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Island profile: Cindy Belt,  working, coaching and leading

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO Cindy Belt at Mashomack, grateful for work she loves in a place she feels lucky to have found.
Cindy Belt at Mashomack, grateful for work she loves in a place she feels lucky to have found.

The American humorist Garrison Keillor tells of a mythical small town where, “All the women are strong, all the men are good looking and all the children are above average.”

When you speak with Cindy Belt — environmental educator, wife, mother and Shelter Island School girls volleyball coach — you can’t help thinking she lives in that town.

Tall, smart, athletic, with a notorious compulsion to pick up litter wherever she sees it, Cindy grew up among strong women and has raised her own strong tribe.

Since 1990, she’s been education and outreach coordinator at Mashomack, guiding a generation of young people toward an understanding and appreciation of the land and wildlife in the 2,039 acres of woods, fields, creeks and marshes protected by the Nature Conservancy.

Born in Sodus, New York, Cindy was the second child in a family with four daughters, Sue, Cindy, Martha and Emily. Their father was an Episcopal priest whose girls teasingly referred to him as “Father Dad.” Cindy “learned to talk in upstate New York” before the family moved to Rhode Island when she was eight. Her father died of Parkinson’s, but her mother and sisters all still live in New England. Cindy and her sisters take a trip together every year and gather for holidays.

She majored in biology at Cornell, with a special interest in ecology and marine studies. After graduating, she met another Cornell student, Mark Cappellino, while both were doing humpback whale research and working on whale-watching boats out of Gloucester, Massachusetts. They married in 1988.

Cindy said, “I married a man who had two brothers and no sisters. He said, ‘What would you do with a sister?’ and I said, ‘Well, what would you do with a brother?’”

They figured it out and moved to Shelter Island in 1990. Their sons, Andrew and Matt BeltCappellino were born, raised and schooled on Shelter Island. Andrew is a senior at Binghamton University majoring in biology and Matt is a freshman at the University of Vermont.

Cindy and Mark discovered Shelter Island when they came to investigate a position at Mashomack that Cindy was considering. “I had never heard of Shelter Island at that time,” she recalled. “Was it even a real island? When I looked at a map and saw the dot, dot, dot indicating a ferry, I said, ‘I have to check this out.’”

On the ferry “I got out and stood by the rail like we all do when we first come over,” Cindy said. “I was wearing jeans and sneakers and thought I’d stop at a gas station and change into my interview outfit. Well, you know how that went. I ended up at the library.”

As Cindy and Mark drove to the Manor House where Cindy would work and they would live, the dirt road and the canopy of mature trees overhead made a deep impression on her. “Having trees completely over the road like that, it made me think, ‘Oh this is a place I could be.’”

The couple lived in the Water Tower, part of the Manor House complex, “We came out of the woods and made our way into town,” Cindy said, to play adult basketball and volleyball during open gym times.

A standout volleyball player in high school and college, Cindy’s skills prompted someone to suggest she should consider coaching the girls volleyball team “about 10 minutes after we got here,” according to Mark. Cindy declined in 1990, but 14 years later, she was ready.

By then, Andrew and Matt were active athletes themselves, involved in multiple sports at the Shelter Island School. Cindy said, “I’d go watch the girls play volleyball once in a while and one of the parents said, ‘Why don’t you get involved and coach?’” Cindy started volunteering in 2004, coached the JV team starting in 2005, and when Jackie Brewer stepped away from coaching in 2008, she became the varsity coach.

Cindy’s coaching record is spectacular. The teams she coached have been county champions for the past 11 years and undefeated league champs for six years in a row. She was just named coach of the year in League VIII by her colleagues.

The prowess of the team has to be seen in the context of size. In spite of being one of the smallest schools competing in New York State, Shelter Island has still managed to field a varsity and JV team since 2004, an incredible accomplishment considering it takes at least 18 girls from a school with only about 35 who are even eligible to play.

“What it does for the girls is give them a sense of accomplishment and confidence,” Cindy said. “We get kids who haven’t played in other sports. They can come in and be successful and learn skills and be part of something bigger than themselves. I think that’s wonderful.”

Some of her instruction goes beyond the game. “I tell my volleyball girls they need to have a refillable water bottle and know how to drive a stick shift.” Cindy said. “As a woman you need to be ready, confident, prepared and self-reliant.”

Her work at Mashomack is to broaden and deepen the public programs and bring more people to the preserve, because, she said, “You’re not going to love and save what you don’t know about.”

Although the Children’s Summer Environmental Program started before Cindy came to Mashomack, she worked to make it a wildly popular program, accomplished almost entirely with volunteers. “We see kids come in as third graders and then want to stay as youth assistants, coming back every year from age 8 to 18,” she said. “Our board is extremely involved, as are local teachers.”

Part of Cindy’s educational mandate for the future will be to explore and describe the human history of Mashomack and how that coordinates with natural history. “People often come here and say, ‘What a pristine area,’ but actually, no,” she said. “There have been people living here for hundreds of years. Why does Mashomack look the way it does? What was the impact of the Nicoll family on the land?”

Cindy is grateful for work she loves in a place she feels lucky to have found.

“When we first moved here, it felt like we were living in the 50s,” she said. “Now it’s more like the 70s. It is still idyllic, it’s still wonderful, but we are now catching up with the rest of the world.”