It's auction season here on the Island. Benefits are by now part of the summer routine - held, it seems, on a weekly basis - raising money for causes that range from youth sailing programs to conservation and affordable housing. But the predecessor of them all still has yet to make its annual appeal. That will come Monday, August 5, with the 24th annual Possible Dreams Auction, held in the garden of the Harborside Inn in Edgartown.
The event has become one of the hallmarks of the Island summer. National and local celebrities donate dreams - otherwise unbuyable experiences - such as cocktails with Oscar winner Patricia Neal at her Edgartown home, or golf and lunch with Seinfeld creator Larry David.
Other dreams are more Vineyard-oriented: a private concert by cellist Caroline Worthington and pianist David Crohan; a clambake for 20 provided by Martha's Vineyard Clambake Company. There are opportunities for walk-on roles to popular television programs, and tickets to the theatre, concerts and movie premieres.
Dreams go to the highest bidder, and the money raised from each goes to Martha's Vineyard Community Services. Specifically, the proceeds support the agency's otherwise unfunded services, including those provided by the Early Childhood Program, the Island Counseling Center, Visiting Nurse Service and Women's Support Services. Last year, the auction raised $403,600.
Kerry Scott and Amy Eisenlohr co-chair the 17-member committee that makes Possible Dreams possible. They're an independent group - separate from Community Services, though there's crossover with members involved with both groups. It's a year-round commitment ("a lifetime commitment," said Ms. Scott with a smile), but in the weeks before the auction everything kicks into high gear. By the time the garden at the inn is cleared, more than 100 volunteers will have contributed to a smoothly run auction (and they have a waiting list of 30 on-call and eager to help if needed).
Volunteers do everything from selling tickets and food to manning the bookkeeping table and spotting the eager bidders. They are the donors and they are the auctioneers - this year a job shared three ways by Art Buchwald, Rick Lee and Susan Klein. And once people commit, they come back for more. Heading up the list of longtime contributors are Ms. Scott and Ms. Eisenlohr, who between them have 32 years of service to the auction; the members of the committee have logged a total of 165 years.
"Everyone who volunteers knows their piece is critical, no matter what it is," Ms. Scott said, "and that motivates them, keeps them engaged and connected. We break them in slowly, but then they're consumed by it."
She pointed to Mr. Lee, an auctioneer who over time has engaged his friends in the auction, bringing in new and unexpected dreams. ("He's out of control in the best possible way," Ms. Scott said. "He's one of the world's best networkers.")
Though Ms. Eisenlohr and Ms. Scott head up the committee, they said they don't feel like co-chairs but rather like team members. "We go to the board for every decision," Ms. Scott said. "The chemistry is fabulous. It can be loud and rambunctious and we duke stuff out, look at it from every possible angle. But we always value everyone's opinion and there's mutual respect."
Last November, Hospice of Martha's Vineyard honored the auction committee - all its members, past and present - with the Spirit of the Vineyard Award, which honors those who have consistently served as volunteers for one or more nonprofit organizations on the Island, and whose work has made a difference to individuals and also the community as a whole. Over the years, the auction has raised more than $3.5 million for Community Services.
Ms. Eisenlohr said she's continually motivated by the thought of the people who they help, clients who might otherwise fall through the cracks of the system. "Community Services provides services that touch anybody, everybody," she said. "They provide emergency care, and when you need it, it's there. For Islanders, day-trippers, vacationers, summer residents - all walks of life."
"And if I do this piece here," Ms. Scott said, "I feel good that somebody, somewhere else is doing their piece. And so in that way it touches everyone, as well."
Ms. Scott said it's extraordinary the way people reach out. The committee has gotten to the point where they almost don't need to solicit dreams; people come to them, ask for their suggestions in shaping the dream so as to raise the most money. "What we do here resonates," Ms. Scott said. "We just get constant, positive feedback."
With Possible Dreams, they've found a formula that works, and it's made quite a name for itself over the years. The committee receives inquiries from across the country from fund-raising groups asking for their blueprint to success.
Even on-Island, the auction has served as a model for other fundraisers. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Ms. Eisenlohr said, but it also challenges them to stretch themselves to maintain that unique quality that has made Possible Dreams what it is today.
Ms. Scott said this year there's a bit of added pressure to raise money. Despite state budget cuts, Community Services has so far managed not to trim services. But the resulting need for funding is compounded by the fact that the agency is facing higher demand for service from the Island's increasing Brazilian population and in the wake of the Sept. 11 tragedies and the resultant economic downturn. The economy is also cause for concern with respect to bidders, whose usual generosity may be dampened by their own financial constraints.
"We don't have a goal. Every penny we earn will be spent," Ms. Eisenlohr said. "It's simple: The more we make, the more we can help."