Island Hopping: The Path of Katie McIntosh from Martha’s Vineyard to Sturgis

I grew up eating fresh fish. When I say fresh, I mean caught within several hours of hitting the plate. My father is a 3rd generation Martha’s Vineyard native, and like the generations that came before him, he fed us fish he caught from the back of his own boat. My childhood on this small island was charmed, especially in the 80s when MV was still a bit of a hidden gem.

Many of my childhood memories are special in these ways. Island life certainly lent itself to supper straight from the sea, bare feet, and freedom to roam the wooded forest paths that sprouted off of the dirt road circle we lived on. Many of these memories are shared with a tight knit group of kids that for the most part, attended all 12 years of school together and graduated as a class of 100ish. An insulated world within worlds… like a Russian nesting doll. My childhood feels like it took place in the smallest one, inside the rest.

Baby Katie, 1981

Similarly, the Cape feels very small to some, but when I settled here as a young adult I treasured the freedom and anonymity I found away from the Vineyard. For all of the fundamental goodness that island life provided me as a child, as I approached adulthood and became more aware, I was troubled by the typical pitfalls of small and isolated seasonal communities: mainly substance abuse, mental illness, and a lack of resources to address them. When people ask me now why I get homesick for the mainland after a week or so on the Island, I reflect on the fresh fish, the wooded paths, the bare feet, and the long friendships with nostalgia- but also on the ways that many ‘born and raised’ Islanders struggle to claim and sustain a life there. For me, these factors lend a repressive quality to the air and surrounding sea.

The 3 McIntosh Sisters: Katie, Lacey, and Amanda in High School.

There is not much room between the haves and have nots. While vacationers see only the beauty and quaint charm the Island has to offer, I see the environment through the eyes of a millenial expat: someone that chose to leave but also would not have had the choice to stay. I have watched the community that offered a simple but full life to my parents evolve in such a way that their generation was the last of the local working class that could reasonably expect to earn a living wage and attain home-ownership without a significant struggle. As the workforce and economy have become more competitive, the lack of post-secondary educational, training, or employment opportunities combined with the absence of affordable housing are a powerful force against quality of life. Add in the double bind of elevated levels of addiction/mental illness and lack of access to care and treatment, and a perfect storm begins to brew. Many of my Vineyard classmates, neighbors, and friends have been impacted.

I have always been sensitive to social justice issues: the divide between the haves and have nots, the able and the disabled, and the helped and the helpless. This was compounded by Vineyard-specific notions of circumstantial captivity and escape that surrounded me as I grew up. From a young age I have felt compelled to do my best to help others and to relieve suffering, and the struggle to understand and cope with this socioeconomic and cultural dichotomy helped to root my social work identity.

The work I have chosen is often challenging in its abstract nature. The results are not always tangible. I keep a quote by Thomas Merton, (a spiritual writer and social activist) above my desk that resonates and grounds me around this aspect. “Do not depend on the hope of results. You may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even appear to achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. You gradually struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationship that saves everything.”

In my role I believe that relationships are everything. Finding success and meaning is a journey of and through relationship with self and others. I believe the answers to life’s big questions are found in relationship fundamentals: compassion, acceptance, and connection. Relationships dictate the efficacy of counseling because no amount of education or training can prepare a counselor to successfully implement even the most evidence-based interventions without trust, rapport, and connection. Theory and technique are dead in the water without these. One must be flexible and creative in order to individualize support to accommodate each recipient’s unique needs. There is no prescription for a personal journey. The path is not straight, or paved, or mapped for any one of us.

On the topic of life-paths, there is evidence across many contexts and life domains of my tendency to burn my own path rather than following a more conventional trajectory. This was once a tender aspect of self for me. I felt sensitive when others identified my journey as non-traditional. However, as I grow older I find it empowering to reflect on this difference. It has provided me with a unique lens through which to view students and their individual challenges. It has made me more sensitive, empathic, and creative. It has taught me that risk-taking is a fundamental ingredient in the recipe of a balanced and full life- and that (most of the time) if you leap, the net will appear.

Isla & Duke

My path was winding. I transferred colleges and changed my major twice as an undergrad. Then during my senior year at UMass, as I approached graduation with a BA in Literature and Literary Criticism, I stumbled into an employment opportunity at a child welfare agency and was hired to work in a residential program as a case manager and child advocate for at-risk teens in the DCF system.

Shortly after, a young fellow named Duke came into my life. Just a pup, his personality was so easygoing and his nature so human-oriented, I began bringing him to work at the residential program. He was a natural. Duke is a 10 year-old golden retriever, a certified therapy dog through Therapy Dogs International, and a canine good citizen. People always wonder, “what sort of training did he require to do this work?” Well, the answer is: just basic obedience. He simply knew how to read and comfort humans. By the time I applied to have him tested for certification, he had mastered the skills they assess for. I have learned so much from him over the last 10 years. His instinct for human vibes and his level of attunement never ceases to amaze me. I truly consider him a colleague and partner in my work. He has a canine counterpart, Lola, that has been his companion and a part of our family since they were pups- but she is too much of a rascal to introduce to the public! Duke is fiercely loyal to her and to the rest of his tribe, including his Sturgis Family.

Montage of Moments from ‘The Big Trip’

At the residential program I worked on the front lines with some of the toughest and most heartbreaking cases I have encountered to date. The work was tremendously difficult but also very rewarding. I recognized that as a helper there is often more traction to be had with this age group because they are at a critical crossroads developmentally. Studies show that a positive relationship with even one trusted adult can significantly impact adolescent resiliency. To put it simply, this is a niche within the helping professions where I felt I could make a real difference. Within a year in this setting I had identified social work as my calling, and the following year was accepted to the Boston University School of Social Work program.

Yet again my journey bucked convention. In the middle of my Masters program, I took a sabbatical year to travel abroad. While engaging in cultural competency training through the MSW program at BU, it dawned on me that this competency could only be built meaningfully via the travel experience. Up to that point my travel had consisted mostly of hopping between small islands off of a certain northeast peninsula, and some limited longitudinal exposure to the Eastern seaboard. I researched my options, conferred with my faculty supervisor, and with the support of my program, family, and friends, ultimately purchased something called an “around the world ticket”. It was a relatively cheap ticket program designed for college students and allowed me to travel only in one direction, around the earth, with 16 stops, including connections. I embarked on my ‘Big Trip’: a 4 month journey of international ‘island hopping’. I left by myself with only a backpack, and traveled West- beginning my journey in Hawaii——>Fiji——>Australia——>New Zealand——>Indonesia——>, and finishing with a pit stop in Amsterdam.

Katie & Jason: New Zealand Freedom Camping

I WWOOFed (a volunteer program ‘Willing Workers On Organic Farms”) and worked with horses to earn my keep, I slept in crowded hostel bunk rooms, traveled on foot and horseback for many miles, and sought out opportunities to spend time with locals in their communities. This experience was what I needed to push forward as a student of social work and as a citizen of the world in a meaningful way. I dove in. I resided off the grid in village settings, studied injustices against native groups such as the Aboriginal and Maori peoples, immersed myself in native art and culture, volunteered in agricultural opportunities, ate foods I couldn’t identify, observed foreign cultural and religious traditions, and got very, very sunburned several times. My husband (then new-ish boyfriend) Jay is a surfer. He joined me halfway through my journey for a month long tour of NZ, during which we lived in a conversion van and ‘freedom camped’ our way around the country’s perimeters on the hunt for the perfect wave. I can tell you that once you successfully cohabitate with a partner in 88 sq. ft., it may seal the deal. (We were married 4 years later, and 10 months after that welcomed a daughter, the center of our world: Isla Joy.)

Upon returning to my graduate program, I obtained an advanced school social work internship placement at Falmouth Public Schools. I worked in primary and high school settings within the district and loved working with the students and learning more about the intersection of education, adolescent development, and mental health. I knew then that my long-term goal involved centering my career on the educational sphere, and that teens were my favorite population to work with.

For whatever reason my adolescent and teen phase of life is one of the most vivid in memory and is sharply etched into my consciousness. The high school years are such a psychologically fertile and emotionally vulnerable time. The combination of such intensity and vulnerability made this chapter indelible to me. As a result I believe that I have cultivated and maintained the ability to confer with my teenage self as a consultant in my work and feel that I am gifted with a knack for effectively connecting, relating to, teaching, and supporting teenagers.

BUSSW Graduation, 2011

Shortly after completing grad school in 2011, I had a serendipitous interview for the part time position of school therapist at Sturgis. I signed on for a 1-day-per-week position which I continued through the end of the 2013 school year. Meanwhile, through my other job in full time clinic work, I had been recruited for a 2 year program through the National Health Service Corp which seeks to place healthcare providers in ‘health provider shortage areas’ serving vulnerable populations with limited access to care. This program required an intense time commitment, so I was forced to take a hiatus from my role at Sturgis. However, I maintained a connection with the Sturgis Family. In all, I spent 4 years treating the homeless or at risk for homelessness population of Cape Cod through the Duffy Health Center and gaining valuable experience in the areas of mental health and addiction medicine before gratefully accepting an offer of full time employment at Sturgis during the 2015 school year.

A few more facts about me: I currently maintain Massachusetts state licensure as an independent clinical social worker (LICSW) and as a school adjustment counselor (LSAC). I consider myself creative and enjoy hands on projects. I am an avid reader (mostly fiction), and have always been a passionate equestrian. I became certified in equine assisted psychotherapy through the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA) in 2013 and am also a licensed horseback riding instructor in Massachusetts. Although parenthood has prompted a hiatus from the horse game, I dream of someday incorporating horses and riding back into my life and work.

The rest is history! Duke and I feel so at home in the Sturgis community and are enjoying learning and growing year by year with the Sturgis family. I look forward to continuing this work and contributing to the success of students and educators for many years to come by offering support, guidance, and interventions that address important issues and barriers to learning. Thanks for taking the time to learn more about Duke and me and what led us to Sturgis!

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