Women’s History Month stories

Making Block Island a better place to live
Thu, 03/19/2020 - 5:15pm

March is Women’s History Month, a time to honor and celebrate the contributions of women in society.

Block Island is benefited every day by the work of a diverse and hard-working group of women: the majority of high-level island positions are held by women. The Block Island Times will be honoring the contributions of these women with a month-long series. This week’s edition will be focused on women in the wellness and health departments.

We asked the following questions: 1) What brought you to the island? 2) What is your background? 3) What does it mean to be a woman on Block Island? 4) What has been your proudest achievement? 5) What words of encouragement would you give to other women?

Alison Warfel: Operations Chief and Director of the Wellness and Risk Reduction Program at the Medical Center

I suppose my parents are to blame for that. They moved here in the early ‘80s so that my dad could take the shop teacher position. My brother and I both grew up here and graduated from the Block Island School. I made the decision to move back here in 2017 in order to pursue my dream of giving back to my community.

My official role at the medical center is Operations Chief and Director of the Wellness and Risk Reduction Program. I oversee the general functioning of the building as well as the physical therapy and wellness programs. Additionally, I am a PhD student in the college of health sciences and healthcare leadership administration at Rocky Mountain University of Health Professions in Provo, Utah. Currently, my primary focus is burnout in rural medicine.

One of the most amazing aspects of the Block Island community is how many awesome women are a part of it. I don’t think this is a new phenomenon and in fact, I think this is really integral to how I was raised and the lens that I have always operated with. It’s empowering to see women of all generations hold positions of respect and influence. I feel like I left this community with a strong sense of who I was and how to express myself in the world. Years later, I have been fortunate enough to be able to return and serve my community through my position at the Medical Center.

My proudest achievement so far has been to be able to come back and serve the community I grew up in. I feel really lucky to be able to support the mission of that organization through helping to establish and run programs that tangibly enhance the health of islanders and empower our community in their own health and wellness. I get to do this surrounded by people I have known for most of my life, all while embracing the fullness of my identity as a queer person.

Take the time to learn who you are and if the system in place or status quo doesn’t work for you, make a new one. We have to be brave intellectually and creative enough to think outside of the box. 

Maryann Seebeck: Director of Human Services for the Town of New Shoreham

I was encouraged to come to the island to visit, by some very dear friends who had relocated here in the 1980’s. They told me it was a beautiful place, still largely untouched, undiscovered and that I should come see for myself! I finally did that about 11 years ago, and have been a constant and frequent visitor ever since. I felt an immediate sense of belonging, and was intensely attracted to the hardiness and stoicism of the people who live here. I was taken by the simple and sometimes isolated nature of the island, and of how people take care of each other and make do with whatever is on hand.

I became a Registered Nurse in 1985, and worked the majority of my career in the field of Women’s Health. I was fortunate to have been offered so many opportunities in this career, to learn and to teach, and to experience many different cultures. In 2013, I was managing one of the largest outpatient units in the hospital I was employed at, and along with many of my Nurse Manager colleagues, was offered the opportunity to pursue an advanced degree. Those studies required a deep look into the health care delivery system in this country and required me to find a place to do a project for a community or an organization. I chose to do my work on Block Island. I had many mentors during this work, including some amazing retired Nurse Practitioners, and of course, Mary Donnelly! It was during this time that I began working with the Senior Advisory Committee members on building a program for aging in place here on Block Island. Through these endeavors I have met some of the most amazing seniors – the degree of heartiness and good health and resiliency of most of the island seniors is like no other place. This program is ongoing. About three years ago, I was appointed as the Town’s Director of Human Services. This is an ever-changing and evolving role. I am always seeking ways to bring programs and services to the island that are available on the mainland, but that are not available to Block Island residents simply because of geographical location.

I see the women who live on Block Island as a hearty and hardy group of folks who have been the movers and shakers of their generations. These women are emotionally intelligent, caring, giving and self-sufficient. They take care of each other. I have witnessed them sharing their material possessions and resources, their food, their time and their creative talents to support each other. It is absolutely heartwarming to see these outstanding women in operation, in times of happiness, sadness, births, deaths, marriages and divorce, illness and health.

My proudest achievement has been raising three of my five grandchildren, over the past eight years. They are all just amazing young adults. I am so very proud of them and of the resilient and competent people they have grown to be.

Never say “no” if given the opportunity to learn something new! If someone asks “do you want to learn…”, always say “Yes!”

Victoria Carson: Health and Special Education Teacher

We first came to Block Island in May 1964 on a vacation for a month. We stayed at the Atlantic Inn, which was not open yet but they opened it so we could stay there. It was an amazing time for my siblings and me and my parents to spend together, in a beautiful place. Over the course of the month, my parents met a lot of local people, and they were offered a house and jobs and decided this is where they want to raise us. A decision I will forever be grateful for.

I grew up on the island, went to school here and graduated from here. The only time I’ve spent away was college and graduate school. Block Island was an amazing place to grow up. The community truly raised the kids. In the 1980s, I was still working on my doctoral degree but moved back because my dad and uncle were developing the Island Manor, and my mom had passed away so I came back to help. I met my future husband during this time. I worked on my doctorate and worked with my dad until his passing in 1993. Later, I worked at the ferry ticket office, and worked at the preschool. I also started substituting at the school and realized I loved teaching. I was hired as the school K-12 health teacher in 1999. In about 2003 I started working there also as a special education teacher. During that time we also started a family, I taught school, and raised my kids.

I never really felt like there was something I couldn’t do because I was female. I do feel being a woman on Block Island we have the same responsibility as all the residents, which is to be good stewards of the island environment, and to help the community act as a cohesive unit in raising our children. My mother was one of the kindest people I’ve ever known, and she was strong, determined, and demonstrated a quiet strength I have always admired. Mrs. Donnelly was the mother of my best friend and I had the privilege of spending much of my time growing up at her house. There were countless other women in the community who modeled for me what it means to be a kind, strong, and independent female human being. They showed me you can do anything you put your mind to, regardless of gender.

I would have to say that the thing that I’m most proud of in my life is my children: Roberta, Gillian, Sydney and Noah. I’m proud of the children (now young adults) who have been with us along the way, and my nieces and nephews. I am proud of what I have achieved in my career, and I’m proud to be part of this community. I’ve reached a point in my life and now I have the added benefit of living here so I can spend lots of time with my grandchildren, a privilege I realize not every grandparent has. I’m very proud of Keira, Keegan, Kelly, and their parents.

Look to the women around you for role models. We are surrounded by amazing women, who show such strength, determination and perseverance in the face of some pretty intimidating obstacles. Talk to other women, you will be amazed at what they have overcome. Don’t just focus on your own age group: look to those who are older, as well as younger, and you will find amazing strength and wisdom.

Always choose kindness when you can, and give the women around you latitude. And for heaven's sake, don’t be afraid to open your mouth … your opinion matters as much as that of the guy next to you. These are lessons I have learned from the women who have guided me along the way.