School class that marched in earlier in the week with $400 they raised at a bake sale. The young children took note of what kinds of gifts were needed, marched down to Main Street, and returned with the goods.

“The community’s response is almost an automatic thing,” Mr. Alley said. “They just call up and offer to do it.”