Block Island’s Women’s History Month

Fri, 04/24/2020 - 10:45am
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We’ve extended Women’s History Month into April (and possibly May!). Here are profiles of some in their own words:

Persephone Brown: Owner of Persephone’s Kitchen

At age 18, my friend and I visited her brother, where he was working at the Spring House. We swam at Fresh Pond, beached all day, went for a fancy dinner, and stayed in the bunkhouse. We left, determined to work on Block Island the following summer. We secured jobs and housing with Anna at Aldos. I worked as a busser, and we lived at the old Beck Farm up Payne Rd. Spring was spent scrubbing deck furniture, eating peanut butter and jelly, and walking miles into town every day. Eventually, we got the hang of the island, started earning money, and had a great summer as honorary members of the Leone family. 

My first summer shaped my future in inexplicable ways. I met people from all over the world who were living a life of work and travel. It was my first exposure to this lifestyle, and I was excited to find this new path. I stayed winters on the island, traveled a bunch, and eventually moved to San Francisco. I returned in 2006, planning to stay the summer and then “get serious” about life, the assumption was that that would need to happen elsewhere. That year, I began baking for Juice & Java, decided to go to nutrition school, met my now husband, and found I didn’t need to leave to create the life I wanted. The opposite was true; there was no place I wanted to make life happen more than on Block Island.

I feel like I’ve grown up with the Block Island community. Watching babies who were just born when I arrived grow into adults, bearing witness to those experiencing great wins and incredible losses all while supporting each other through it all, is such an incredible gift. There are people who’ve made a great impact on me that now feel like family. Working as a Health Coach, running island wide nutritional cleanses was a way I connected with the community after living here for some time. My nutrition work led to preparing food for the Block Island Farmer’s Market, and now at Persephone’s Kitchen. Cooking for people has been a beautiful way to share space with both the year round as well as our summer community. Raising my kids here prompted me to run for School Committee, engaging with the town in a way I hadn’t before. Then, after living here for 20 years, my parents moved to the island, really making the circle feel complete. 

Taking risks while learning unique skills has been one of my proudest achievements on the island. My first winters were spent within the artist community, posing for drawing classes, experimenting with visual arts. For years I repaired stone walls alongside Paul Cunningham, where we’d talk about life and its crooked pathways, while straightening the stone pathways. I’ve worked with Chris Warfel on his oyster farm, solar installation, and as an administrative assistant, where I learned I’ll always be a better laborer than organizer and keeping things on task. The service industry has supported me through every endeavor and has meant the world to my connection to the island. Persephone’s Kitchen is a big achievement, but it’s the years of working odd jobs which gave me scope and a proclivity for hard work, leading to the café. A culmination of the work, and raising my kids in such an amazing, supportive place is what I feel most satisfied with.

A unique quality of the Block Island community is the age range of friendships; there are no barriers. Kids who grow up on the island connect with adults differently, there’s a comfort level you don’t see everywhere. The opportunity for mentorship is really great. In my twenties I was friendly with women raising children and with retired artists and professors. Now, raising a family myself, I feel blessed to have connections to women of older generations, and younger generations alike, inspired by so many. Women who live on Block Island are full of ingenuity and creativity, they are strong. If I had to give any words of encouragement to others, it would be to continue to foster and develop meaningful friendships with women across all ages, we have so many collective strengths to share.

Kathleen Hemingway: Grade 7 Teacher at the Block Island School

Block Island is my home, plain and simple. It’s where I grew up, where I went to school, and where I learned the meaning of community; it’s my home.

I never really thought that I would be back so soon after graduating college, but like most things it happened out of the blue (a week before school started to be exact). I’m in a really cool position to see the island in a view of someone that grew up here, and now as someone that plays a role through the school of helping other kids do the same. Growing up here you see life in a different way, but coming back reshapes those memories to something more gentle and less cynical than I thought as a teenager. I was wary about being here for the winter full time, but I think it’s the best thing for me right now that could have happened. I’ve learned more than I ever could have imagined from my colleagues and students and even more about myself.

The Block Island community is unique, special, and sometimes like a suffocating hug; one you don’t see coming and wish would release you, but you know it’s out of love and you miss it when you’re gone. As a human, the community is where I learned about friendship, kindness, and support. As a woman, it’s where I learned strength in nearly all aspects of life so far. I am constantly in awe of the women here and their convictions, heart, and kindness.

I think the strong support system I have is what I am most proud and satisfied with in my life here. I know that this support system will not go away no matter where I go, and the unique thing about it is that the people here want you to succeed by doing and helping, rather than just telling you what to do. There’s freedom to try, and freedom to be wrong and try again.

For words of encouragement, I would say what I say to myself - have faith in yourself. Be patient and be kind with yourself. Never say anything to yourself that you wouldn’t say to a friend you care about. Listen to what people are saying around you, take it in, form your own opinions, and be true to them. I think most of us are doing what we can, sometimes it may not be the best, but we’re still trying, and that alone is impressive.

Robin Lewis: Principal Broker and Owner of Offshore Property

It was 1978 and I had just graduated from Wamogo High School in Connecticut. A group of us were headed up to Matunuck to go surfing, but when we got there it was flat. We decided to hop on the boat and see what Block Island was all about, and I fell in love with it right away. My friend and I decided we wanted to spend the summer, so we asked someone where we might get a job, and they pointed up the hill to the 1661 Inn. We found Steve Draper inside, and he hired us on the spot (and took some heat from Joan later for doing so!). That began a long career working with the Abrams/Draper family, who welcomed me as one of their own. 

I began living full time on Block Island in 1981, the year Joan and Justin Abrams and their family renovated the Hotel Manisses. Rita and I spent the winter wallpapering and painting, and I lived out at Spencer Farm on Clayhead Trail. I worked at the Manisses until I met my husband and got married here on the island. We raised two w o n d e r f u l children who grew up here and attended the Block Island School. We divorced after 20 years, and I returned to the Manisses as Dining Room manager for several years. In 2013, Susan Black and I bought Offshore Property from longtime friend Edie Blane, and I am currently operating partner and Principal Broker there. My side gig (and true passion) has always been teaching fitness classes, which I started in 1981 and continue to do at Elevation Studio and the Community Center. My love for the many dogs and horses in my life has kept me grounded, busy and never bored. I now live happily in a little house with my life partner and our three mutts.

What made me fall in love with the island was its inclusiveness. There was so much opportunity here. I found the people generous, open minded, and always genuinely interested in what I was doing. If you wanted to try to do anything, someone was always there to cheer you on. Young or old, it didn’t matter. I do my best to be supportive and encouraging of other women, and to set a good example for the young island women. Block Island is home to some of the strongest and most interesting women I have ever encountered, and I am proud to be a part of this sisterhood.

Of course my proudest achievement is raising two amazing humans in this incredible community. I feel like Block Island wrapped her arms around me from the very beginning, and has kept me safe and happy for most of my adult life. This sense of place, and of belonging somewhere, is a gift that I believe is rare and I feel lucky every day to be here.

You are stronger, braver and more capable than you think. Think creatively and do not be restrained by others expectations. Remember that you can be lots of different things in one lifetime, and whatever you are, you are always enough. I like to say that I am still not sure what I want to be when I grow up.

Meg Vitacco: Owner of MUTT HUT

My partner Josh, our dog Radar, and I were looking for a life change from living in New York for almost a decade, so we went on a road trip around the northeast in June of 2012 with the intention of finding a new place to live that inspired and excited us. Block Island was our second or third stop: we stayed two nights and fell in love. We took Rosemary Tobin’s card from Lila Delman and I “email stalked” her to find a rental that we moved into later that fall. 

I have no familial connections to Block Island, but in the nearly eight years since we’ve been here I have made friends that we consider family! My first job was working at the Avonlea as an innkeeper. I did that full-time for two and a half years until we saved enough money to start our store, MUTT HUT. I also substitute teach at the Block Island School in the winter, work part-time at Jessie Edwards Gallery in the summer, and assist Josh with Soundwaves’ movies on the beach. 

My favorite thing about Block Island is the sense of community and how we all care about each other. I am the Farmers Market Coordinator as well, and I take great pride in having an important role in such an honored Block Island tradition. I love to see locals and visitors walking around on a crowded Saturday Market in the summer sunshine... I’m hopeful we can continue that this summer! My fingers and toes are crossed.

My proudest achievement and what satisfies me the most about life here are one in the same: starting my own business with the help of my partner, Josh. I’ve wanted to have my own store since I was a kid, but up until we moved here, I thought it would be a clothing store or boutique (Fashion/Retail Merchandising was my college major). Seeing a void in our community for quality pet food, supplies, and accessories made me shift my focus to fill it.

Have fun while living the life you want for yourself! Most of the women I know on Block Island are doing this already... we’re good like that.

Gail Ballard Hall: Principal Broker of Ballard Hall Real Estate

It is harder than ever to focus on myself during these ever changing, challenging times. But in the same breath, I feel more fortunate than ever to have chosen Block Island as my home. My dad summered on Block Island while growing up. His love for the island was (and still is) never ending so we would vacation here when we could.

I believe my first visit was in 1964, I was only four years old so I vaguely remember that first visit, except the odor of lobster bait. I do remember that clearly. We stayed with my grandparents on the West Side, and our favorite things to do consisted of a day trip down to Vaill beach (it always felt like a trip), and cook outs at the North End, Graces and Dorries Cove. I think our last visit as a family was when I was 13 or 14 but my younger sister Geri came back as a young adult, and called to tell me how much I would love it too.

My first job was at Finn’s as a waitress and bartender during the summer. I also taught windsurfing at Andy’s Way. My first winter job was painting, scraping beams, and working for John Warfel refinishing furniture for the National Hotel, and bartending at Captain Nick’s at night. I then met Michele and Blake Phelan while paying rent and asked for a job. I had to take my Real Estate Salesperson test and started working for them in January of 1985. At night I was bartending at McGovern’s Yellow Kittens during the winter months and Winfield’s in the summer. I was very active outdoors, biking across the entire island during the mild winters, and ice skating, ice boating and cross country skiing during the cold winters. Summer was full of work, swimming, windsurfing, snorkeling, and socializing.

As a woman, I found it easy to make my way because there were already so many women who were demonstrating leadership and skill in every aspect of the community, and I never sensed any discredit from the men. I met single women who owned their own homes, having worked hard to obtain them. I was so impressed by how an election was run (and run by women), on the island, I asked to serve as a poll worker, and was then appointed to the Board of Canvassers and served for 11 years. My love for the physical aspect of Block Island led me to be an advocate in the preservation of it. This inspired me to serve as a Director on the Block Island Conservancy Board for eight years, and then as a Trustee on the Rhode Island Chapter of The Nature Conservancy for nine years. I serve today as an Honorary Trustee.

I am most proud that I made my way, and raised a child with my husband Geoff, in a place that I truly love. But I did so with a lot of encouragement, assistance and guidance from my family, from the people I worked for, and from friends, every step of the way. In regard to the Fred Benson Memorial Scholarship Committee and the Lions Club, these are two important community based involvements that I still volunteer time with.

Be yourself, everyone is different, and life would be so boring otherwise. Ask for advice, guidance and assistance if and when you need it. And if you know you want to make a life here, but are not sure what exactly you want to do yet, don’t worry about that, it will come. If you work hard, get involved with the community by joining a board, or offering your assistance with the many charitable organizations on the island, you will find your way.