Professional Nonprofit Theater on Martha's Vineyard
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Long History of Caring Makes Vineyard a Disability Paradise

by Louisa Hufstader, Vineyard Gazette
For some VIP members, the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse has become a regular hangout. People with disabilities are part of the volunteer usher staff and in March, the lobby art show was dedicated to work by VIP members.

Among Cape Cod commuters who ride the ferry to Martha’s Vineyard for work, Rhiannon Maher has an extra incentive.

“I walk off that boat and I’m more independent,” said Ms. Maher, a 26-year-old Mashpee Wampanoag who works at Chilmark Chocolates.

Ms. Maher has cerebral palsy that weakens the right side of her body. She said transportation and jobs are much less accessible to people with disabilities on the Cape Cod side of the water.

“From a mainlander’s perspective, Martha’s Vineyard is disability paradise,” Ms. Maher said. “Your buses are on time. You have a transportation system that reaches all parts of the Island.” And, she added, the bus drivers here are more courteous and helpful to people with disabilities.

But most of all, it’s the can-do spirit of her employers that keeps Ms. Maher coming back to the Vineyard for her shifts at the iconic up-Island chocolate shop.

“I was so nervous on my first day. Other jobs I had before, I didn’t have good experiences,” she said. “I’ve had co-workers at other jobs say, she’s so slow. People tend to see working with me as a negative.”

But at Chilmark Chocolates, “the first thing they said is, what can you do?” Ms. Maher recalled.

Working the cash register is her favorite position: “You never know who’s going to walk through the door,” Ms. Maher said. At other times, she rolls truffles or stocks the shop shelves with candy and gifts.

“I do everything that they ask of me, and I try to do it well,” said Ms. Maher, whose fellow workers include several Islanders with autism and other disabilities.

VIP gatherings are open to everyone. — Mark Alan Lovewell

“We don’t focus on what I can’t do,” she said.

Ms. Maher’s employers are not the only Island business people who routinely hire workers with disabilities. Greg Marshall, 48, works both at Chilmark Chocolates and at Murdick’s Fudge in Edgartown, where he was offered a seasonal job a few years ago by longtime owner Mike McCourt.

“He said, we would love to have you,” said Mr. Marshall, who also competes in Special Olympics athletics off-Island and designs note cards that are sold at Chilmark Chocolates.

Other Island businesses and nonprofits that employ people with disabilities include Island supermarkets, Edgartown’s Wheel Happy bike shop, the Thimble Farm greenhouses at Island Grown Initiative in Oak Bluffs and the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse in Vineyard Haven.

The Vineyard’s history of inclusion is due in large part to Camp Jabberwocky, which was founded here 65 years ago by a woman who rebelled against the accepted wisdom of keeping children with disabilities away from their peers and out of sight.

What Helen (Hellcat) Lamb started in a small way, bundling children with disabilities in with her own family for trips to the beach, ball games and other summer fun, has become a defining element of the Island’s year-round community.

“To Hellcat, accessibility didn’t matter,” said Camp Jabberwocky executive director Liza Gallagher. “She had a simple saying: There’s a way. Find it.”

Jabberwocky campers of all ages explore every aspect of a Martha’s Vineyard vacation: beach trips, kite boarding, horseback riding and other activities, alongside people without disabilities. They put on plays, including a rollicking summer musical that attracts throngs of fans, and win ribbons for their Fourth of July parade float.

The camp is becoming more active in the off-season as well, organizing its first winter ski trip this year. A first-ever capital campaign aims to update and winterize the main camp building and to create an endowment for the pay-what-you-can tuition.

Countless members of Jabberwocky’s volunteer staff have remained on the Vineyard over the six and a half decades since the camp was founded, with Ms. Lamb’s inclusive attitude becoming an unremarkable fact of Island life.

“The ripple effect our camp has beyond our walls in Vineyard Haven is profound,” Ms. Gallagher said. “It affects careers, friends, community groups and beyond.”

One community group operating in the boundless Jabberwocky spirit is the Vineyard Independence Partnership (VIP), which brings together Islanders with disabilities, their family members and their friends for social activities on the Island.

Founded in 1984 as the Vineyard Special Parents Association and rebranded in 2007 as its membership has aged, the group holds regular meetings and frequent get-togethers: movie nights, bowling, dances, art classes and special events, with support from volunteer organizers and Island businesses throughout the year.

The group’s newsletter, What’s Happening, is written and edited by members with disabilities, who will be taking part in a journalism workshop at the Gazette May 7.

For some VIP members, the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse has become a regular hangout. People with disabilities are part of the volunteer usher staff and in March, the lobby art show was dedicated to work by VIP members — some of it created at Featherstone Center for the Arts, another member of the VIP network.

Over the winter, the VIP Drama Club meets weekly at the playhouse where artistic director MJ Bruder Munafo leads a group of 12 to 25 people in warmups, improvisational games and scene readings.

As at Burning Man, there are supposed to be no spectators at Drama Club — anyone who walks in is invited to join the circle. At the group’s last meeting in mid-April, several parents and a journalist linked up with VIP members to improvise on stage before Ms. Bruder Munafo handed out scripts for a scene from The Force Doth Awaken, a mock-Elizabethan rendering of the Star Wars tale.

VIP members also gathered last month at the Seth’s Pond home of volunteer Sundy Smith, who hosted an evening of collaborative soup cooking in her wide-windowed kitchen. Clad in aprons, they bustled between cutting board and stovetop, chatting and joking as they prepared chicken soup and an all-vegetable soup with a cheesy pistou.

Meanwhile, Ms. Maher was back at home in Mashpee, helping to care for her five-year-old twin brothers. If she lived on the Vineyard, she would be joining her fellow workers at VIP events like these.

“My friend group is here,” Ms. Maher said.

VIP gatherings are open to everyone. Upcoming events include a Cinco de Mayo dance, the journalism workshop and the group’s monthly general meeting, May 21 from 4:30 to 7 p.m. at the Farm Institute in Edgartown. For more information, visit vipmv.org.

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