Introducing city students to the magic of Block Island
The Block Island Maritime Institute this summer is bringing high school students from five city schools to the island to participate in some of the things that make this one of the last great places on earth. Three of the groups are here for a week, and two are on island for a day. The sizes of groups range from 15 to 20 students plus a couple of teachers. The students are generally sophomores and juniors.
In addition, BIMI is working with the Block Island Lions Club and the Narragansett Lions Club to bring some 30 blind children to the island later this month.
Since BIMI started in 1997, the organization has been bringing city students, usually high schoolers, to the island. The program really picked up steam a few years ago, when Don McCluskey, a BIMI board member, and Eileen Dolphin, both long-time summer residents, got together to do more visits. Dolphin, who died during the winter, was a board member of the St. Vincent de Paul Foundation, whose mission is to help the needy in New York City. She convinced her board that sending children to Block Island for a week would be a culturally enriching experience. Dolphin, who lived in New York City in the winter, went on a search to find the right school and came up with the Cristo Rey School in East Harlem. It’s an unusual school, with a strict dress code and demanding pre-college curriculum. One day a week, students go to a job to learn work skills rather than to school.
Cristo Rey this year graduated 84 seniors, and every one of them was accepted into colleges such as Amherst. The first group of Cristo Rey students came to Block Island in 2005. In early July, the eighth group was on island.
In honor of the pivotal role Eileen Dolphin played in launching the city-students program, BIMI this summer named the program after her. The students are now called the Dolphin Kids.
Two years ago, McCluskey decided to expand the program and matched the money given by the St. Vincent de Paul Foundation to bring a second group of city students to the island. The Christ the King High School in Newark, N.J., was selected, and its first group was here last summer. The group’s second visit will take place in mid-August.
Last year, an anonymous donor again matched the money to bring out a third group. The Providence Career and Technical Academy was selected to provide a group of students, who were on island last week. Their leader was K.C. Perry, a long-time summer resident of Block Island and the school’s vice-principal.
The week-long programs for the student groups are very similar. Students arrive on Monday and leave on Friday. The goal is to show them as much as possible about the island. BIMI works in close cooperation with other island groups such as the Committee for the Great Salt Pond, the Ocean View Foundation, and The Nature Conservancy, often bringing the students to their scheduled programs. Students watch Kim Gaffett’s Ocean View bird banding and Chris Littlefield’s Nature Conservancy bird watching. Summer interns of the Committee for the Great Salt Pond demonstrate water quality testing in the Great Salt Pond.
There’s also plenty of time for fun during the week. The most popular adventures are paddle boarding with Jeff Smith, kayaking with Pond and Beyond’s Corrie Heinz, and taking a spin on McCluskey’s Segway. Almost none of the students have ever had such experiences. The visit to the Southeast Light is also very popular, and one afternoon is always set aside for the Fred Benson Town Beach.
One day during the week, the students walk to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s Beane Point facility where MaryAnne McGonnigle and Steven Lighty host them for an afternoon that includes a barbecue and lessons in flycasting. Naturalist Dave Clayton also enthralls them with information about birds and sea life. Depending on the tides, the students and Clayton walk along the ocean beach in one direction and return via the Great Salt Pond to Andy’s Way for the other trip.
Three nights a week, Block Island families host the students and their teachers for dinner. The experiences seem to be as memorable for the Block Islanders providing the meals as they are for the students gobbling down the food as only a teenager can. Helen and Jack Lynch hosted the Providence students last Thursday night. Said Helen after the dinner: “Having the high school students with us was a most rewarding experience. I felt that they gave us much more than we, in simply providing food, could have possibly given them. Their genuine appreciation was most evident. The politeness they displayed to the adults and to their fellow students, was most impressive. Several students spoke eloquently about their plans for the future.”
This summer BIMI is also welcoming two groups of some 20 students plus teachers from the Hopkins School in New Haven. They are on island for only a day. The first group was here last Friday, and a second one will be on island this Friday. The groups arrive on the 9:45 a.m. ferry from New London and return on the 4:55 p.m. boat. Their crowded schedule includes a beach walk at Andy’s Way, a tour of the Southeast Lighthouse, a visit to the animals at the Manisses farm, and a marine program at BIMI.
BIMI hopes to continue expanding the program for the Dolphin Kids. The unexpected payoff for anyone having anything to do with the students comes in conversations with them. One morning this year a Cristo Rey student mentioned casually that he and a few friends had stayed up late the night before to look at the stars. He said that he had never seen so many. “In New York you only see a couple,” he added. “Here there were hundreds… thousands of them. I even saw a shooting star. I had never before seen a shooting star!”