Block Island’s Women’s History Month

Thu, 04/09/2020 - 6:00pm
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We’ve extended Women’s History Month into April. Here are profiles of Jessica Willi, Megan Hennessy, Carrie Johnson, and Cindy Kelly, in their own words:

Jessica Willi: Executive Director of the Block Island Tourism Council

My parents brought me to Block Island as a baby. As they were both school teachers, they had the summers free and they came to Block Island to work. I have spent part of every year of my life on Block Island.

Currently, I am the Executive Director of the Block Island Tourism Council, the Secretary of the Block Island School Committee, a bartender at Captain Nicks, a waitress at Kimberly's, a mom to Abigail and Miles, step-mom to Julia and married to Chris Willi. My parents live and work here seasonally and my brother and his wife are both Block Island business owners. In the past I was a member of the Block Island Early Learning Center Board and the Board of the Block Island Conservancy. I owned my own retail store for a few years and I have worked at Mahogany Shoals, Dead Eye Dick’s, The Atlantic, The Manisses, The Beachead, Block Island Oyster Bar and probably a few more! I grew up working for my parents at their businesses, The 'Yogurt Freeze' and 'Old Harbor Take-Out.”

The Block Island community brings out the best and the brightest in people. Living in such a small community can be hard; you're always under the microscope, and no one is more passionate than a Block Islander with an opinion to share. The trade-off is people who challenge you to be your best self. There is always someone who knows a little more about something than you do, and if you aren't afraid to ask, there is help around every corner on this island.  

Being a mom to two thoughtful, caring, smart, global citizens who give me hope for a bright future. I am satisfied that my husband and I are doing our very best every day to contribute to our community in a meaningful way.  

The same advice I give to everyone who cares to hear it. Never be afraid to ask for help; specifically, don't be afraid to ask other women for help. It's not a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength to acknowledge that those around you may be able to offer you assistance and knowledge. And, should the chance ever arise, take a class in public speaking, it will come in handy one day.   

My mother, Gail Dugan, the strongest foundation and best role model a daughter could ask for. My "Mother Hen," Kimberly Ward, the most generous and caring person I know, Block Island is so lucky to have her. The Zendt sisters (and their mom, Louisa), if you are lucky enough to know them, you are inspired by them, it's really that simple. Maeve Dugan and Abigail Willi, if you didn't know you could learn and be inspired by three and 11 year olds, you're talking to the wrong ones. Persephone Brown, the business owner and mom that makes it looks so easy - and does it all so well - while being totally honest and open that it is so hard. And my three best friends, who no longer live on Block Island but who grew up out here with me, who taught me and continue to teach me and inspire me; Nicole, Liz and Jane.

Megan Hennessy: Music Teacher

My aunts, Fran and Rita Casey, purchased property on Corn Neck Road in 1966. They welcomed my sisters and me every summer. I was very fortunate to spend summers on the island.

My first official summer job was at The Surf Hotel, selling popcorn on the porch. My sisters and I would also sing at the Surf Porch every Sunday night and at the Historical Society when Captain Bob Cottle would host family events. “The Hennessy Sisters ~ The Society of Back Porch Musicians”. I think our band name came from the porches of Block Island. Our songs ranged from American folk to traditional Irish music. When St. Andrew’s Parish Center was built we would perform there as well. Then in 2006, I welcomed the opportunity to return to the island full time, where the happiness of music was such a part of my island story.

Our community is exceptional. Our town rallies, and for, it’s own, whether in celebration or heartache - it is a beautiful element of who we are. In November 2018, I was blessed with the magic of a Block Island rally. I entered a Ukulele Contest, and the first place prize was the chance to study with masters in the field. The video entry with the most votes would win the prize. I won that contest because of everyone in our town. Everyone! Voters ranged from a retired Town Warden, former students, current students, colleagues, and friends. It was tremendous — Lars Trodson did an article about it. The Block Island Bulletin Board spread the word and a “Vote for Megan” reminder every day. Facebook was electric. Even just last week, in the matter of 24 hours, folks rallied for The Bear Hunt.

I am very proud of establishing a thriving and enthusiastic Music Department at the Block Island School. This program has offered some students to develop confidence that has supported them in so many other endeavors. Music has transformed their lives. I am pleased to know that what we do in performances and classes harmonizes with what the students learn from Carrie Todd. Carrie, as many know, is an accomplished pianist who has taught piano to about 75% of the Island population! We work together to create a rich and cohesive music experience for Block Island.

There are few things better than a good theme song. Find your theme song. I have a couple to choose from, depending on the day.

Cindy Kelly: Owner of Pots and Kettles

In early March, 1969, my parents brought me, my brothers and sister to Block Island for the first time. We ferried over on the Sprigg Carroll in rough seas. Everyone on the boat threw up except my father; he stayed busy swabbing the deck. That weekend I helped my mom and dad clean up the house on Connecticut Avenue that they had just bought with my aunt and uncle. The curtains were made of paper, the water out of the faucets was orange, there was no heat, everything smelled funny, and I had never been happier in my 11 years. I explored the stretches along the unlined roads to the beach and town; it was wild and sweeping and so quiet - I immediately felt I belonged here.

For 49 weeks a year in central Connecticut, I longed for the three weeks of summer we would spend on Block Island when my parents didn’t rent out the house. When I was 17, they allowed me to stay and work all summer on my own. I returned every summer thereafter until I graduated from art school, living in whatever room or shed I could find to rent and working many memorable jobs in bygone establishments. Then it was off to pursue a career in the arts in New York City — until 1988 when the assault on my five senses became unbearable. Block Island called me back that winter for what I thought would be a short hiatus; however, I met Gene Hall and that was that. Just as my attraction to the island was irresistible, so I was drawn to this island man. He personifies the natural integrity of this place.

Block Island seems to attract a lot of people like myself who are okay with spending time alone; who are introspective and private. We can deal with being remote, isolated by the sea, because it means being removed from the noise of humanity. It provides space to get clear with our place on this earth and with our unique identity. But the underlying sense of solidarity within this community is like a massive, strong safety net. Knowing it is there, always poised to unite and help each other in times of need, is such a comfort. So as I confess to being somewhat of a loner and a tad anti-social, I am grateful to be part of this community. And I’m grateful for my food truck vocation of late; it has rewarded me with a sense of connection to others that I otherwise would not have experienced.

My resume covering the last 32 years is rather schizophrenic as I’ve searched for a sense of purpose and ways to make a living here. Sign painter, roof shingler, bartender, group fitness instructor, mosaic artist, gallery owner, painter, housepainter, tile installer, lunch lady, food truck operator - the list goes on! What is my proudest achievement, you ask? I have to say it is this: in spite of agonizing periods of depression, anxiety and self-doubt throughout my life, I’ve kept putting one foot in front of the other. I’ve continued trying new things, facing my fears and finding my joy. And when my own solutions no longer lifted me up, I reached out for help.

I am astounded by the scores of strong, powerful, and creative women who call this island home. Look around! They are everywhere!! So many I am blessed to call friend, enhancer of life, helper, healer, inspiration. I am so grateful for the women who have supported and loved me, and for Gene who has both grounded me and let me fly. They have given me so much encouragement to love my imperfect self. My own humble words of encouragement in return? Keep seeking joy when you feel hopeless. Embrace the process of your unfolding life without judgment. If you are in a dark place, go outside and breathe in the infinite sky, then put one foot in front of the other and trust that a new way will present itself to you in time. Love your imperfect self. And if all that seems impossible, reach out.

Carrie Johnson: Music Ministry at Harbor Church

I’m a professional singer/songwriter, vocal and guitar instructor and owner of “Music Time! With Miss Carrie.” I’m married to Pastor Peter Preiser of Harbor Church and coordinate the music ministry there.

Life has changed so drastically in the past few weeks, but Peter and I hopped on the internet train when the shelter in place mandate went into effect. We are staying positive while connecting with our congregation, community, friends and family via Zoom, Facebook Live, Instagram and YouTube!

On Sunday mornings at 10 a.m. we're live-streaming worship from Harbor Church via the “Harbor Church - Block Island, RI” Facebook page and Zoom. Tuesday mornings at 11 a.m. I'm streaming my toddler music class from Island Free Library FB page! Additionally, I am so blessed to be able to continue teaching virtually and connect with my students.

I'm hoping and praying that the summer music scene here on the Island will not be unduly impacted this coming season! I have always believed that music is the great healer. There are so many talented musicians out here who I'm sure, like me, want to spread a message of joy, strength and healing via song.

If anyone would like to connect with me or Peter please send an email to harborchurch1765@gmail.com or connect with us via Facebook: Harbor Church-Block Island, RI or at my own page: Carrie Johnson.

Instagram: @harborchurchbi or @carriejohnsonmusic.

YouTube: Pastor Peter Preiser.