Women of the Year: moving and shaking the Island foward

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Women Empowered paid tribute to three of the Island’s movers and shakers last Saturday among the luscious flavors of brunch at the Harborview. In its third year, the Woman of the Year honorific salutes Island individuals whose work positively impacts Martha’s Vineyard. According to Vivian Stein, board president of Women Empowered, “These are three year-round women who have shown that they really want to make a difference.” This years’ honorees are Judy Crawford, chairman of the board of the YMCA of Martha’s Vineyard; Betsy Burmeister, recreational therapy director at Windemere; and Jesse Keller, director of Island programs and education for The Yard.

These women are all about movement — moving the Island forward, keeping seniors moving and engaged during the twilight years of their lives, and opening new creative paths for the Island’s youth.

Founded 12 years ago by Kay Flathers (who is no longer an Island resident), Women Empowered was formed to help women (and now also men) in crisis or otherwise stalled begin to press on again, whether it be by offering debt or career counseling, bestowing microloans on small start-ups, or providing tuition assistance. Its goals are mostly accomplished through workshops and one-on-one coaching by a group of volunteers. “Woman of the Year” honors those motivated who also strive, as Ms. Stein explains, “to increase the value the Island brings to people of all ages.”

“This year, they are from three different areas,” she continues, “which is very important. What they have in common is that they are motivated to help Islanders in their own way. Jesse Keller works a lot with children; Betsy Burmeister works with the elderly; and Judy Crawford, well, she’s spread all over. She was instrumental in getting the Y built.”

Betsy Burmeister, honored for her work as recreational therapy director at Windemere, found movement in her own life when she took on the position 17 years ago after working in her department for a year and a half. “When I first came to the department,” she recalls, “I was really kind of quiet and shy. The administrator talked to me about the position. I guess his faith in me gave me confidence I never had before. I really got into it, got excited about it, and wanted to make it a really good place for the residents to come.”

Since taking on the job, she has increased the volunteer staff from six to more than 120, in programs like animal visits, enlisting younger schoolkids to write bios of the patients, bringing high school students in, bringing in plays and musical acts and speakers. “We try to get the residents either out into the community or bring the community in to them,” she explains. “We really try to reach out.”

Judy Crawford’s bailiwick is getting others to move and shake. As chairman of the board of the YMCA of Martha’s Vineyard and a founder, member, or officer of other Island organizations, she gets ventures moving forward. When the Y was no more than isolated projects spread around schools and various venues, she helped develop a vision, set goals, enlisted resources, and facilitated the building of the centrally-located, community-oriented Island treasure that has become the Y.

Ms. Crawford explains, “I’m happy on the bigger scale, kind of organizing the long-range vision and then finding people who will take on the pieces that I know have to happen. That’s how the Y got built. It took 17 years. It started as a gleam in a bunch of people’s eyes, but it was a relatively small group that made it happen.”

Jesse Keller, the most recently settled of the honorees, is also the one most physically involved with movement. After coming to the Island in 2009 for an internship at The Yard, she moved here, took a part-time position there and another at Midnight Farm, and began to work movement magic on the Island. When David White took over the administration of The Yard in 2011 and began clearly defining roles and departments, Ms. Keller was offered the position of director of Island programs and education. This was an ideal situation for the young dancer, a graduate of the University of Ohio with a degree in dance education. “The organization was going through a lot of transition. There was a lot of growth [at The Yard] that was going to happen. I could see that and I wanted to be a part of that,” she explains.

Since then, Ms. Keller has formed movement workshops and programs for children at the Y, at The Yard, and recently, in the Island’s schools. “I am very driven about giving the Island this other language of dance,” she explains. “I do think it could really change our community and help give young people, help give adults, help give young adults all a voice that is very much needed in communicating with the arts.

“Movement is very empowering,” she insists. “I get to feel that every single day as a dancer. The least I can do is pass that on to others within the community.”