Island’s social service umbrella continues to adapt

Julia Burgess, executive director of Martha's Vineyard Community Services, spoke to supporters at the Possible Dreams auction last summer. — File photo by Ralph Stewart

Traditions are important to us. It is why many of us live here and even much of the Vineyard economy is dependent upon highlighting the past. As the oldest and largest nonprofit providing human services on the Vineyard, traditions are also important to the board and staff of Martha’s Vineyard Community Services. We are known for providing comprehensive, accessible, compassionate, and essential health, human, and educational services that all Island residents may need at some point in their lives.

But to make sure that we continue in this tradition, we have had to change, and this past year will probably be seen as a turning point. Though a difficult journey, we have been making a culture change that incorporates innovative ideas, technology, and building partnerships.

We have made sure that our house is in order through continued accreditation of all departments and programs. To keep down administrative costs and to ensure that our services are provided efficiently, we have computerized as much as possible. We have kept our competent and committed staff, many of whom have contributed years of service. And we have been finding more ways to keep our new and younger staff on the Island and working at MVCS.

At the same time, we are increasing our community outreach, involving more and more people in our program planning and fundraising through advisory boards, and working with other organizations to jointly meet community needs. Here are some examples.

At the Island Counseling Center, the New Paths Recovery Program for those in need of intensive outpatient treatment for substance abuse continues to grow, and we hope to soon add a targeted program for adolescents. Partnering with the senior centers, in-home counseling for the elderly has expanded, as the stigma related to mental illness slowly recedes. And we have been actively recruiting child clinicians, as ICC has seen an exponential increase in school referrals for children’s services.

Participating in the Island Grown Initiative, the children at Early Childhood Program have been learning good eating habits, and through community support, the Family Center may soon have a new home.

Staff of CONNECT to end violence counsel victims of domestic and sexual violence. This past year they expanded their school prevention activities to actively recruit the boys sports teams to serve as role models against violence.

Active involvement in the statewide coalition of clubhouses has kept Daybreak alive for those on the Island suffering with mental illness, and Island employers have been very amenable to working with us to hire and support disabled workers.

The Thrift Shop continues not only to provide funds for Community Services, but it also serves as a place that brings disparate Islanders together.

Our change in culture will provide the strength needed to ensure that the community has access to the same standard of services in what has been a rapidly changing economic and political climate.

The core of our services has always been supported by government contracts, almost all from the state. For many years, these contracts and private fundraising, especially the Possible Dreams Auction, provided Community Services with most of the money needed to make sure the needs of Islanders were met. But this has changed, and over the past few years, we’ve had to maintain and grow our services with a much more complex funding formula.

Because of a dwindling tax base, caused by issues that cannot be addressed in this essay, state funding has been flat for more than 10 years now. And more and more costs that were publicly supported have now been transferred to consumers through insurance and self-pay.

There is also the expectation by some that private donations can pick up the costs that were once paid by government. Though we are extremely fortunate and grateful for the contributions we receive from donors, they in no way can support the basic human services that should be available to all. And at MVCS, our donations have not rebounded to what they were prior to the economic downturn.

These changes in funding, especially the increased dependence on insurance reimbursements, have been extremely challenging to us and to similar nonprofits in the state, because administration has become more and more complex and time-consuming.

Having qualified staff and expanding the use of technology has been critical. However, in order to keep our essential services accessible to Islanders, we can’t do it by ourselves. The new health insurance regulations will require integration of health care. This will encourage partnerships between the organizations that provide the various kinds of health care, which include MVCS, the hospital, Hospice, VNA, Island Health and others.

But we must further expand our partnerships both on and off Island. Our strong relationships with state agencies must be maintained and advocacy for our programs should increase. In addition, there are too many nonprofits unnecessarily competing with each other for limited funds. MVCS has outstanding infrastructure that has much unused capacity and could be shared with other nonprofits.

In the coming period of time, MVCS has decisions to make with other organizations and the community at large to ensure that we are able to sustain our services to the Island. The challenges may seem daunting, but we are prepared. It is an exciting period of time for the community to come together to determine a course of action to keep our tradition of comprehensive and compassionate services available and accessible to all Islanders.

Julia Burgess is executive director of Martha’s Vineyard Community Services.