Ilona Metell: ‘You can always help the person next door’

The spirit of volunteering is strong in the Martha’s Vineyard community. 

Ilona Metell helps out at the Family 2 Family holiday food distribution program. — Lucas Thors

Volunteering is an easy choice for Islander Ilona Metell, and the work she and countless others do helps strengthen the network of support on Martha’s Vineyard. 

The value of volunteering was instilled in Metell at a young age while growing up here. When she was just a little girl, she would accompany her grandmother in her kitchen, where the two would cook food for the residents and staff at Island Elderly Housing.

Those experiences shaped her passion for helping others, and inspired her to make it her life’s work.

At age 22, Metell left the Vineyard and moved to Boston, where she found a community of like-minded folks who wanted to help out in any way they could. “We would make sandwiches and go down to the Common to hand them out to anyone who was hungry,” Metell told The Times.

She recalled some social and political volunteering that her group did, like posting up at the women’s clinic and forming a line to protect the patients who were entering and exiting the facility from aggressive protestors. “We really did a little bit of everything, but it was often something food-insecurity-related,” Metell said. “I used to babysit for the church members who didn’t have money to pay, or I would do it in exchange for donations to the church.”

Metell volunteered again with a faith organization while living in Connecticut, near her mother. She joined an interfaith ministry that ran a furniture bank, where people who were just getting an apartment and couldn’t afford furniture could come to receive support.

“It was a really cool thing — if we could get that going here, it would be amazing,” Metell said. 

She also volunteered for the AIDS Action Committee when it was first starting up, and put in three years with the Boston to New York AIDS Drive.

When she finally gravitated back toward her Island home, she settled on the Cape, where there was an AIDS Action Committee group that did everything from information mailing lists to dances and pride events.

Metell eventually moved back to the Vineyard, and had some time on her hands, so she signed up for the Red Cross. Being a Red Cross member gave her access to a wealth of information about volunteering and the level of need on-Island. She took as many courses as she could: in casework and addiction recovery, as well as homelessness and emergency sheltering.

She then became a member of the local sheltering program and the Disaster Action Team.

“So if there is a house fire and people are displaced and have nowhere to go, we give them financial assistance,” Metell said. “But we could also help them get into a hotel while running to the drugstore to pick up their medication or stopping at Chicken Alley to get them some emergency clothing.”

Once she found her way into Serving Hands, a food access program provided by the Vineyard Committee on Hunger, Metell knew she found her calling. 

She said she was blown away by the sheer passion and consistency of those involved with the program, some of whom had made it their life’s mission to help others.

“We do the Family 2 Family holiday food baskets, and that is the best group of volunteers you have ever seen in your entire life, just unpacking food, packing it in individual bags, and distributing it all over the Island,” Metell said. 

Metell admittedly wears many hats in the volunteer world of the Island, but there are several reasons why this kind of work meshes so well with her needs as a person. Apart from being stalwartly devoted to helping others, Metell has some medical conditions that require her to have a flexible schedule, so volunteering on a part-time basis adheres to those needs.

“Of course, this is the one thing that makes me truly happy, and I haven’t yet found a job that fits both my physical needs and my happiness scale — the best thing about volunteering is that I don’t have to clock out or clock in,” Metell said. “I can step away if I need to, but I don’t have to lose sleep because someone else can’t eat or doesn’t have a place to sleep.”

One of the central reasons why volunteering is so enjoyable for Metell is the dedicated people who work alongside her. She said she is constantly impressed by the network of support available on the Vineyard. “If I need to find someone a pair of shoes, I call Kristy Brooks over at the Unitarian Universalist Society, and she calls the people she knows in the faith community, and there are just so many examples of these amazing connections,” Metell said.

For Metell, the ability to help others when they’re in need is a blessing, because once those folks are back on their feet, they can reciprocate.

Sometimes someone will be embarrassed for accepting food, a warm bed, or some free clothes, but for Metell, what goes around comes around. “Sometimes folks feel awful for accepting help. But I always tell them, ‘You know what, this is temporary. When you get to a better place, you can come and give us a hand,’” she said. 

Metell wants anyone who is interested in volunteering to reach out to any number of the organizations here and get involved, because the need is ever-present.

But even if you don’t want to sign onto a food program, a sheltering program, or something else, you can always look across the street to your neighbor and see if they are in need.

“We really do need people to help, anywhere, anytime. And it doesn’t have to be through an organization. If you live next to somebody who can’t mow their grass because they are elderly, you can go and mow their grass,” Metell said. “It’s nice to remember that you can always help the person next door whenever you want.”


There are many opportunities for those looking to volunteer on the Vineyard. Head to to get involved with the Island Food Equity Network, or visit for more information on the many food access programs available.