Chilmark Chocolates was much more than just a star business and chocolatier on-Island — it was a community that was built from the cherished experiences shared by staff and patrons.
Although the beloved chocolate shop closed its doors last year, the values it exemplified remain strong on the Island, thanks to dedicated advocacy groups and individuals who work to provide rich experiences for all on Martha’s Vineyard.
The Vineyard Independence Partnership (VIP) is one of those groups; it was closely aligned with Chilmark Chocolates. VIP is a partnership of individuals with disabilities, their families, and friends working to ensure that opportunities for a full life are available to all.
VIP art and communications coordinator Tessa Permar started working at Chilmark Chocolates in 2016, and said, “Compared to some people, that’s a very short time.”
For more than 30 years, Permar said, the chocolatier has been a business leader on the Vineyard that brought folks together, whether they were people with disabilities or without.
“I went there as a neurotypical full-time worker, but I got very sick with Lyme disease, and quickly became an employee with new needs,” Permar said.
But when Permar was sick, the folks at Chilmark Chocolates did everything they could to provide the same quality of experience to her, and to all of their staff.
“It was such a welcoming place. I have the experience of being an employee that had specific needs for my work ability,” Permar said. “They are just incredible. The space welcomed me no matter how I was feeling that day, or what I could offer. Whether it was a couple of hours a week, or full days. I’m sure many people can talk about the wonderful ways they welcomed people into that space each day.”
Permar said Chilmark Chocolates provided a unique education to both workers and customers about how to create an inclusive, successful, and highly functioning workplace.
“It was a huge work community, with many, many people working there and coming in and out,” Permar said. “People from all different backgrounds and with all other kinds of jobs.”
Permar said each day at the shop, there would be a morning meeting where employees would get to know one another. Sometimes they would start off with a question to ask folks, and each person would share their answer with the group. Permar said everyone who worked there became “very close,” and saw each other for their unique skill sets and talents.
“Individuality was really valued there, and put into practice. At Chilmark Chocolates, there was a huge focus on what people can do, rather than what they can’t,” Permar said. “It was a real mentality of working with and alongside others, rather than doing the work for somebody.”
Permar called the shop “so much more than just a workplace,” and said it was a huge part of the community for both the people who worked there, and for those who frequented it for those delicious chocolates.
After Chilmark Chocolates closed, Permar said, some community members were concerned about what would happen next for people with disabilities who worked there. “I think one of the most wonderful things about Chilmark Chocolates is that the community that was built around it didn’t just disappear; it is still very much around,” Permar said.
She continued to say that there are still work opportunities for those with disabilities on-Island, and groups like VIP are working to make sure those opportunities are out in the open.
“VIP was started initially by a group of parents who wanted to create equitable opportunities for their kids with disabilities,” Permar said. “Right now a lot of what VIP does is host events for people to connect that are more geared around recreation and leisure, but there is a lot in the oven cooking for people with disabilities looking for work.”
She said the Island Disability Coalition (IDC), of which she is also a member, has partnered with Island institutions like the YMCA of Martha’s Vineyard, Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary, the Martha’s Vineyard Boys and Girls Club, and Island libraries. These partners seek to offer inclusive work opportunities for those with disabilities, and according to Permar, “are in the conversation” about how to provide rich work experiences.
Although the void Chilmark Chocolates has left in the community would be difficult to fill, Permar said there are organizations on-Island who are upholding the strong values instilled there.
“The number of individuals with disabilities and the diversity of staff there is a lot to expect from any individual business, but there are several businesses paired with IDC who already hire those with disabilities,” Permar said.
In April, Permar said, she started working with Martha’s Vineyard Community Services in its employment services sector. In that role, she said, folks are working to match individuals with or without disabilities to their dream jobs, based on unique work needs and skill sets.
“We also support businesses and employers who are trying to become more accessible,” Permar said. “I think there are lots of people and organizations on the Island that want to promote a community centered around inclusiveness and opportunity for all.”