The statistics sketch a picture of the other Vineyard, the one rarely seen or understood by those who harbor images of the Island as an idyllic vacation spot. Substance abuse rates here are 21 per cent higher than the state average. There are high levels of depression and domestic conflict and violence. The Island has a significant Brazilian community whose people are often isolated and apart, and sadly sometimes targets of ugly acts of racisim.
This other Vineyard is well known to the people who work at Martha’s Vineyard Community Services, where in recent years demand has tripled for mental health counseling, substance abuse recovery and preschool programs for children from families living at or just above the poverty line. The needs are critical, and funding for the programs that are the lifeblood of Community Services has become harder and harder to come by in recent years.
The Island’s oldest social service agency finds itself at a crossroad of change, underscored by the announcement this week that executive director Julia Burgess will retire sometime in the next year. A committee has been formed and a search will begin for a new leader.
It is a moment to look back and also forward.
Back to 1961 when the late Dr. Milton Mazer, the Vineyard’s first psychiatrist, saw a critical need for mental health services on the Island and opened a clinic that would later lead to the founding of the unique umbrella social services agency. Back to the 1980s and 1990s when the annual Possible Dreams auction led by the inimitable humorist Art Buchwald brought in record-breaking sums of money every year.
And forward to more recent years when Community Services has seen a sharp fall in funding — from the contracts it keeps with state and federal human service agencies as government budgets tighten in the economic downturn, and from fundraising at the annual celebrity auction which has struggled to stay vibrant since the death of Mr. Buchwald five years ago.
The sad truth, Ms. Burgess told the Gazette in a recent interview, is that the need only increases in times of economic hardship. “It doesn’t go away because the money isn’t there,” she said.
Ms. Burgess is to be thanked for her quiet stewardship of Community Services over the last six years. She took the helm during a time of difficult change both inside her institution and in the wider Island community, as the national economy faltered and shifting demographics forced many nonprofits here to restructure or close their doors for good.
As board members prepare to undertake the important search for a new director, it may be useful to return to a management study done seven years ago by the Heller School at Brandeis University that led to the development of a strategic plan. In a fresh look at the institution, the study found that Community Services’ strengths were centered in its staff and programs, while its weaknesses included the need for better financial management and community relations.
Strong leadership, a clear vision for the future and open, transparent communication with the Island will be critical components of the plan to carry Community Services into the next 50 years. The Gazette looks forward to joining the conversation.