A few years ago, I tried to organize a beach cleanup with my sister Erin and her fellow VIP (Vineyard Independence Partnership) members. For those who don’t know, Martha’s Vineyard’s VIP program is a “partnership of individuals with disabilities, their families, and friends working to ensure that opportunities for a full life are available to all.” It was during the pandemic, and I thought it would be a great way for my sister to get outside, gather with her friends in a safe way, and do some good. What I hadn’t thought about, even after being my sister’s sister for nearly 50 years, was accessibility. I soon learned sand was hard for some folks to walk on. Many others couldn’t drive, and needed rides. And my sister reported, more than once, that no one wanted to walk in a strong wind or rain. Fair enough.
A month or so later, on a sunny, not too windy day, about 20 of us gathered at State Beach. Signe Benjamin and Samantha Look of the Vineyard Conservation Society agreed to help, and brought big grain bags for collecting trash, which, it turns out, were unwieldy for many to carry. Another thing I had not considered.
My sister worked at Chilmark Chocolates on and off for nearly 30 years. But it was only through this beach cleanup experience that I realized how much Mary Beth Grady and Allison Berger had considered to accommodate and include everyone in their workplace.
And so I deeply honor Mass Audubon’s Islands director, Suzan Bellincampi, and Felix Neck’s education manager, Josey Kirkland, and their entire team for the work they are doing to make nature more accessible. For all.
For those who are not familiar with Mass Audubon’s Felix Neck, it is a wildlife sanctuary of more than 200 acres that was gifted to Mass Audubon in 1969 by George M. Moffett Jr. Before Moffett owned the land, much of it was farmed by Amoz Smith. The Felix Neck land has the shape of a wiggly rectangle, with water nudging in on three sides. On the Northern and Eastern sides, it abuts Sengekontacket Pond. On the Southern end, it sits on Moffett’s Cove. The entrance to the property can be accessed from the West via Edgartown–Vineyard Haven Road. There are sprawling oaks, pine groves, fields, sheltered coves, and marshes, which are rich in bird and pond life. For more than a half-century, Felix Neck has served as a community resource for conservation, education, wildlife research, and habitat protection. In fact, Fern and Feather, a natural history summer camp, was offered for Island children starting in 1964, and continues today. Since then, generations of families have visited and explored Felix Neck through their environmental education programs. In 2019, it launched a nature preschool, which is also called Fern and Feather. Today, Felix Neck employs naturalists and educators to protect and share the wildlife and wildlands with the Martha’s Vineyard community.
“Our impetus has always been to be inclusive. To bring more people into nature. Our camp has always accommodated all children. But now we are going deeper. And we have the total support of Mass Audubon,” Bellincampi says. “Mass Audubon’s President David O’Neill has made accessibility to nature one of its core goals, recognizing that the conservation movement needs to expand and diversify.”
As we talk, we sit in Felix Neck’s new accessible birding area where anyone — “all ages and all bodies” — can sit, listen, and look at nature. The space is a circular area with wood chips, benches, and bird feeders.
Josey explains that working with inclusion and accessibility consultant Kat King has deeply informed Felix Neck’s approach. “Thanks to the Island Disability Coalition, our staff did a 10-week training program that really pushed us to think about things like an all-person trail, changing our signage to include both English and Portuguese, making Felix Neck even more financially accessible, to communicate that we are on the VTA bus line, to use adaptive, lighter tools and wheelbarrows with our seniors, to create a one-mile universally accessible trail, and a Freedom Chair that an individual can use by themselves or be pushed in around our property.”* Felix Neck also has a golf cart that can help people see more of the property.
“Yes, and we have free admission for any indigenous people. This is Wampanoag land, after all.” Bellincampi gestures around her.
Bellincampi also mentions the fact that they have been working with the MVRHS for more than five years, offering transitional vocational internships for the school’s Navigator and Voyager programs. These young adults get hands-on life experience working with Felix Neck staff mentors, learning about everything from property maintenance to outdoor education. “They have taught us so much about what we need to offer and do for our community,” Josey says.
“It is so humbling,” Bellincampi says. “I mean, our preschool is an ADA accessible building, but then to expand and refine inclusion so that is woven throughout the Felix Neck experience…” She pauses to find the words and continues, “Our job is to identify what the barriers to nature are and see how we can help lower them.”
“Yes, we are constantly looking at how we can create more inclusive, safe space in nature.” Josey says.
On May 13, Felix Neck will host its second Accessible Birding program in the new birding area from 9 to 10 am. All ages and bodies can observe nature in place.
I get a sense of what this experience might be like. As we talk, Bellincampi will occasionally interrupt to identify a snacking bird for me. “There’s a tufted titmouse there,” Josey nods.
Of course, I know a tufted titmouse is not a rare sighting. Nor do I think I could identify one again from this one fleeting look (I’d need to look it up), but I like the feeling of her taking the time to pause the conversation and share this — especially since observing the bird is part of the experience and moment for them — and feel the great value of what it means to be included.
* If you are interested in taking advantage of the Freedom Chair, it is available by appointment, Monday through Friday, 9 am to 4 pm, and is appropriate for all ages. It is free for all Mass Audubon members, and just $4 for nonmembers. Call 508-627-4850 to schedule.
To learn more about Felix Neck, go to massaudubon.org/get-outdoors/wildlife-sanctuaries/felix-neck. Or just go: 100 Felix Neck Drive, Edgartown, MA 02539; 508-627-4850. Hours: Monday to Friday, 9 am–4 pm, trails open daily, dawn to dusk.