Family Center has a new home in Vineyard Haven

The Martha's Vineyard Family Center will make the renovated Stephen Carey Luce House on the Nathan Mayhew Seminars campus in Vineyard Haven its new home. — Photo by Nelson Sigelman

After 18 years, the Martha’s Vineyard Family Center will move from its location within the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School to the Nathan Mayhew Seminars (NMS) campus off Greenwood Avenue, across the street from the Vineyard Haven Public Library.

The high school has provided space for the MV Family Center, a program run by Martha’s Vineyard Community Services (MVCS), since 1996. The Family Center closed Friday, February 21. It will reopen on March 10. “We’re really excited about it at this point,” Family Center coordinator Marney Toole told The Times in a phone conversation last week. “It’s been a huge community effort; we’ve had support from all different corners, places we didn’t always expect it, and it’s been really great. Our parents have been really supportive and helped us do it, as well as a lot of community partners, and there’s just been a lot of positive energy that got it accomplished.”

The Family Center provides education and support to parents of children from newborn to age eight, Ms. Toole said. Services include playgroups, parenting classes and discussion groups, and family activities. Childcare is provided during some activities. Programs are free, provided through grants from the Massachusetts Children’s Trust and the Department of Early Education and Care.

The Family Center is moving into the recently renovated Stephen Carey Luce House on the NMS property. Ms. Toole said the first floor will include an infant area, small climbing structure, reading corner, tables for art projects, and building block and snack areas, plus comfortable seating for adults. A room at the back of the house, which is not finished yet, will be a swap shop, where parents can exchange gently worn infants’ and children’s clothing, furnishings, and equipment.

The upstairs of the house will be used for offices. Ms. Toole said MVCS has been in discussions with the Island Grown Schools and Adult Community Education (ACE) programs about the possibility of renting office space to both. Some of the details of the long-term agreement between MVCS and NMS, such as the rental amount, are still being negotiated, she said.

“We’re very excited about having people see it once we’re moved in,” Ms. Toole said. “We will have an open house at some point in time.”

The high school connection

The Family Center program was initially funded by a grant received by MVCS in 1994, Ms. Toole said. In 1996, MVCS and the High School teamed up to apply for a grant that provided seed money for a new vocational program at the high school and funds for a Family Center facility.

Over the years, however, student enrollment in the early childhood vocational program dwindled and was down to just six students for the 2011-2012 school year. During high school budget planning discussions in the fall of 2011, school officials decided that starting the next year, the early childhood vocational program would not accept any new students. The plan was to discontinue the program after the current students cycled through, in about two and a half years. Superintendent of schools James Weiss officially notified the MV Family Center in January 2012 that it must be out of the high school space by 2014.

At the time, the decision sparked protest from many Family Center supporters. Mr. Weiss explained that the decision was not a hasty one and was based on space considerations and program priorities as determined by student interests and enrollment. The high school has since made plans to offer a new certified nursing assistant program.

“They sincerely did want to help us find a solution,” Ms. Toole said last week. After that meeting, Mr. Weiss continued to meet frequently with her and MVCS Early Childhood Director Debbie Milne, she said.

The NMS option

Ms. Toole said the Family Center’s move to the NMS campus resulted from a casual conversation between Nell Coogan, MVCS’s director of development and community relations, and Chuck Hughes, president of the NMS board, at an event they both attended a few months after the school committee meeting. Mr. Hughes told Ms. Coogan about the work he and the board were doing to get the NMS buildings and grounds restored. In addition to the Luce House, built in 1900, the NMS campus includes Fanny Blair Hall, built in 1982.

The not-for-profit NMS corporation was founded by Thomas Goethals, Jim Norton, and Woodrow Sayre in 1976. For more than 20 years it served as an institute of higher learning, offering lecture series and college credit courses through collaborations with Northeastern University, UMass Dartmouth, Cape Cod Community College, and Boston University, to name a few.

NMS almost came to a standstill after 2000, as its board members aged and programming dwindled, former NMS president Ted Box told The Times in a previous interview. With the decline in activity, the condition of the grounds and buildings, especially the Luce House, deteriorated over the last decade.

In April 2011 a few remaining active NMS supporters asked Mr. Box to take the reins of the struggling organization. He enlisted the help of Mr. Hughes, a retired West Tisbury resident who has been involved in a number of Island nonprofits, including the YMCA, and Vineyard Haven businessman Rubin Cronig, a watchmaker and owner of the AquaNaut shop on Main Street.

They recruited some additional volunteers to serve on a new board of directors, with Mr. Hughes as president, Mr. Box as vice president, Mr. Cronig as treasurer, and Sidney Morris, former education director at the FARM Institute, as secretary/clerk. None receive compensation.

CPA funds to the rescue

The new NMS board agreed its immediate goal was to make repairs to the Luce House, and then reopen it to use by the public. Board member Jeff Kristal, a Tisbury selectman and co-owner of the Crocker House Inn, suggested that Mr. Cronig and Mr. Hughes seek funds from Tisbury’s Community Preservation Committee (CPC). Community Preservation Act funds are generated by a three percent surcharge on town real estate taxes and a variable percentage match by the state to support CPC-approved projects in the categories of historical preservation, open space, affordable housing, and outdoor recreational facilities.

The CPC voted to approve funding applications from NMS in 2011 and 2012. Voters at the April 2012 annual town meeting approved two articles, one for $10,000 for grounds cleanup and protection, invasive species removal, and landscape planning, and a second for $35,000 for the rehabilitation and replacement of the roof on the Luce House, some side walls, and related items on the building. Those funds have been spent, according to Tisbury accountant Suzanne Kennedy.

At Tisbury’s April 2013 town meeting, voters approved an article for $31,500 to replace shingles and a stained glass front window on the Luce House, and a second article for $20,000 to create an outdoor park with benches, to be known as Luce Park, next to it. Ms. Kennedy said the $31,500 allocation was reduced by $3,500 because the stained glass window was too damaged to repair. To date, $23,696 has been spent on shingling.

Changing times, changing mission

Mr. Hughes said the new NMS board discussed the possibility of reviving a higher education program with Sheldon Hackney of Vineyard Haven, a former college president, before his death last year. Mr. Hackney advised against it, because he said colleges and universities are more interested now in investing in online education rather than establishing satellite campus operations, Mr. Hughes recalled.

“The board then considered the idea of the Nathan Mayhew Seminars campus becoming a home to educational nonprofits,” Mr. Hughes said. “Although we’re not doing adult education, we’re keeping the Nathan Mayhew mission in mind.”

For several years four organizations, including two dance companies, a tai chi group, and a men’s meditation group, have held classes at the Fanny Blair Hall, which helped NMS pay its utilities and mortgage, which was recently paid off, Mr. Hughes said.

The one-acre property and two buildings are assessed at $809,800, according to Tisbury town records. Mr. Hughes said NMS sold a piece of the parking lot to an abutter on November 1, 2013, to raise capital to pay off some expenses.

“We really were looking for a longstanding, stable nonprofit organization, who if we offered them the right deal, would take it for the long term,” Mr. Hughes said. As luck would have it, Ms. Coogan thought of her conversation with him when the Family Center was looking for a new home, and gave him a call.

“Mr. Hughes was familiar with our program already, so the conversation took root,” Ms. Toole said. The MVCS and NMS boards began meeting on a regular basis in the spring of 2013 to work out the details.

“We told Martha’s Vineyard Community Services there were a couple of things we’d like,” Mr. Hughes said. “We said we would like to have some sort of name recognition for the Nathan Mayhew Seminars organization on the campus, and we also wanted the current tenants to be able to stay at Blair Hall, under the same arrangements, without a rent increase.”

Ms. Toole said that although she and the Family Center staff had hoped to move out of the high school by September 1 last year, unanticipated delays in work on the Luce House kept them past their January 1 deadline. “The high school has been very generous and flexible,” she said.