Block Island’s Women’s History Month

Fri, 04/17/2020 - 5:30pm
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We’ve extended Women’s History Month into April. Here are profiles of Rita Draper, Kay Lewis, Liz Doherty, and Valerie Preler in their own words:

Rita Draper: Owner of The 1661 Inn

Love of sailing first brought my family to Block Island in the 1960s. My parents thought it would be a great idea to sell our 27’ Triton sailboat, purchase a small summer cottage, and spend summers on the island. My teenage brothers and I would find summer jobs and enjoy beach time every day. After a few possibilities fell through, friends Herbie Marks and Claire Pike suggested we look at the Florida House, a 16 room inn, and in May 1970, we opened it as The 1661 Inn! My parents, brothers and I knew nothing about the innkeeping and restaurant business, so it was learned by doing! Lots of scraping, painting, wallpapering and hard work followed. Needless to say, we didn’t see the beach for many summers! In 1978, I met my husband Steve Draper and moved year round to the Island.

In addition to innkeeping and developing our businesses over the past fifty years, I have been fortunate to have served on many boards and organizations. On each board, Library Trustee, Chamber of Commerce (former President), Block Island Conservancy Director and School Committee (16 years) I felt I could truly be heard and could contribute to a better community. In addition, I have been an active member of the New England Inns and Resorts Association (Past President), and was awarded Hotelier of the Year by the Rhode Island Hospitality Association.

This month I have had a lot of extra time to reflect on my life and the influence Block Island has had. Of course there’s the tranquility of the island’s natural beauty and then there’s the people of the Island. It’s the community’s acceptance, support and recognition that we are all different, that sets this community apart. I feel I am an Island ”ambassador” or liaison between the year-round island community and seasonal business. I thoroughly enjoy educating and sharing with our employees and island visitors the beauty of the island, while at the same time the importance of balance.

My proudest achievement as a woman has been as a mother to three wonderful sons, Kyle (who continues to serve his country in the military and as a detective with the Rhode Island State Police), Seth (for his passion in the farm and garden to carry on his grandfather’s vision and take it to the next level) and Ross (for his artistic creativity and management in the family business). It has been a great journey to watch them mature and become incredible individuals. Of course this community has played as much of a role in their development. Block Island offered them so many opportunities from the unique k-12 schooling, athletic programs, and volunteer experiences. I am rewarded daily for the contributions our family’s businesses have made to the economy of the island and well being of the community.

I feel one should pursue their dreams and utilize all resources possible. It’s important to lead by example, listen, and treat others the way you would like to be treated and know that your opinion matters. There is such a wealth of information in our community if we take the time to observe and listen.

Kay Lewis: Block Island Volunteer

I visited Block Island shortly after starting work at Brown University in 1973, but a long boat ride from Providence with drunk and disorderly passengers left me uninterested in returning. A decade later I returned to visit a new friend. After seeing Block Island through the eyes of Keith Lewis, I fell in love with both the man and the island. Block Island has been my center of gravity ever since.

Until retirement in 2004, my time on the island centered on being a helpmate to Keith during his busy years of conservation work and spending time with his wonderful family. When I moved here fulltime, I transferred my church membership to Harbor Church and began volunteering with Block Island Health Services and the Island Free Library. I was on the BIHS board for eight years, am currently on the Capital Campaign Committee, and have served on the Membership Committee since 2005. At the library, I organized monthly book discussions open to the public for 13 years. While I’ve stepped down from that role, I still volunteer in lesser ways.

Over 50 years ago, I took a graduate course in community sociology studying a tiny, rural Kansas town. It opened my eyes to the fact that a small town is a microcosm of the world, especially when it is geographically isolated. People might squabble bitterly with their neighbors but when someone is in trouble, the community comes together in extraordinary measures to serve and protect one another. You see the interdependence of humans more clearly in a small place. Just look at all the people making masks today and helping others in meaningful ways. Block Island is my window on the world. Its people inspire me; its beauty sustains me. Living in a place like this makes us more human.

My professional life was highly achievement oriented. I completed a PhD at age 27 and became an assistant dean at Brown the following year. There were few women and almost no people of color in higher education administration at the time. We created networks to help each other find our way and create opportunities for the next generation. It was exciting, fulfilling, and stressful. Retirement to Block Island was a major switch. Here my focus has been on finding ways to be useful to the community without much thought about personal achievement. I am pleased to have played a supportive role in the island’s conservation movement. I am also proud of having worked, along with many others, to strengthen and expand our health care services. In a time of global climate change and global health crisis both efforts are more important than ever.

Sometimes the problems facing our world feel overwhelming and our dot on the planet seems insignificant, but there is no better place than Block Island to think globally and act locally. I admire the young moms who are bringing up children here. It takes courage to raise a family in these times. Keith and I are impressed with the awareness Block Island kids have of the global challenges their generation faces. We have many strong community organizations in which women make a huge difference: the school, the medical center, the rescue squad, the conservation organizations, town committees, etc. When you feel discouraged, just look around at the many women, and men, who are concerned with promoting fitness, wellness, healthy food, and affordable housing, and engaging in pop-up volunteerism. You will be reminded that you are not in this alone.

Liz Doherty: Owner of Traveling Seamstress

The first time I came to Block Island was 2011 for a short three day trip. I was invited by my friend Martha, from MarMar Jewels Boutique to teach a crafting workshop, a pasties and tassels-making happy hour. I was living in Philadelphia at the time and thought it was a good opportunity to get out of the city and go somewhere I had never been, let alone never heard of. Everyone who signed up for the workshop was an islander and I don’t think I’ve ever met a group of ladies that were more enthusiastic and fun loving than the women who participated, many of whom I call dear friends today. I wanted to move to Block Island after that trip and two years later life handed me an opportunity, and housing, to be full time on the island.

I’m very fortunate to be able to do what I love on a full-time basis. Before I opened the shop, I traveled to homes and businesses to pick up alterations and projects and worked from my bedroom. While juggling a growing business, I was a house cleaner and house checker for Ballard Hall Real Estate, worked retail at MarMar Jewels, and volunteered at Fat Heads Sushi for many summers. More recently, I’ve had the opportunity to have a stand that sells my handmade and hand-dyed goods at the Farmers Market on Saturdays and work as one of the many organizers for the Night Market on Dodge Street. In the past year, I’ve taken up volunteer positions as a board member of the Chamber of Commerce and treasurer of the Double Ender Celebrations for the 4th of July Parade.

Community to me means support, participation, and making a connection with those around you. I credit a lot of my successes to women on the island especially to the women-run businesses on Dodge Street. I am motivated and inspired everyday by these remarkable women. The amount of support and willingness to help in this community is something that makes this place very special. Kindness goes a long way.

My proudest achievement to date is helping to organize the Night Market on Dodge with businesses owners on the street. It’s grown into an event that islanders and tourists look forward to every summer and an inventive way to showcase local businesses, artists and musicians, activities, and fundraisers that are creative and give back to the community week after week. I love when people come into my shop during tie-dye party on Thursday nights and have never done it before. I say, “There’s no wrong in tie-dye” and find this approach a chance to encourage their imagination and to people in the shop, helping individuals feel comfortable, whether its altering their clothing to fit better or to inspire creativity through color and pattern-making.

Some words of encouragement are to be enthusiastic about whatever your passions are and do not to be afraid of change, be willing to adapt. When you can, get involved and return the generosities given to you.

Valerie Preler: Program Director of Block Island Maritime Institute

In 2016, I was enrolled in the Master of Environmental Sciences and Management program at URI. That year, I applied for a fellowship co-sponsored by the Block Island Maritime Institute (BIMI) and the Coastal Resources Institute. The fellowship included working on Block Island from June through August of that year. I was interested in the fellowship opportunity as BIMI provided opportunities for public engagement in science and opportunities to connect with marine environments. It was my intent to stay for one summer and finish my studies the following year. What I didn’t realize was how much I would learn to love Block Island or how much I would enjoy BIMI’s summer education programs. That first summer turned into three. By my third season here, it began to feel like home, and I decided to stay for one winter. I have now been here two winters. I will continue to work with BIMI and am looking forward to another summer.

I grew up in Rhode Island and visited occasionally as a child. Although I did not come back for many years while I raised my family in Texas, I started visiting again after we moved back to Rhode Island in 2009. When the opportunity to live and work on Block Island became available, it was an opportunity to which I couldn’t say no.

To me, Block Island is a refreshing change from the hectic pace of most of New England. As the Program Director, I supervise a group of interns throughout the summer. I am also a public educator and advocate for healthy ecosystems. Though I am not sure how to define it, I am privileged to have the role of being simply available to people, especially to the children as they explore with BIMI. At times, I lend a fishing pole or a net for squid jigging or crabbing. Other times, I have the opportunity to offer encouragement to a child when they are catching crabs from under the dock. I could get the chance to share in a child’s (or adult’s) excitement when they see a squid change colors or a scallop swim for the first time. I may help someone haul in a seine net. It is the opportunities that are hardest to define that I appreciate the most.

I am proud of the work that BIMI has done and the strides that we have made towards providing expanded and improved opportunities to educate the public about Block Island’s marine environment. I am pleased that, in my role as Program Director, I have been instrumental in providing the consistency that was needed to build these programs. It was also very gratifying to be open last fall to provide programs to the students at the Block Island School. I am hoping to be able to provide the same opportunity this coming fall.

For me, I needed to learn that it was okay to change my mind and do something new, and that you can change at any age. Prior to going to graduate school, I spent twenty years working in various roles supporting people with disabilities. I enjoyed what I did and I had the flexibility that I needed while raising a family. However, over time, I decided that I wanted to do something different. I recognized that being connected to natural environments promoted better physical and mental health and I wanted to share that in some way with others. Going back to school as an older person was not easy. However, although I struggled at times, I made it through. With that in mind, I guess my second piece of advice is to look for a mentor(s) and be a mentor to others as it makes what can be a difficult road much easier.