Island Community Services Marks Historic Milestone
By MANDY LOCKE
Yellowing newspaper clips fill the pages of the Martha's Vineyard Community Services scrapbook, tracing each program addition through its 40-year history. Its history is one of growth - the evolution of a single program in 1961 to an essential Island institution in 2001. But the falls and flights that capture the organization's resilience and commitment won't all be found in the newspaper archives.
"I'm old enough to tell war stories, but those aren't the best ones," said Arthur Wortzel, a Community Services board member who found himself as president within a month of joining the board of directors in 1985. But instead of stepping to the forefront of a cohesive organization, he found himself standing before a loose coalition of programs. Programs grew in piecemeal fashion, with staff offices scattered across the Island.
In 1961, an Islandwide committee, at the urging of psychiatrist Milton Mazer, opened a mental health clinic to aid Vineyarders dealing with some of the mental illnesses he documented in his book, People and Predicaments. In 1965 the agency added the Vineyard Nurse Service, building a foundation for the current Visiting Nurse Services on a grant of just $11,000. In 1972, Community Services reached out to children and their parents with the Early Childhood Program, which now serves more than 1,000 Island families. The Possible Dreams Auction entered the scene in 1979, with a high bid of $225 going toward a sailboat ride with Walter Cronkite. Journalist Art Buchwald took his post as Possible Dreams Auctioneer a year later. Women's Support Services entered the scene in 1981, riding on the shirttails of the women's movement.
Island native Tom Bennett returned home in 1970 to find the Vineyard flooded with disillusioned youth. Hitchhiking from across the country, Mr. Bennett said, they literally arrived on the Vineyard with $5 in their pockets.
"They were alienated because of Vietnam and the civil rights movement. We opened up our arms to provide a home away from home," Mr. Bennett said. The Summer Project manned hotlines, opened a medical clinic and sponsored discussion groups for these disillusioned youth.
As calm returned to the nation with the passing of the 1970s, Summer Project programs joined the larger program division of Island Counseling Center, which Mr. Bennett now heads.
The 1980s brought unprecedented growth and with that a dire need for more space. But as more community needs surfaced, so did negative figures in the organization's budget.
"We were growing so fast to try and provide for the Island's needs, that we were really hurting," Mr. Bennett remembers. Streamlining programs was but one attempt to cut costs. "We were literally working on a week to week basis," he said. During that time, Community Services staff and volunteers vacuumed, dusted and mowed the agency's lawn, all to cut expenses.
"We were running in such deficits, we couldn't write paychecks," Mr. Wortzel remembered. He recalls more than once having to beg the president of the bank to put money in the organization's account.
"We were a financially troubled organization, but well respected," Mr. Wortzel said, detailing how the bank president not only helped them continue paying for staff, but also offered the organization a generous long-term loan for the Early Childhood Program's Child Care Center.
Board members knew that the future of the loose coalition depended upon a plan to join the programs under one roof.
"Each program called itself an agency. There was no central leadership," Mr. Wortzel said.
Mr. Wortzel and the board began negotiating for a 100-year lease on their current campus, which sits across from the regional high school.
"It made a statement of commitment to keep all of these diverse programs under one roof," said Ned Robinson-Lynch, director of Community Services.
Once settled into the new campus, a visiting home nurse easily walked across the hall to the Early Childhood Program office to tell of a problem she noticed with a child during a home visit.
"On an Island where you can't get six towns to work together, it's amazing to see the staff, the director and the board working truly as an integrated whole for the health of the community," Mr. Wortzel said.
Friends of Community Services often credit the current cohesion of the organization to the arrival of Mr. Robinson-Lynch in 1989. Under his leadership, the organization overcame financial instability and formed alliances with existing Vineyard agencies. Community Services formed and continues to build an endowment fund on which to lean if they meet financial hurdles again.
And as Community Services celebrates 40 years of providing services to the community, leaders look anxiously toward state and federal legislatures as they dole out dwindling government funds.
"We face the obstacle of doing more for the same or less," Mr. Robinson-Lynch said. Community Services assists nearly 6,000 Vineyarders with a budget of almost $5 million.
"I worry we will experience the 1980s all over again," Mr. Bennett said, noting how human service professionals struggle to make ends meet on the Island.
"We're in hard times with government cutbacks, but there is still the will for us to do as much as we can for the community," said Diana Freed, a former board member.
Despite any tough choices the leadership of Community Services might be forced to make in the coming years, they know they have much of which to be proud.
And they decided that a 40th birthday is a perfect occasion for such a celebration. But in typical Community Services fashion, they will not just celebrate for a day, nor will they simply celebrate their own accomplishments. For an entire year, Community Services will rally around Island families - paying tribute to the changing size, shape, function and dynamics of families around the nation.
To kick off the 40th anniversary year, Community Services sponsored the first in a series of photo-text exhibits from the Family Diversity Project. The Family Diversity Project creates collections of family portraits to help communities recognize and eliminate prejudice against families of different races, nationalities, religions, genders, sexual orientations and disabilities.
Island families poured into the Grange Hall on Saturday to view In Our Family: Portraits of all Kinds of Families. Through pictures and letters tacked to the walls of the hall, they met the multiracial Hay Family and the O'Connells, whose five-year-old daughter battles cancer.
"This exhibit lets you appreciate the diversity and uniqueness of each family. Yet all of the emotions are universal. All of these families experienced sadness, happiness, fear and love," said Marney Toole, chairman of the 40th anniversary committee.
Visitors then settled in to watch That's a Family, an educational video that allows children to explain their unique families. These children matter-of-factly explained that their mixed-race family is similar to "a mouse marrying a rat." Another child dispels myths about adoption by saying, "They don't rent you." And a child of lesbian parents says, "I like the attention my moms give me. I think it's nice to have two moms."
The exhibit moved from the Grange Hall on Sunday to several store windows on Main street in Vineyard Haven, where the displays will remain for the rest of the month.
The celebration of families continues in January with Of Many Colors: Portraits of Multiracial Families. Opening at Oak Bluffs School on Jan. 3, it will then move through all of the Island schools and the Wampanoag Tribal Council during the month of February.
On the last day of March, Love Makes a Family: Portraits of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender People and their Families opens at Etherington Fine Art in Vineyard Haven.
Nothing to Hide: Mental Illness in the Family arrives in mid-July with an opening at the Old Whaling Church.
And Community Services wants to create its own collage of Island families. Vineyard families are invited to share family photos, children's drawings and descriptions of their unique families to be joined in a single mural. Families may turn in submissions now through Jan. 5, 2002.