After you’ve lived on the Island for a couple of years in the off-season, you start to recognize people everywhere you go. Steve Soriano, who has worked at the regional high school since 2002, is one of those friendly faces.
Soriano first came to Martha’s Vineyard as a camper at Camp Jabberwocky, “in 1982, back in the Dark Ages,” he laughs. After he spent time here during the summer, Soriano was determined to find a way to live on the Island full-time as an adult.
Through a work-study program at his high school in Braintree, Soriano spent weekends working at Chilmark Chocolates when it first opened. He would stay at the house in front of Chilmark Chocolates, and work making the chocolate confections on weekends, before co-owners Mary Beth Grady and Allison Burger expanded the hours.
“When it closed, I wasn’t impacted,” Soriano explained about the decision by Grady and Burger to permanently close the candymaking company in 2019. “What they did is unbelievable. They started from scratch, and they made it work. They did a wonderful, wonderful job. Those two ladies did a great job. I’m so happy I got to know them. I was one of the first employees that they hired when they first started.”
Meanwhile, Soriano researched and scoped out Island resources available to him before he made the move. He found the Island Employment Services program at M.V. Community Services, and they worked together to find a job for him, eventually creating a position in the high school’s mailroom, sorting, delivering, and making sure the outgoing mail is prepared for the Post Office. When Soriano sees a window of opportunity, he manages to open it and ease his way right through.
“I made it my mission to move here when I was a little kid,” Soriano told me. “People would ask, ‘How are you going to do it in the winter, year-round?’ I said, ‘I will find a niche,’ and I did.”
He said his mom was supportive of his move, even though he “gave her a lot of gray hairs” when he was young. She visits him at his apartment in Hillside Village in the off-season. After visiting in the summer in the past, he said, she decided it was a little too crowded that time of year. “I like the winter, too, because it’s peaceful and quiet and there’s not many people,” Soriano said.
These days he’s staying safe during the COVID-19 pandemic, and makes sure when he gets to work, he gets his tasks done safely and efficiently before he heads home. “I have the same job, but I had to decrease hours,” Soriano explained. “I get in and out because of the virus. I like to go get my job done and get out. I keep safe, and I cover up as well as I can before I go out. I make a beeline to the kitchen sink when I get home, and I disinfect my wheelchair.”
While he’s playing it safe, Soriano said, there are many things he’s missed doing this past year, like going out to eat, bowling, and shopping trips off the Island. Like most of us, he’s watched a lot of television. “I like a good five minutes of news, and then I’m OK without it,” he laughed. “I’m a big TV watcher, and I do like HGTV a lot.”
Soriano enjoys spending time with his girlfriend, Suzanne Walker, but they’ve had to limit their in-person visits, along with everyone else. Walker is an “Island girl,” he said, and he met her at a soup supper not long after he moved here. “I went in [to the supper] without knowing a single person, and there was this lovely lady selling tickets to the supper. You never know when you might meet the right person. There she was.”
He has a good support system around him, and friends who help out when he needs a hand, but right now he’s working closely with the VIP Island Connections Project, a vision fellowship grant awarded to Julie Schmidt, J.P. Hitesman, and Beth Kramer. They are collaborating with the Island Disability Coalition (IDC) to develop a network of individuals who would be interested in employment (or volunteering) as personal care or support staff for people in the community who need assistance with day-to-day challenges and activities. “This is something new they’re trying to develop on the Vineyard, a program that would support people like myself,” Soriano said.
Kramer, retired director of the West Tisbury library, is a key member on Soriano’s team. She describes him as a “real force of change on the Island for everyone.” His advocacy work is something that he sees as a way to make things better for the whole community.
Soriano is a frequent rider on the Vineyard Transit Authority, and the drivers’ strike in 2019 had a significant impact on him. Kramer said he’s been a strong advocate for transportation and accessibility issues. He’s a proponent of making the many Island trails accessible to everyone, and Soriano supported the VTA drivers during the strike. “I agreed with the drivers,” he told me. “I wanted to go on the picket line to support the drivers. Damn right I did.”
Soriano loves living on the Island and being part of the community, and these days is content with his digs in Vineyard Haven and the life he’s built for himself: “I love riding the bus, going to the stores, and I love seeing the boat come in. I can hear the horn from where I live.”
To find out more about Island Connections, and/or how to find personal care or support staff, or to be considered for either, join a Zoom meeting on Feb. 2 at 6 pm. Email Beth Wike, disability services program director at M.V. Community Services, at firstname.lastname@example.org for the invite.