The Volunteers: We’re all in this together


Several busy volunteers speak about their community service and the organization they serve, why they do it, what they get out of it, and why the Island breeds this special activism.

Susan Straight, volunteer; Suzan Bellincampi, sanctuary director

Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary, Edgartown

What do volunteers do at Felix Neck?

SB: Here at Felix Neck we have more than 200 volunteers. There are lots of volunteer opportunities, and we have different tracks: property, education, citizen science — including monitoring horseshoe crabs and ospreys — visitor services, teaching about birds, and helping maintain the animal tanks. We also have programs for kids who want to volunteer.

We had a 10-year-old volunteer coming back every summer; one year he taught a program on his own! You don’t have to know anything about nature to be part of this place … it’s a community, a great way to meet people, share their knowledge and passions.

Our annual “Work for Wildlife” volunteer day is coming up on Saturday, April 29, when 30 or 40 people come out and help us prepare the property for visitors. Anyone can come.

We couldn’t do what we do without our volunteers. They are dedicated; they all become part of our advocacy. We have real longevity — people are really connected to Felix Neck, and want to share the experience with their family.

A bone specialist and the mystery closet

SB: Susan Straight is our bone specialist. A lot of what Susan does for us is for our education program. She does a lot of independent projects — she has a great library of resources.

SS: People have been dropping things off at Felix Neck for 20 years that have been sitting in the mystery closet upstairs. I’ve been working on them and figuring out what they are — it’s wildlife education. It’s exciting both learning on my own as well as learning from the staff and everyone else at Felix Neck. A coyote washed ashore a few years ago; I’ve been putting together his skeleton. Some young kids found the remains of four large snapping turtles in a field in West Tisbury. I cleaned and sorted the bones, and am now rearticulating one of the snapping turtle skeletons so it can be used in hands-on school programs. They’ll be able to piece together loose bones looking at the rearticulated skeleton to see how everything fits together. They’ll have the skeletons of mammals, including the coyote, to compare the turtle to.

What are the perks of volunteering?

SS: I came to Felix Neck with my father as a teenager, and my kids grew up doing the pond program and loved it. I was totally hooked. It’s a natural fit to work here. It just gives me such an emotional, intellectual high. There’s always something to do here to help. I’m always learning; I never know what I’ll get asked to do. There are always funny fish, odd bird sightings. What a wonderful place to exchange information. I do a lot of work at home, so I’m not schlepping the skeletons back and forth … I’m a detective … I get waylaid. When I’m reading and researching items I get totally lost — again, that’s the joy.

Working here has expanded my knowledge so much. I’m thrilled to be part of a team developing materials for school programs. I think it’s so important for children (and all of us) to learn about the world around them because it connects them (and us) in such an intimate way to nature and to the land. That kind of close relationship with the natural world makes them become stewards of the earth while they’re still young.

Colby Scarsella, volunteer, age 17; Sam Rollins, volunteer, age 17

Martha’s Vineyard Boys & Girls Club, Edgartown

How did you get involved as volunteers?

CS: I thought about volunteering after our high school football and lacrosse teams brought us to the Martha’s Vineyard Boys & Girls Club. I started two years ago, and now come every Tuesday and Wednesday.

SR: I’ve been doing it for two years, too; yes, we started out together.

CS: It’s great. It’s crazy — the bonds you form with kids. They are so happy to see you.

SR: A lot of times the kids are coming here after a long day at school. This is their fun place, and they come here with a ton of energy. I find it’s so great to come here; they just make me feel better about my day.

CS: It makes every day a lot more fun. I look forward to coming here during the week, as volunteering here makes me so much happier.

What’s the most interesting thing to do with the kids?

CS: All of it’s pretty fun. In the middle room, we quietly play games. In the homework room, we help the kids with schoolwork. Personally, my favorite is probably the gym, because we can run around with them. We go along with what they want to do. We get a bunch of kids together and play their games.

SR: We play a lot of basketball and football.

CS: It gets me in shape, as the kids are so much faster than we are!

Any thoughts about a career working with children?

SR: My dad [Greg Rollins] actually ran the club a few years back, so I grew up here. It’s been real nice to give back to where I grew up. I’m thinking more about social work as a career lately. Also, maybe coaching. It’s so much fun to work with the kids, and definitely a good thing to do.

CS: I’ve always loved working with kids. I don’t know if I really want to be a teacher or not. I’ve written about community service and working here in my essays for colleges.

Karen Bressler, volunteer gift shop manager; Deborah Glasser, volunteer

Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, Oak Bluffs

What started you volunteering at the hospital?

KB: I’m a nurse by background, and was the director of the Visiting Nurse Service when I first came to the Island. Then I found myself pregnant with my second child and decided to leave that position. After staying home with two children for several years, I got bored, and came over to the hospital and asked, “What can I do to help? I can give you some hours.” They said, ‘We are opening a gift shop in the nursing home [Windemere]; could you run it?’ At the beginning I was a consultant and was paid a small stipend, but I realized that the shop wasn’t making enough money to support an employee, so I became a volunteer. That was about 22 years ago. Some of my volunteer staff have been here from that very beginning.

DG: I’ve been coming to the Island since the late 1950s, but until you … live here full-time, you really aren’t part of the community. At some point, my children were gone, my husband had died. I decided I really needed to get involved. I still was very active in social work — not practicing anymore, but volunteering. I thought I would try the hospital, thinking they would have need for my counseling services. But instead they said, it’s the gift shop where they have need. I figured I might as well go where I’m needed, and I’ve been here ever since.

What’s the fun part?

DG: It’s wonderful; you get to see people — the regulars who come in to get their chocolate fix or whatever. You look forward to seeing them.

KB: It’s the giveback. I love to be around people. They tell us stories. In all hospital gift shops, it’s always the employees who are the biggest customers. And our shop is also for the Windemere residents. We started a gift jar, where people give a few pennies to the jar on the counter, and residents can get a free candy bar.

The oldest volunteer

KB: Deborah has been here six or seven years — she came in her late 80s. She is amazing at nearly 96: still drives during the day, and comes in two times a week to help in the shop, when we share the responsibility on Mondays and Fridays. She is one of my best salespeople … we do a tag team. She’s also the consummate wrapper; she’s a beautiful wrapper and also decorater.

DG: The only problem for me, because of my age, is that my vision is not what it used to be, and my hearing isn’t what it used to be. I’m probably one of the older volunteers.

KB: I’d say the oldest active volunteer.

DG: I live alone, and I sometimes forget to put in my hearing aid. So I have to make a little sign to say, “Please speak up” … They seem to take it with good humor. It doesn’t happen very often. Also, with the price tags, I get a little help to make sure I’ve read them correctly.

I have been also a member at Farm Neck for many years, playing golf. I miss it. I continue my connection with Farm Neck by helping with the tournament every year — it’s my volunteerism for both the hospital and Farm Neck.

Mike Adell, SCORE, volunteer mentor; Hospice, Island Food Pantry, Vineyard Village at Home, volunteer; Martha’s Vineyard Center for Dispute Resolution, volunteer mediator; West Tisbury and Vineyard Haven

SCORE advisory services

I’m a volunteer for SCORE, which is primarily a group of mostly retired executives from big business, small businesses, and nonprofits volunteering their services to help people of the community interested in starting and/or continuing small businesses. We also offer these services to nonprofit organizations. SCORE is funded by our tax dollars through the Small Business Administration. We offer mentoring and counseling on finances, business plans, employee relations, product information, and other business issues.

It’s a completely free, confidential service with no time limit on advisory sessions. We have a core of six or seven volunteers at SCORE.

Island Food Pantry, Hospice, Vineyard Village at Home

I also help at the Island Food Pantry in Vineyard Haven — a wonderful organization that distributes packaged foods to people who need supplemental food supplies. The pantry gives people an opportunity to come in two times a month to get food. I’m there every Wednesday and Friday, 1:30 to 4 pm. We have a host of wonderful volunteers.

I’m a Hospice volunteer, happening in short spurts. We provide help to families caring for loved ones in the last sequence of their lives.

A good part of my time spent that I love is with an organization called Vineyard Vineyard at Home. We provide driving services for people who cannot drive anymore, but want to stay in their homes — to grocery shopping, to lunch, medical appointments, etc. I have four clients that I see on a regular, weekly basis. For those periods of time, I have the opportunity to do a variety of things for them. I also fill in with others on an ad hoc basis when the need arises.

Volunteer mediator

I am a trained mediator, through the Chicago Bar Association, for about 30 years, occasionally mediating landlord-tenant disputes, customer-retailer and/or -contractor disputes and, quite infrequently, marriage issues. I volunteer through the Martha’s Vineyard Center for Dispute, a free service to residents. Our goal is to have people resolve their differences so they can move on with their lives.

What does volunteering do for you?

In the first place, I’m almost 80, so volunteering keeps me tuned. This work keeps me thinking and focused. That is most important for me. I find it very helpful, and I get much pleasure out of it, staying alert and in tune. I was a sales and marketing manager within Fortune 500 companies. The interrelationship with people comes naturally to me. My SCORE work takes a little different expertise; that keeps my thinking fresh.

What makes the Vineyard a special place for volunteering?

I doubt if I could do any of this if I wasn’t living on the Vineyard. The Vineyard is probably the most embracing and supportive place I’ve lived in all my life. We moved here seven years ago, after traveling back and forth from Chicago for vacations. Living on the Island — what a great community it is for all people, all aspects, all backgrounds. If only the rest of the country was like this. It made it easy for me to go into this volunteer work, because I was received so positively. How long will I continue to volunteer? As long as I can, with a smile on my face. There are hundreds of people like me — all those volunteers at the Food Pantry, other places — it’s unbelievable.

Kaya Seiman, volunteer, age 13; Gina Patti, volunteer, and Kaya’s mom

Animal Shelter of Martha’s Vineyard, Edgartown

When did you start volunteering at the Animal Shelter?

KS: My mom and I have been coming for many years now. I’m 13 and in the eighth grade at Oak Bluffs School. We try to come about once a week. If there is a dog staying here at the shelter, I usually will walk it, and I socialize with the cats.

GP: Kaya was little when we started — she got me volunteering. All the schools require community service, and this is a good opportunity.

KS: I’ve written about our dog, who we got here. We now have three dogs at home, three cats, and lots of chickens — I don’t even know how many. I help out at home with all the animals, too.

What do you like about volunteering?

KS: It’s a good experience for all kids to have — to be a part of your community and help out. Sometimes we sit by the phone and stuff envelopes to send out. And sometimes we show visitors around the shelter.

GP: We may help out with fundraising and thank-yous to patrons; we enjoy working at the annual garden party. Lisa Hayes, shelter manager, and Gordon Healy, assistant manager, manage the daily operations of the shelter, with the volunteers helping out where needed. There are a lot of various things to do to keep it all happening.

KS: I also volunteer at the Thrift Shop a bit. And we just went to hand out valentines at the hospital, singing carols.

GP: It was really nice to see all the children give valentines to the older people.

They allow animals at Windermere. Connecting animals with their owners is part of what we help out with, here at the shelter. It’s very sad to see them separate — you see it here, if the owner passes away. The cat or dog is clearly grieving. The shelter becomes a transition place — that’s exactly what this is for them.

What are the benefits of volunteering?

GP: Gordon is now a friend of ours, and Lisa is a friend of ours. We develop relationships. We know the other volunteers — varied people from all over the Island of different ages and backgrounds. It’s really nice to learn to interact with them all.

We’ve heard some very interesting human stories in this room.

I definitely volunteered earlier in my life, as I was a Peace Corps volunteer. I find volunteerism important. But I never would have chosen to volunteer at the Animal Shelter, as I never considered myself an animal person. Now I find myself married to an animal lover, and now have a child who is an animal lover. You never know where your kids are going to force you to go. Oh, yes, it’s awesome.

Barbara and Greg Thornton, volunteers; Volunteers of the Year, 2017

The Thrift Shop, Community Services, Vineyard Haven

How long have you been volunteering?

BT: We’ve been volunteering at the Thrift Shop only a couple of years — a short time in comparison to so many of the volunteers here, who have been coming for decades. But we’ve been giving things to the thrift shop for many years, and we’ve been shoppers at Chicken Alley for decades! So much of this Island runs on volunteers. We are two out of about 50 volunteers at the shop.

GT: Usually everyone specializes in something; we have regular set hours, and have a calendar to keep us organized.

BT: Greg is a woodworker in his retirement, and when the floor of the Thrift Shop was redone a few years ago, he built the bookshelves.

GT: I built the upper ones; the lower ones are from the public library. The [thrift store] paid for the wood, and I did the work.

What are your special areas at the Thrift?

BT: An opportunity arose where Greg took over the books at the Thrift. As an MLS graduate, he was certainly custom-made for Chicken Alley, and it was a godsend to me to have him out of the house!

GT: I spent 13 years working as a college librarian, then went into computers and got a master’s in computer science — as did Barb; she was a special needs teacher.

BT: A great combination on my part: clinical psych master’s and computers master.

I do a lot with the housewares, kitchen, and pottery; pricing linens — that’s where I like to be.

GT: Barb also works on the art show pricing. The work to get ready for the show takes place over months. We’re in here usually three or four times a week. Wednesday morning, I come in and strip two trucks of books and reshelve them. Then I put out new books; Thursday I do more pricing. We also help on the estate sales, for the stuff that didn’t sell.

What benefits do you get from volunteering?

GT: It helps Community Services, bringing in money for that. It’s a way we give back to the community. It’s social.

BT: It’s fun. We’re both retired, we’ve lived very active, busy lives. Understanding that retirement is great for about 15 minutes, and then there has to be something,

the “get up, get moving.” It’s the socialization; it’s meeting all the people who work here — the customers, the donors, the clients. It’s an amazing cross-section of people who are here year-round, weekend people, day-trippers, people from the U.S. or not. And then the fascinating donations that we get. Every day is different, every day is exciting, every day is like a treasure hunt. And then you see some folks who really do need something, and helping them find it is exciting. The little kids who come in and have a quarter! This is one of the few places that I know where you can still get something for a dime, or 25 cents.

GT: All in all, it does also cure you of the desire to collect stuff.

BT: It keeps us out of a sedentary life, and brings a lot of joy. It keeps us thinking and expanding our knowledge — researching, determining fair prices — there’s always something different to find out about.

Betty Burton, Vineyard Committee on Hunger, president (volunteer); Serving Hands Food Distribution, Family to Family Holiday Baskets, volunteer coordinator;

Island Food Pantry, volunteer; Vineyard Haven

Tell us about your volunteer activities on the Island.

In addition to serving as president of the Vineyard Committee on Hunger, the volunteer work that I currently focus on the most is coordinating the Serving Hands Food Distribution, which takes place once a month at the First Baptist Church Parish House in Vineyard Haven, providing free food to people in need. Food comes from various sources, including the Greater Boston Food Bank and many stores, farms, and organizations on the Island. We give out produce, dairy, eggs, meat, and staples. On distribution days, volunteers unload and sort the food, help set up the tables, help clients carry food, do cleanup, and so forth. We are all helpers, there are no paid positions — all volunteers. We plan on at least 100 families monthly; last month we had 157 families, consisting of about 285 individuals with 95 children; 50 of the adults were over 65. On Thanksgiving and Christmas, we have an even larger total. For the holidays, I coordinate the Family to Family Holiday Baskets. At Thanksgiving we provided 250 meals for families in need. We provide ingredients for meals at Christmas and Easter, too. This requires a fair amount of fundraising.

Thirty to forty percent of the children on the Island (due to parents’ income guidelines) qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches — that’s a lot. When children are on school vacation, they are not getting a lunch provided. So we have set up a children’s table for families with kids going to camp or on vacation. The mothers come and get staples for snacks and lunches: juice, applesauce, peanut butter, tuna — we try to make it a good, quality food selection.

Volunteers from Daybreak and others

Maybe three or four years ago, the folks from the Daybreak Clubhouse decided as a group that they wanted to come and help once a month. Daybreak is a day treatment facility for adults over 18 with mental illness; it’s a place where members go to find jobs and a sense of community. So once a month they get in their van and come over with the staff as volunteers, about 10 of them. They have never missed it. Their ages vary from 18 to mid-20s to 40s. They feel pride in what they do. It’s really wonderful. We have maybe 10 to 12 volunteers not associated with Daybreak. We really couldn’t run our operation without them.

How do you keep so many balls in the air — volunteering and working?

I now put it all on my platter, because I have a full-time job as well as my volunteer projects. But it’s the passion in my life; I love what I’m doing, just like I love my Vineyard Haven library job. It was a volunteer job in the beginning, right after 9/11 in 2001. The very first program we did was hosting speaker Jim Norton, with standing room only — we all learned about Afghanistan. It was bringing to the community what was important at the time, helping the community. It would be hard for me to choose which role I would do if I had to choose.

This Island couldn’t function without volunteers. I don’t think you’ll see that other places. We’re all in this together.