The pandemic has been an opportunity for Pam Benjamin to expand what she does, and her concentrated work with the Sense of Wonder Creations Art Studio, celebrating its 31st year of fall, winter, and spring art classes as well as its 32nd year of summer camp.
Two summers ago, Benjamin joined the Martha’s Vineyard Diversity Coalition, an all-volunteer organization committed to achieving racial equity. With classes and the camp closed due to COVID, she participated in group sessions to discuss anti-racism and racism, a process she found very interesting. Benjamin also attended a group session in West Chop with people who were challenging others to change their thinking around racism and prejudice.
Benjamin was simultaneously researching possible collaborations with different African American artists, dancers, and drummers, who did eventually come as artists-in-residence to camp last summer.
Her vision and work extends far beyond the Vineyard through the Sense of Wonder Creations Haiti Fund, which she and her husband Nat Benjamin founded in 2011 to raise money for the community in Île-à-Vache, a little island off the south coast of Haiti, which they sail and fly to every year.
It all started by chance when Nat discovered Île-à-Vache as he was doing some research online, and found a cruising guide by someone it turned out he knew, who had been to Île-à-Vache.
Over the years, Nat has sailed there three times from Vineyard Haven with boatloads of goods, including bags of dried beans and rice for Sister Flora’s Orphanage and the Community Center, as well as used sails, rigging, and fishing gear for the fishermen, and tools for the local boatbuilders.
After Hurricane Matthew hit Haiti in 2016, causing catastrophic damage, the fund partnered with other philanthropic organizations to rebuild homes, clean wells, repair cisterns, provide food, replace animals, plant trees, supply seeds, and plant gardens. In September 2017 and 2018, the fund sent money to help with school tuition as well as backpacks, notebooks, pens, pencils, protractors, and rulers for 400 children.
Over the years, the Benjamins’ organization has supported the art program, paying the music and art teachers’ salaries at the Community Center — the only place where children and young adults can receive free instruction in art, music, and basic computer skills. They also purchased performance sound equipment and speakers for them, to augment the funds to purchase conga drums, acoustic guitars, and keyboards.
“We brought down recorders, harmonicas, and some steel drums, and purchased and sent, via our friend’s sailboat, a drum kit and two electric guitars, and have sent more instruments this past fall,” Pam says. “The students have learned enough about playing instruments in the past five years to earn money and perform at hotels and events.”
In 2017, the fund donated money to lease a 6.1-acre community garden that has been planted and beautifully maintained, and is flourishing with vegetable crops. And last year, they donated enough funds for the local people to build a goat shed, chicken coop, chicken tractor, and purchase 75 chickens and 12 goats, as well as money to lease another piece of land for the goats and chickens to graze.
The fund’s website describes another endeavor in the works, inspired by the island’s bustling wooden boatbuilding and other activity on every beachfront. The site reports that the fishermen cast and haul their nets in biblical fashion, then sail home to sell at the market and feed their families. Fishing and farming are the means of livelihood for most Haitians. With no facilities to haul, repair, and maintain the boats, they proposed to build a slipway and a small woodworking shop in the harbor. At the moment, because of the general political situation in Haiti, the project is on hold, although it was approved by the local community and officials.
Back at the Vineyard homestead, though, things are cooking. Pam says, “We are excited about the new year and new hopes, visions and silver linings for 2022.” There will be engaging visiting artists, and students will learn drawing and painting skills interwoven with interesting projects, as well as exploring clay, collage, printmaking, papier-mâché, stop-motion animation, maskmaking, mosaics, glue-gun sculptures, and learning about art history.
Ever busy, Benjamin leaves us wondering what she might cook up next.
For more information about the Sense of Wonder Creations Haiti Fund and the summer camp, visit senseofwondercreations.org. You can send an email from the website, or call 508-693-3142 for more information.