In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the Portuguese-American Club had to reimagine its commitment to aiding the Island community. With large indoor gatherings still banned, the club, formally known as the Holy Ghost Association, partnered with Island Grown Initiative and became the new home for the Island Food Pantry.
“It was a real win-win,” said Gina deBettencourt, president of the Holy Ghost Association. “It’s helping us out, it’s helping them out, and it’s helping the community out.”
Located on Vineyard Avenue in Oak Bluffs, the Portuguese-American Club is a benevolent society that operates as a bar, community center, and event venue. Prior to the pandemic, the club regularly hosted events to fund its Benevolent Committee, a group within the Holy Ghost Association that supports various Islanders in need. The club also funds scholarships for graduating MVRHS seniors. For the graduating class of 2019, the Holy Ghost Association Scholarship raised nearly $30,000 for 31 seniors.
As COVID restrictions persisted this past year, the Portuguese-American Club wasn’t as well-positioned to help the community when aid was most needed. Additionally, without government assistance or significant revenue from bar sales, the club itself was financially vulnerable. “We truly would have closed the doors,” said deBettencourt. Partnering with IGI to lease part of the facility to the Island Food Pantry was therefore a “no-brainer” and a “godsend.”
At the start of 2021, the Island Food Pantry merged with Island Grown initiative (IGI) to expand food equity services across the Island. Prior to the merger, the Island Food Pantry had operated from the basement of the United Methodist Stone Church in Vineyard Haven for 40 years.
The decision to partner with the Portuguese-American Club was a “moment of clarity,” said Kayte Morris, senior director of food equity programs at IGI. While the pantry had been expanding prior to COVID-19, the limitations of the church’s facilities became more clear during the pandemic, said Morris, and the organization decided it could no longer continue its operations there.
“The Holy Ghost Association’s mission aligns really closely with ours,” said Rebecca Haag, the Executive Director of IGI. “It just became a really natural partnership.”
The Island Food Pantry opened in the “old bar” of the Portuguese-American Club on February 23. Since then, it has served 587 Island households — a total of 1,371 Islanders, 362 children, and 184 seniors.
With the upgraded facility, the Island Food Pantry has been able to go back to choice shopping, allowing Islanders into the mini-market-esque space to select the foods they would like. Prior to the move, the pantry could only give out prepackaged bags of food — an imperfect solution, considering the different needs of each family. Additionally, Morris believes that with choice shopping, community members tend to select healthier and more nutritious foods, leading to better health outcomes.
“What I find most important is that the people coming to the pantry are a lot happier than they’ve been in the past before we moved to the P.A. Club,” said Morris.
The Portuguese-American Club also offers a more accessible location. The Island Food Pantry is now along a bus line and accompanied by a parking lot, making for easy transportation and pickup.
The Island Food Pantry signed a two-year lease with the Portuguese-American Club with a one-year option to renew. “COVID-19 has really made the pantry realize the importance of a stable, logistical infrastructure for our day-to-day operations,” said Morris. “Having this wonderful landing place for the next two to three years is going to be a wonderful platform and partnership.”
With the Island Food Pantry operating out of the old bar, the Portuguese-American Club’s main bar is still open from 3 to 9 pm daily. Members and patrons can enjoy both indoor seating and outdoor dining for drinks and small meals. Chefs Austin Racine and Maura Martin are leasing out the club’s kitchen, serving delicious dishes a few days a week. Starting in early May, they’ll be open full-time.
Despite the pandemic, the Portuguese-American Club is still finding ways to support the Island community, particularly through the Holy Ghost Association Scholarship. On Thursday, April 29, it will be hosting a fundraiser with a chicken dinner grab-and-go, where patrons will be able to get fried chicken, rice pilaf, green beans, a roll, and dessert to support MVRHS senior scholarships.
Bertha Blake, a board member of the Holy Ghost Association, was also able to relaunch the monthly fish frys. During these dinners, patrons can get fried fish, french fries, coleslaw, macaroni and cheese, and a dessert to help fund the club’s benevolent committee. In the summer, the Portuguese-American Club often sells more than 150 pounds of fish to 200-plus customers in only two hours. The next fish fry will be in early May.
As for reopening the event venues and welcoming live musicians back, deBettencourt says, they’re just waiting for the governor’s approval to do so. “That’s our driving force: to get everybody back up here and be together,” said deBettencourt.