Sense of Wonder Creations celebrates an anniversary, and an award

The Vineyard Haven institution has been cultivating artistic kids for 25 years.

In the audience of campers, parents and friends: Melissa Schellhammer and daughter Juniper. – Photo by Lynn Christoffers — Photo by Lynn Christoffers

This past Friday was a special day at Sense of Wonder Day Camp on Grove Avenue in Vineyard Haven: It marked the 25th anniversary of Pam Benjamin’s camp for children, begun as a nonprofit summer camp in 1991. It also was the scene for Sense of Wonder Creations to receive the Peace Abbey Award. Parents, friends, and the community were invited to join the celebration starting at noon. Guest artists included musicians Kate and Isaac Taylor; Godfrey Muwulya from Kampala, Uganda, performing his native dance, “Elole”; and the MVRHS a cappella group and Roberta Kirn leading the campers singing songs from Haiti — all in keeping with the Sense of Wonder mission to teach and foster a global awareness through creativity and a sharing of cultures through art.

The camp and its founder, Pam Benjamin, were honored by becoming the 2015 recipients of the Peace Abbey Foundation “Courage of Conscience Award,” presented to Pam and the children by Lewis Randa and his wife, Meg. Mr. Randa presented Pam with a statue of the peace dove held in outstretched hands, and said,

“This award is presented to those individuals and organizations that have distinguished themselves through

their humanitarian and peace activism.”

Sense of Wonder, he noted, “establishes a learning environment through which others, in your case, small children, come to know themselves through nature and art, music and dance — through social engagement and the adventure of exploring the world in service to others.”

The award, begun by the Peace Abbey Foundation in 1988, has been given to over 150 individuals and organizations to date who are, all too often, little-known for their work to this end. Past recipients include Pete Seeger, Thich Nhat Hanh, Daniel Berrigan, Ram Dass, Benjamin Spock, Rosa Parks, and Arun and Sunanda Gandhi.

Pam describes the camp’s mission: “To help educate through the arts, that [the children] use their skills to give back to our local community and the world.” This past year, Sense of Wonder collected almost $9,000 for donations to the Sister Flora orphanage in Île-à-Vache, Haiti. Pam and husband Nat Benjamin visited the orphanage this winter, bringing supplies and services. Vineyard-based musician Roberta Kirn joined them there to teach local children American songs and to learn the music and dance of the Haitian Creole. Roberta brought back these songs and movements from Haiti to teach the Sense of Wonder campers this summer.

Each year Sense of Wonder provides over $30,000 in scholarships and financial aid to children who could not afford to attend the camp otherwise. Pam encourages a diverse student body, with children attending from other states and countries to share in the Sense of Wonder experience. Godfrey Muwulya, dressed in his native headdress and skirt, danced the “Etole,” thrilling the audience with his gestures. He is currently traveling the United States raising funds for the Uganda Children’s Home; monies raised at Sense of Wonder from selling T shirts will be donated to the cause.

Counselors and past leaders in training have long histories with the camp:

Aaron Teres, 18 and a counselor for both for the summer camp and the afterschool program for past winters, described his experience at Sense of Wonder: “It’s visual arts, music, theatre … the combination with the global awareness is a very beautiful way to learn about people and cultures.” This is Aaron’s fifth year at the summer camp, and eighth year with afterschool classes; he will be a freshman at Rhode Island School of Design in the fall, majoring in architecture. He is one of five high school students who performed on Friday as part of the a capella group; Oliver Silberstein of the group is also a former Sense of Wonder leader in training.

Adam Stern-Rand from North Carolina, who performed a tap dance piece, is a first-year counselor studying musical theatre at Carnegie Mellon.

Inside the workshop, which is part of the Benjamins’ house, campers displayed art projects created recently:

clay sculptures, masks, and drawings. Alexis Iammarino, a former Sense of Wonder counselor, and her filmmaker husband, Scott Sell, created a short film titled “Film, Art, and Self-Expression” from a workshop they held for campers.