When a pack of wide-eyed youngsters cut the ribbons for the Island’s new Early Education and Care Center (EECC) earlier this month, it was a crowning moment – for both Martha’s Vineyard Community Services (MVCS) and South Mountain. It concluded five years of intensive planning, design, permitting and construction. (Technically it was far longer – MVCS first contacted us about renovating or replacing their outgrown, outmoded, and problematic buildings in 1999. But it wasn’t until 2017 that the organization was ready to create a long-term vision for a new campus and raise the funds to make it happen).
The new building is a tremendous improvement, but ultimately, it’s the program that the building houses that’s more important than the building itself. In a recent Vineyard Gazette article, Louisa Hufstader writes that “Nearly half of the Island’s children aged five and younger have no place to go for care and education while their parents are working.” The new EECC is the Vineyard’s largest early child care provider, with space for 65 kids plus a home-based Head Start program that accommodates another 40.
The scruffiest of the ribbon-cutting bunch – with his long unruly blonde hair – was my three-year old grandson Rockland. Among those behind him was Heather Quinn.
In the summer of 2008, my daughter Sophie was working at the Art Cliff Diner. Heather worked there too. At the time my wife Chris was the director of the Chilmark Preschool. Sophie learned that Heather had early childhood training and was a licensed preschool teacher. She told her mom about her new friend and said she should offer her a job. Chris did, and Heather took it.
In 2010 Chris was diagnosed with brain cancer and had surgery to remove it. One day during recovery at Mass General, Chris had a conference call with her teachers at the Chilmark Pre-School. She told them it was unlikely she’d be back for a long time (which turned out to be never). She said, “Heather, I want you to be the director. Laurisa, Talia, and Kathie – I want you to support Heather in every way that you can, and I know you will.” Both things happened.
A few years later Heather was hired to be the director of Early Childhood Programs at MVCS. Due to under-staffing, Heather has been teaching this year (as director, she usually doesn’t). Remarkably, the class that she teaches is Rock’s. Full circle. The woman mentored by Chris (the grandmother Rock never knew, because she died six months before he was born) is now Rock’s teacher. One of those multi-generational serendipitous stories that the Vineyard is full of, right?
Just a few years before Sophie met Heather at the Art Cliff, a young architect named Ryan Bushey came to work at South Mountain. Over time he became a company owner and today he is our Director of Architecture.
Ryan was the architect for the new EECC. But he was really the conductor of a comprehensive orchestra that always played in tune, due in large part to his attentiveness, creativity, collaborative spirit, leadership, and dedication. He deftly wove together:
- MVCS staff (whose input was invaluable)
- their highly effective building committee (led by board member Stephanie Mashek)
- a collection of consultants (including Boston early childhood specialists Studio G)
- a team of engineers who designed the structure and mechanical systems
- town and regional regulatory officials
- SMCo interior designer Beth Kostman
- SMCo production staff led by Director of Production Newell Isbell-Shinn and Project Lead Rocco Bellebuono
- our construction partner The Valle Group (based in Falmouth)
- and a host of trade partners who did a stellar job.
The process was tremendously complex but there was little strife. Despite the pandemic, it was completed on time and on budget. When students and staff transitioned from the old center to this new one, they went from a building that couldn’t have been much worse to a one that – I say immodestly, but with conviction – couldn’t be much better. The contrast is stark.
The new building epitomizes high performance in terms of energy, comfort, health, safety, and durability. The envelope is super-insulated. The mechanical systems are designed to provide highly efficient fossil-fuel-free ventilation, heat, and cooling (as designed, the ventilation system exceeded pandemic standards and required no updating). All finishes and furnishings are non-toxic. And with the addition of solar during the next phase, the building will likely produce more energy than it consumes.
The project also minimizes the negative impact on the Island ecology. Stormwater is managed carefully with permeable pavement and rain gardens. Wastewater is treated with a denitrification system. The native plantings will thrive without irrigation.
This is a building full of light. Nobody fails to notice this when they enter. Large windows and generous skylights flood every nook and cranny with daylight.
It’s a tranquil place. The teachers say their job is easier now than it was in the past – the thoughtful design, soothing colors, beautiful equipment, environmental comfort – all of these promote ease and well-being for staff and students alike. Parents even say it lifts their mood at drop-off and pick-up.
Donors can be proud that it’s economical too. Approximately 90% of the work was done by islanders, which rarely occurs with Vineyard public and institutional buildings. According to a benchmarking study conducted by CHA Companies, the owner’s representative for the project, this building cost the same or less than lower quality, less efficient off-island buildings of similar scale and use. Americans have become accustomed to mediocre buildings fashioned by a lowest-bidder, race-to-the-bottom mentality. There is no good reason for this. This building will cost little to maintain and operate, and it should serve our community well for 100 years or more.
Aside from all that, the building has another quality that results from Ryan and Beth’s design approach. Sometimes I pick Rock up after school and take him to the nearby skate park where he loves to ride his scooter with his friends. When he leaves the classroom, he always bounds up the cushion sculpture in the center of the atrium and jumps off the top. Joyously.
It’s a joyous building.