Often it takes years to find your second act. A lifetime of living or working in one direction, and finally discovering your inner calling or goal. But sometimes … sometimes … it happens early, very early … and it will not wait. This is the story of a young woman whose “other self” was inside, ready to emerge, if only she found the right circumstance in the right place. Martha’s Vineyard was that place.
Like many who find their way to the Vineyard, Michelliny Chaves was born in Brazil. In fact, her hometown of Mantenópolis, on its Wikipedia page, notes, “An extraordinarily large number of people from Mantenópolis who migrate to the United States reside on the Island of Martha’s Vineyard …” But unlike many who come here for a better life, Michelliny was born to a good life, the youngest of nine children in an upper-middle class family, parents with careers in the justice system; her father once the mayor, living in a sprawling home and a family farm nearby, summer vacations at the beach, and full-time housekeepers.
Michelliny graduated high school and began entry-level teaching for first graders. Had she stayed in Brazil, no doubt, she would have gone on to college and made education her career. She would marry, have children, and have a life much like her parents — a secure, comfortable, predictable life. But her father was not a stereotypical Brazilian man of the times — he encouraged his daughters to be independent.
Michelliny set out to find herself, to find what was “possible.”
“I just believed that in the United States, anything is possible. And I wanted to find out what that was for me,” she says.
Michelliny came to Boston, first to help take care of her sister’s two children. That summer, a friend said they could earn extra money working on Martha’s Vineyard. Overwhelmed by the big city, coming from a town of less than 15,000, spending childhood vacations on an island, Michelliny remembers, “When I got to the Vineyard, I got that sense of home.” They found work as housekeepers at the Harborside Inn, but having been raised with housekeepers herself, Michelliny had no idea of how to clean a room, make beds, or scrub a bathtub. She learned fast. “I owe it all to a woman named Lisa,” her first boss, who spoke Portuguese. Rather than feel the work was beneath her, Michelliny saw opportunity. She came back a second summer, and an idea began to take shape in her mind.
It was the early 1990s; the Vineyard was booming — hotels packed, summer homes snapped up, rental properties multiplying — and they all needed to be cleaned. And there were lots of young, hard-working immigrants looking for jobs, almost none of whom spoke English, including Michelliny.
Back in Boston that fall, she enrolled in Harvard’s Extension Language program. When people asked how her English got to be so good, she’d laugh and say, “Well, I go to Harvard.”
Two years later, Michelliny had moved to the Island, and taken a job with a window cleaning company, handling their house cleaning side business. The owner, Stephen Gallas, offered her the chance to take over the sideline. “I had 10 customers, and did them all myself.” Steadily she built the business, though she didn’t know what business entailed. What she did know was people. She recalls an early meeting with Mike Donaroma, who himself had created a gardening and nursery enterprise. He told her, “I’ve met people from all over who come to the Island and they’re nice, but so shy. You shook my hand and looked me right in the eye.” She says, “I was always comfortable getting to know people, and I was just hungry to learn.”
She printed up flyers and asked her customers to give them to their friends. She found and trained staff, passing on the lessons she learned from Lisa. Michelliny conquered accounting, going from handwritten, one-at-a-time, personally delivered invoices to QuickBooks. She learned to order supplies in bulk, and purchase equipment. “I got my vacuum cleaners from a guy in Falmouth, and when one would break down, I’d put it on a boat, he’d get it on the other side, fix it, and put it back on a boat. I just found a way to do things.”
Over the years, Michelliny grew her clientele from a handful of homes to 120 a week in the summer, plus rental changeovers, plus a year-round roster, now totaling over 250 homes. She has gone from a staff of one — Michelliny — to more than 20. She personally guides them through the process of coming to the Island; mastering English, getting drivers’ licenses — all the challenges she faced: “When I came to the Vineyard … I connected with so many people, from all over the world, who treated me with respect and gave me opportunity.” Now she wants to give that opportunity to others.
Did she ever consider going back to live in Brazil? “No, not really.” Will she ever go back? Maybe someday (her son loves soccer, and would love to learn in Brazil.) But she knows the safe, predictable life she would have had there. “Here I was able to make my own life. To build something,” Michelliny says. She knows it’s much harder to do that today than when she came — she knew enough to buy a house the moment she could afford it — but she is still a believer in the American dream. Or maybe more accurately, the Martha’s Vineyard dream.
Could she, would she, have done what she did anywhere else? “I don’t think so. I thought anything was possible here. And it was.”
Michelliny has three children, a son in grade school, a daughter in college, and a stepdaughter about to enter dental school. She doubts any will want to take over her business: “They want to find out what’s possible for them.”
We invite you to send us thoughts on Vineyarders who have found their other selves, the next Second Act to feature on these pages. Send ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jim Dale is a nonfiction writer who has co-authored books on topics ranging from sports to business, to medicine, to politics, most recently the memoir “We’re Better Than This,” with Congressman Elijah Cummings.