Block Island’s Women’s History Month

Mon, 05/11/2020 - 10:00am
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The Block Island Times will be wrapping up our profile interviews on island women this week. Thank you to everyone who contributed names of island women. There are so many hard-working and talented individuals on the island, and it has been wonderful to hear and share each woman’s story!

Julie Fuller: General Manager of the National Hotel

My mother’s mother, Iva Littlefield, was born and raised on Block Island. My parents fortunately purchased a home on the island in the early 70’s so we were able to spend our summers on the island.

Typical of most Block Island children, my brothers and I started working fairly early: babysitting, housekeeping at the Seacrest, and hostessing at the Narragansett, but the summer before I went to college, I decided to wait tables. At that point I applied for work as a breakfast waitress at the Harborside Inn where I interviewed with Chris Sereno. That led to a lifetime career; 37 years later I am still doing my summer job. The fact that my parents have made the island their year-round home makes it even better for my family and I.

Block Island is really home, not just for me but for my twin boys as well. We are very fortunate to be a part of this community. When they were little, they used to ask how I seemed to know everyone. It does feel like home from the moment I get on the ferry, to landing on the island, to interacting with everyone out here. I love the camaraderie and the ability to work with everyone in our shared goals. I also like to be able to participate in what is happening on the island, whether it be serving on a committee or voting in a local election; I feel like we can each make a difference and have a voice.

I think the thing I am most proud of is the team I work with at the National Hotel; we are truly a family. It started with Alan and Sharon Pratt, Chris Sereno has continued it, and I am proud to be a part of it. We work as a team. I truly love what I do - the job is a challenge but the people, the guests, and my coworkers make it fun and rewarding.

I would say believe in yourself and surround yourself with good people who support you and want to help you succeed. It truly takes a village, and I think women in particular are good at creating that village!

Christy and Becca Zendt: Owners of The Darius Inn

Christy: I was lured to the island by a friend. I remember being blindfolded as we drove off the ferry and straight to second bluffs! That view was my first revelation as to what was going on here and I was instantly madly in love. Block Island was supposed to be only part of our exploration of the northeast, but I quickly made plans to never leave. Being here amidst a busy summer season, I was able to find work and housing very quickly at the beautiful Avonlea Inn. I loved the pace and atmosphere of innkeeping right away, which confirmed my decision to settle into this life. About a year later I convinced my sister to come out and help work, and she was also hooked pretty quickly!

Christy: We worked for the Blue Dory and Avonlea for about four years and both found the multifaceted nature of innkeeping to be very fulfilling. We daydreamed about running our own inn and were inspired by both the idea of operating a business and designing a space. It was no small feat, but eight years ago we were able to figure out the logistical details (banks, loans, fire marshals, building plans, and [Historic District Commission] meetings) to take over the old Gables II, and in the summer of 2012 we opened the Darius Inn. Running the Darius is a true labor of love that is pretty much our whole life; we are either always working or never working depending on how you look at it!

Becca: Our roles have always been different (my sister does more cooking and cleaning, while I am the “Front Desk”), but our day to day has such a range of tasks that really keeps us on our toes. Running an inn is pretty full-throttle work, so there’s no better feeling than reaching the end of the busy season and being able to enjoy the beautiful fall weather on Block Island. I also love to dive deep into art projects - nowadays mine are all centered around keeping my three year old busy! I also help my husband (Sean Dugan, Block Market) at his store on Water Street. We spend a few months in Bali every year where he manufactures his own brand of clothing and jewelry. Two businesses and a three year old, you can imagine why we all love the off-season so much.

Christy: I love the conglomeration of interesting, unique, and strange (in the best way!) humans within our community, and I love living in a microcosm that pushes you to connect with a broader variety than the other world might allow. You can be good friends with people of all ages or with such different interests because there is this deep connection that is a reverence for the island. The logistical challenges involved in living here, the drastic changes in seasonal life, the craziness of island weather, and our small population are some of the factors that are great equalizers for humans in our community. Maybe this is part of why so many women thrive here! Maybe it also just speaks to the type of person who is drawn to living here, and the likeliness for us all to have a perseverance of spirit that enables success.

Becca: The Block Island community is built on hardworking and compassionate people, and it is therefore the best support system you could ask for. I have found that people are always willing to lend you a hand — whether it’s a Sunday morning plumbing emergency, tracking down a U.P.S. package, or looking for an ingredient after the grocery store is closed, you’ll always get what you need. This is especially true on Dodge Street where we have a really epic lineup of strong willed and creative women running 95 percent of the street. If you know any of these women, you know how dedicated and passionate they are about their work and their community. This extends beyond our street and really describes most of the women on Block Island, which undoubtedly makes this the best place to raise a daughter!

Christy: The extent to which the community supports each other is enormously satisfying, and being part of this community makes me very proud. The opening of the Darius was an extremely crazy time for us - we were in our 20s and in some ways, in way over our heads! Island friends and acquaintances showed up around the clock to support us in so many ways - from pulling nails, to delivering pizza, or helping us see the humor in some minor disaster. Reflecting on that, it continues to make me proud that so many people believed in us, and I think that says a lot about who this community is and what it values.

Becca: Knowing what it’s like to have the community behind us, it feels great to be able to support others working out here. We especially love our Thursday night events on Dodge street and how they connect our neighborhood’s women owned businesses. Even though the summer months are busy for everyone, it’s awesome to be able to slow down and cultivate an environment promoting creativity and community for all ages. Over the past few summers we have done tintype portraits, kids art shows and fashion shows, flower crown making workshops with Mimi Arnold, and tons of crafts for tourists and islanders.

Becca: Keep doing what you love. If you love what you are doing, that daily sense of fulfillment will be your ultimate success! Maybe you can relate this to what you do as a profession or maybe it’s what you do in the after-hours. Either way, it’s important! This is pretty easy for most of us on Block Island. We live on an outdoor playground and don’t have to look very far to be inspired!

Kinga Kaminska: Owner of Salt Hair Shop

I came to Block Island from Baltimore, Maryland. A friend of mine mentioned she was going to an island to live and work for a month. Having been ready for a change of scenery, I decided to join. We lived out of my car, spending every evening cooking on beach fires surrounded by song and the true magic the island has to offer. Needless to say, we stayed through the entire summer and continued to come out until I finally decided to call the island home.

When we originally came out we had lined up work turning over rentals, but upon arrival were turned away due to our appearance. It was the first and only time I have ever been dismissed due to my body art and choice of style. Although shockingly it worked out beautifully, as from there I decided to go back to a craft I had been working on in Baltimore and was hired on the spot to work at Marks Beachcomber where I began to build a clientele; in its location I own my business today. Before having had the opportunity to open my shop, I was lucky enough to work at Goose and Garden for many years, became a part of the team of the wild and wonderful ladies at Eli’s, and practiced my bartending skills at Old Island Pub.

The island community holds a special place in my heart. Although I have not always felt like I fit in, over time I have built some of the best and strongest relationships I could have ever imagined. The island is a melting pot of so many amazing humans, some born and raised here, and others that have joined from far away places. We are very lucky to have such a wonderful variety of people, and it’s very clear that we all have a true love and connection to this place. We have all witnessed the magic.

I’m most proud of building a business. It took me many years to get to this point, and I worked for it and I continue to work for it every day. Besides the massive amounts of love, understanding, and moral support from my family, friends and community, I did it on my very own. That is one of the most satisfying accomplishments I’ve had to date. Through this experience, I’ve had the opportunity to get to know the people that make up this community on a much deeper level.

One of the things I love most about Block Island is being surrounded and supported by some amazingly strong, fierce, hard working, beautiful, and resilient women that make up such a huge part of who I’ve grown into. I encourage all of us to love and support one another, and to hold each other up. Build your coven and remember that we are one in the same and ultimately part of one of the most amazing human bonds ever as sisters. Learn from and teach each other, it’s simple.

Jennifer Phillips: Owner of Phillips Real Estate

I first began visiting the Island with my family in the mid 1970’s. Initially, we stayed in a fabulous, old house on Beacon Hill Road, with a hand pump in the kitchen for water and an outhouse in the backyard! The spirit of this vacation stayed with me for a long time, leading me to continue visiting the island over the next several years, and then ultimately to move here in 1981 for the summer with my two sisters. At the end of that summer I hugged my sisters good-bye at the ferry as I had decided to listen to my inner voice and stay on the island for the winter.

I held a variety of jobs over the next several years from cocktail waitressing at the Highview Inn, (when it was popularly known for its swordfish), working at the Boat Works for John Gasner, The Bellevue House for Walter Filkins, the Spring House for the Mott’s, Finn’s for the Howarth’s, and then for the Phelan’s where I began my career in real estate. During this time, I served on the Block Island School Committee and I led the Harbor Baptist Church Youth Group. More recently I served on the B.I. Residents Association, I co-chaired the B.I. Chamber of Commerce Board, and I am currently a member on the Senior Advisory Board and of St. Ann’s Episcopal Church. Professionally, I am the chair of the Professional Development Board at the R.I. Association of Realtors, I have completed the G.R.I. Program, and graduated from a Leadership Program at Bryant University.

Raising a family on the island, despite some challenges, was extraordinary. Between The Nature Conservancy’s programs, the freedom to roam and learn, and being surrounded by the ocean with the constant opportunity to fish or boat or surf, the island was an extended classroom. My two sons, Gregory and Perry, both graduated from the Block Island School and then moved to the mainland where they attended college. Now, both back on the island, they are owners of fishing boats, Miss Jenn  and the Night Nurse, in addition to working in excavation and owning an oyster farm.

In 1999 I opened Phillips Real Estate. This accomplishment was due to my mother in law, Dawn Phillips, constantly urging me to get my broker’s license, and my father in law, Ned Phillips, presenting me with an office in the Post Office building. Every day I am grateful to be able to do what I love, both recreationally and professionally. Following a divorce in 2009, I was fortunate enough to purchase a small “fixer upper”. Acquiring this property was in large part due to the foresight of Edie Blane, to whom I will always be grateful. With a lot of sweat, and heaps of help from my best friend Mark, the house is now a home. My real estate career centers around sharing my knowledge and enthusiasm for the island with others. I am so fortunate to work alongside two amazing women, Hanna Martin and Carolyn Casady. I have seen both marry and look forward to watching them raise their families on the island.

There are numerous very strong women on the island. From my precious friend Shirley Kessler to my considerably newer friend, Joella who calls me Gran Jen, I celebrate the depth and wisdom of women. It’s hard to say if the island makes women strong or if strong women are attracted to the island. Regardless, making a home here - acquiring a home here - is difficult and can be very discouraging, it is however very well worth the time and struggle. To young women who find themselves in this situation, I advise to keep your eyes on the goal, accept kindness when offered, and where there is a will there’s a way.

Anne Marthens: Innkeeper and gardener at The Atlantic Inn

I’m originally from Rhode Island, and I was living in Connecticut with my husband Brad at the time. I had been an office manager in retail. I found myself wanting to be closer to my family, who live in Barrington, Cranston, and Warwick. We did a search for bed and breakfast inns, looking at Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, but Block Island just kept coming to us. That’s where we are today. The Atlantic Inn was perfect for us.

We used to come out to the island while we were dating, staying for day trips and overnights. When the Atlantic Inn became available, we were thrilled to have the inn in our lives. I love to garden, and that’s basically what I do — having flowers ready for the tables, and making flower arrangements. I also work at the office in the inn. My son Brad lives out here in the summertime, who works with us. He was married this summer to Ariel.

I just love living in this small community, and everyone is so helpful. If you have any questions or help, everyone is right there for you.

Raising our son, our friends, family, and business are my proudest moments. They mean everything to us, and we are very lucky to have our opportunity [available] when we did.

Be true to yourself. If you have your dream, go for it, that would be my advice.