When migrants arrived on Martha’s Vineyard unannounced with little way to help themselves, Islanders stepped up to the plate. In fact, so many Islanders came forward to help that it became necessary to start a volunteer waitlist.
“It was amazing. This Island moved in a powerful way to help these people,” Lisa Belcastro, who runs the winter shelter, said.
One of the first places the migrants went to was Martha’s Vineyard Community Services.
“They were literally dropped off at our parking lot on Wednesday,” Martha’s Vineyard Community Services vice president of development, marketing, and communications Barbara Bellissimo said, adding that many of their staff and board members volunteered to help the migrants. Community services worked with the migrants after they were moved to St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Edgartown. “Our team worked with them to get them what they needed, from cell phones to dental work.”
Belcastro, who runs the winter shelter, said she received a call on Wednesday, September 14, at around 4 pm from community services for help. She was the one who took charge of the volunteers when the migrants were moved to the church.
“I think it just kind of happened,” Belcastro said when asked if she was selected to take charge. “It evolved organically … I just do the shelter, so I think it was a natural flow.”
Belcastro’s experience volunteering at Houses of Grace for five years and the last two years with Harbor Homes, which is the fiscal agent of the winter shelter, prepared her for the migrants’ situation. She stayed at the church the entire time from Wednesday until it was “thoroughly cleaned” and locked up after “our precious friends” left for Joint Base Cape Cod on Friday.
“It’s just part of life, being a volunteer,” Belcastro said, adding she is used to back-to-back shifts and “feels responsible” when there’s staff involved in a “critical situation.”
A group that was essential for the volunteer efforts was Spanish speakers.
“Thank God we had interpreters to ask the more pressing questions,” Belcastro said. Although she is learning Spanish through Duolingo and has been to Panama for a mission trip, she knows “the smallest, smallest bit” of the language and could only ask simple questions, like whether the migrants were hungry or needed a coat.
Some of the Spanish speakers who helped the migrants were teachers and students from Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS).
“It was great,” MVRHS principal Sara Dingledy said about the teachers’ and students’ altruism.
Dingledy later said in an email “we are really proud of our students who helped through translation and donations.”
“Several of them were present from the start, having heard about the situation from parents or community members,” Dingledy wrote. “This situation has laid bare a fairly polarized country with regard to the topic of immigration, and how our federal and state governments meet the needs of those who seek opportunity in our communities. However, what I think about is the fact that so many members of our school community responded with simple kindness to make people feel comfortable, cared for, and welcome. To me, that is the greater message.”
Belcastro said the extra food and supplies were donated to local organizations on Martha’s Vineyard, such as the Island Food Pantry.
Dukes County Sheriff Robert Ogden, who was on the scene to guide the migrants at Martha’s Vineyard Community Services to the high school, said in a letter he was “drawn to a phrase” that described the volunteers who came to support the migrants: “beautiful things don’t ask for attention.”
“The beautiful people in our private and public safety community sprang into action and responded admirably, not seeking public attention, only to pitch in and help,” Ogden said. He also took the time to recognize the numerous people who were a major part of the “response to the humanitarian crisis” and the many “unsung heroes” who helped. “Humanity is defined as characteristics that belong uniquely to human beings, such as kindness, mercy, and sympathy. The Island has expressed its humanity both in action and deed. I am truly humbled and honored to serve as sheriff of Martha’s Vineyard and as an officer of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.”
Belcastro expressed “the most heartfelt thank you” to all of the people who came out to help the migrants while juggling their own lives and the local organizations who helped.
“It was overwhelming, the amount of love and compassion that was poured out,” she said. “It was an outpouring of love. There are not enough words I have to thank the community … it made me cry happy tears.”
Rev.Chip Seadale of St. Andrew’s Church was not immediately available to comment. However, the church’s voice mailbox message thanked everyone who helped while the migrants were at St. Andrew’s Church and said those who wanted to make a donation for the migrants should directly contact Joint Base Cape Cod or the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency. An event the church is hosting called “Calling All Angels” also invites “all the wonderful volunteers who supported our Venezuelan friends last week” to come together at St. Andrew’s Church sanctuary on Thursday, Sept. 22, at 7 pm for “prayer, reflection, gratitude, and visioning.”