The holidays are crunch time for Betty Burton, chief organizer for the Vineyard Committee on Hunger’s monthly Serving Hands and holiday Family to Family food service programs. 

Not only must she coordinate providing Thanksgiving and Christmas meal ingredients to scores of needy Island families, but this is also when she must find the funding for Easter meals as well.

“People don’t give much for Easter. I have to raise the money for all three, pretty much, in November,” Betty told the Vine during a wide-ranging conversation at the Vineyard Haven Public Library, where she has been the adult program coordinator for 17 years.

On top of her 30-hour-a-week library job organizing lectures, panel discussions and cultural events, Betty pours another 20 hours a month — and much more in November and December — into Committee on Hunger work.

“I can’t give either one of them up,” she confessed. 

Where did this seemingly tireless woman come from? The answer is not an everyday story.

Before moving to the Vineyard in the 1990s, Betty was a molecular geneticist at Tufts Medical School, owned a children’s book and toy store in Gardner, Mass. and raised a family with her husband, John Sundman.

A former geneticist, Betty now brings expert speakers in all areas to her popular series at the Vineyard Haven Library Jeanna Shepard

The Vineyard then was simply a vacation spot for the couple. On one visit, they discovered the Nathan Mayhew Seminars, a now-defunct lecture series founded in Vineyard Haven in 1976. Betty’s experiences there would directly inspire the work she does at the library.

“Every Thursday, John would take the kids and I would trot down to the Nathan Mayhew Seminars,” Betty recalled. “I thought it was the most wonderful thing, that you could live here and go and hear these wonderful lectures from world-class experts in their fields. 

“We moved here, and they promptly stopped it.”

But Betty didn’t forget about the lectures and in 2000, when the Vineyard Haven Public Library was renovated and community members were invited to say what they’d like to see at the refurbished facility, she put up her hand to suggest a programming series.

Almost immediately, she found herself also volunteering to organize it. The first event, shortly after 9/11, featured Islander and South Asian scholar Jim Norton talking about his experiences in Afghanistan to a standing-room-only crowd of more than 100 people, she said.

After organizing a few more library talks, Betty was hired — part-time at first, with a 10-hour work week.

“And then it progressed and now I have a permanent position that they created,” she said.

Betty’s bookings tend to draw capacity crowds, whether held in the library’s program room (60-70 people) or in the main library (about 120 people, with much effort involved in moving furniture). 

This year’s talk with paleontologist and seasonal Oak Bluffs resident Dr. Henry Kriegstein — one of many science-oriented events she’s planned — packed the latter room to the gills, Betty said. “You couldn’t get another person in there.”

Her most popular programs, such as retired Swarthmore professor Philip Weinstein’s literary seminars, often take place at the Katharine Cornell Theatre to accommodate even larger audiences. His talks, as well as a summer 2017 series of lectures on bioethics, genetic engineering and other science-oriented topics, are available to view on demand at the website.

Betty generates a maximum of meals out of a minimum of space Jeanna Shepard

Doubling down

The same year she started programming at the library, 2000, Betty joined the Vineyard Committee on Hunger, whose aging members were seeking a younger president to carry on the work of supporting Islanders at risk of going without food.

At the time, the food available to hungry Islanders consisted mostly of generic staples such as peanut butter, canned meat and no-brand oat cereal, Betty said. “It wasn't particularly wonderful food.”

Over her Committee on Hunger tenure, Betty has overseen a shift toward healthier foods with an emphasis on fresh, locally-grown produce, often donated by Island growers and grocers.

“We really give out great food,” she said. “The farmers have been wonderful.”

Demand for food relief, which traditionally went to fishing families during lean winter months, has increased significantly over the years, Betty said — particularly since the 2008 financial crisis. “That’s when we started staying open in the summer,” she said.

Today, it takes a small army of volunteers, including high school students and Daybreak Clubhouse members, to hand out the monthly and holiday grocery bags. “Without them, we couldn’t run this program any more,” Betty said.

Betty’s husband, John, a retiring volunteer firefighter and an author, is another faithful volunteer — both with the Committee on Hunger and the library, where he “does a lot of schlepping,” she said.

“He helps me set up at the Katharine Cornell,” where an audience member recently thanked both of them, she said. “I thought, ‘that’s nice.’”

And we can expect to see the two of them continue their work in 2018.

“I’m past retirement age, but it’s wonderful to get up in the morning and say, ‘There’s something I want to do today that I love,’” Betty said.

The Serving Hands/Family to Family Thanksgiving grocery bags will be distributed Nov. 17 and the Christmas meal ingredients Dec. 22, from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. at the parish hall of the First Baptist Church, 66 William Street in Vineyard Haven.