For many of us, Martha’s Vineyard settles our souls. The expanses of forest, the waves lapping at the long, empty beaches, and the sounds of the wind and the birds are all somehow transformative.

But it is our buildings that bind us and make us a human community. As Winston Churchill said: “We shape our buildings and they shape us.”

There is something about many of our homes and other structures — the Old Ag Hall, the Whaling Church — that just feels right and connects us to a sense of the past, and perhaps also to our future. The creaky and familiar porch and dusty mood at Alley’s General Store, the open and modern spaces of the YMCA, so many of our shared spaces feel safe, familiar and sustaining to who we are. They give us our identity as Islanders. They make us feel proud of our home and good about ourselves.

Nowhere is the quality of space more important than in our helping places: our schools, libraries and senior and health care centers. Think of the large private patient rooms with grand windows and expansive views of the harbor and sky at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital. The architects must have known the well-documented fact that patients in hospitals recover faster and appear to need less pain medication when their rooms have a direct view of the external natural world.

Having completed the Early Childhood Center that opened its doors in the fall of 2021, Martha’s Vineyard Community Services is in the process of designing and planning for a comprehensive new service center to address the functional, emotional and mental health needs of our Island.

The current building is cramped and dilapidated, with furnishings reflective of past decades. It is often too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter. It floods in heavy rains. Finding the front door is difficult, as is accessing programming a half-story above or below ground. Offices occupy spaces that were formerly closets, and break areas are no more than coffee pots in hallways. Sound machines are strewn throughout hallway floors to mask private conversations beyond thin walls.

Unlike Union Chapel, the Whaling Church or the Grange Hall, it appears that the MVCS structures were not built to last. Perhaps a replacement building could be built at a relatively low cost with a cinder block or prefab structure. But would it contain those intangible elements that heal and comfort human beings? We don’t think so.

The initial vision for a new campus began with an aspirational design. Over time, it was pared down to conserve costs, but without abolishing the promise of a sustainable space that is lasting, functional and best for Islanders and best for clients and staff.

If you haven’t seen the Early Childhood Center, you should. It was designed with an eye to best practices in early childhood education. High ceilings, cozy nooks and crannies for privacy, bright and cheerful space for indoor and outdoor play, and spacious classrooms for healthy interaction and learning are just some of the center’s design features. It is the kind of place that families feel good about and children associate with fun and learning. Staff who work within its walls feel valued and delighted to be doing meaningful, impactful work.

The space, designed and built by the local South Mountain Company, was completed on time and on budget despite the escalating costs and work stoppages of the Covid pandemic. Also, while the building has a positive impact on people, it has a much lower impact on the environment than most buildings.

As Martha’s Vineyard Community Services continues its journey to reconstruct a campus designed to promote mental and emotional well-being, our priority is to create counseling and therapeutic spaces that enhance the lives of the children, teens, adults, elders and families the organization serves. Its long agency history, which extends back to 1961, reinforces a core belief that the services it provides to some 5,000 islanders each year improve both individual lives and the collective health and vibrancy of Martha’s Vineyard.

For all of its beauty and grandeur, Martha’s Vineyard can be a challenging place to live. For year-rounders, our summer season is characterized by working and socializing overtime, while for many winters are oftentimes of underemployment and isolation. Homelessness and housing instability is a year-round problem, as is excessive drug and alcohol use. For the first time ever, a good proportion of those who presently use the Island’s winter shelter, operated by Harbor Homes on the campus of Martha’s Vineyard Community Services, are adults who are actively employed but without housing.

It is no surprise that MVCS serves one in four year-round Islanders at every level of the social and economic strata. Many or most of our clients carry the weight of a past with frightening and traumatic experiences, often beginning in their childhoods. As human beings, we innately know the difference between a space that pulls us down and a space that warmly satisfies our souls and feels welcoming. With that in mind, Community Services and its design partners at South Mountain Company envision a new, healing building with a number of key elements.

We imagine a sustainable, bright, calming, easily accessible building that brings nature and daylight inside. Like the Early Childhood Center, it will have a welcoming entry and a separate waiting and play area for children and their parents. There will be ample room for confidential and private therapy sessions, for emergency psychiatric evaluations, for a mobile crisis response team, for walk-in evaluation and counseling services, and more. There will be accessible spaces for persons of all abilities, a private area for veteran’s support and outreach, a customized forensic interview environment for children affected by alleged abuse, and indoor and outdoor therapeutic group spaces for services such as caregivers support group, outpatient mental health and addiction recovery.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for any social service and behavioral health care agency is to recruit and retain the passionate and skilled staff needed to fulfill the organization’s mission. Our employees are the foundation to the services offered at MVCS. They are essential to service continuity and to the future of the organization. We envision our new building as one that will convey to staff and clients alike the sense that they are a valued part of our Island community. There will be functional, weather-proof, acoustically private offices and meeting room spaces flexible enough to serve groups and the community. Staff will have a break area where they can decompress and support each other. Like the Early Childhood Center, it will be a place people love to come to for work.

Martha’s Vineyard Community Services approaches the new year ignited by a clear vision and strong sense of purpose. Our infrastructure and services continue to grow and improve in response to Island needs, and our aim is to begin construction on a comprehensive new services center in early 2025. We envision a building that will make all Islanders feel proud, and that will enable this over 60 year-old organization to continue serving the Island for decades to come.

Beth Folcarelli, PhD, is the CEO of Martha’s Vineyard Community Services. Charlie Silberstein, MD, is the medical director of its mental health wing, Island Counseling Center.