Anyone who has gone to an Empty Bowls event can tell you it’s all about filling things. The bowls made by children get filled with soup donated by local restaurants and everyone who attends is filled with the satisfaction of doing some good for the community.
It’s been a success from the very start; the third annual event takes place this Sunday at the Shelter Island School.
One of the guiding spirits of the program is Victoria Shields Weslek, a 37-year-old wife and mother of three. She’s one of the original organizers in 2013 of the Shelter Island School Edible Garden and Empty Bowls, the Garden’s primary fundraiser.
When Vicki talks about the Garden, and the benefit and especially the life she has built on Shelter Island, she often uses the same words: “It’s a work in progress. Every year is going to be better.”
Long before Vicki was born, her grandparents summered here and it’s where Vicki’s mother, Maria, and her young son, Jason, from a previous marriage became full-time residents in 1977. Maria then met and married Alan Shields, an artist whose brightly colored, three-dimensional art was popular and influential in the 1970s art scene and collected by major museums.
Alan adopted Jason, and Vicki came along in 1979. Today Jason, former Reporter editor and author of the poignant Island memoir, “Louis’ Beach,” lives here with his family and has a carpentry business. Vicki’s parents split up in 1990, her mother remarried and her father continued to live on Shelter Island until his death at 61 in 2005.
She started her education at a tiny Catholic school in Sag Harbor, and from 4th to 8th grade she attended the Shelter Island School, where her 4th grade teacher, Mr. Morgan made an enduring impression on her. “He was a big man, nice but very stern. I remember liking him but being a little afraid of him.”
She left Shelter Island for high school and then went on to Colgate University in Hamilton, New York, graduating in 2000. Vicki planned to pursue landscaping, following up on work she had done during college breaks, but while working as a bartender the summer after graduation, fate intervened in the form of a handsome Islander who somehow she had never met — Ian Weslek.
Their first date was dinner at the Chequit on an October night. “I could see right away how sweet he was and how well he treated me,” she said. “He still does to this very day. “
At the time, Ian’s mother was very ill, dying of cancer the next month. “She was too ill to visit,” Vicki said. “I do remember getting two kittens from her when I was young. So even though I honestly didn’t know her, I remember her.”
Ian and Vicki married in 2005 and over the next few years their children were born, Harrison in 2007, followed by Evan and then Elizabeth in 2011.
About six months after Evan was born, Vicki said, “I was crying all the time and I didn’t feel right.” She decided to get some help and discovered she had postpartum depression. “The therapist kept asking me what makes me happy, what do you like and I kept saying, ‘I don’t know, I’m drawing a blank.’”
Her doctor encouraged her to get out of the house regularly to give herself a break from tending the children. But she said it wasn’t in her nature to just turn over the kids to her spouse.
“My husband was very accepting, it was me worrying that he wasn’t doing it the right way,” she said. “He said, ‘I’m their dad.’”
Slowly she learned to relinquish control and find a better balance.
In 2013, Vicki was one of the organizers of the innovative educational project for Shelter Island children, the Edible Garden. She helped break ground for the garden and has organized the Empty Bowls fundraiser every spring to benefit the garden and the Shelter Island Food Pantry. Each year the proceeds go to a specific goal; a fence around the garden in the first year; a garden shed in the second year; and this year an irrigation system.
Last year, when a design flaw in the original plan of the garden became evident — the rows allowed weeds to encroach on the crops — Vicki called on the community tradition of a barn raising by organizing a “bed raising.” Technology teacher Jack Reardon built eight wood enclosures. Farmers Julia Trunzo, Maggie Higby and Kurt Ericksen from Sylvester Manor provided muscle and expertise and together the team assembled, and installed raised beds in time for Cheryl Woods’ 1st grade class to plant this spring’s first crop of sugar snap peas.
Vicki is excited by the teachers who have incorporated the garden into their teaching, such as Stephanie Sareyani, who “adopted” a large section to grow vegetables for her home economics class. With a kitchen in her classroom and four rows of the garden at her disposal, she plans to plant the tubers for a potato crop before the end of the school year that students can harvest and cook in the fall.
In spite of the changes for better and worse on Shelter Island in the past 30 years, Vicki is glad her life is here.
“Crescent Beach is not the beach of my youth,” she said. “It’s the best bathing beach on Shelter Island and on a typical week day it’s beautiful, but on weekends it gets busy and touristy. Still, I know that being an island has kept away a lot of what has tainted the South Fork and threatens to taint the North Fork.”
An improvement from her youthful days is the Shelter Island high school.
“A real shift started when [Superintendent of Schools] Michael Hynes was here,” Vicki said, “He came along and developed a long-term vision for the school and the progressive shift that started with him has continued with Len Skuggevik.”
As Vicki learned to take better care of herself spiritually, she learned to look after herself physically as well, which meant losing over 30 pounds that she’d carrying since Elizabeth was born. She found a program called “Beachbody,” and liked it so much she now sells it to others.
She’s even recruited Ian. They just returned from a cruise, in which one of the world’s largest ships was taken over by hundreds of Beachbody participants who did their workouts on the top deck and ate healthy foods for five days.
“Energetic people.” Vicki said.
Now she has professional goals to go with the personal ones. “It’s all about progress,” she said. “Not perfection.”
Lightning Round — Vicki Weslek
What do you always have with you? My purse.
Favorite place on Shelter Island? Menhaden Lane in spring before the green, biting flies come out.
Last time you were elated? On a five-day Beachbody cruise out of Fort Lauderdale, I was elated the whole time.
What exasperates you? My schedule, finding the time to get it all done.
Best day of the year on Shelter Island? Any day in September.
Favorite movie or book? ‘The School of Greatness,’ by Lewis Howes, a lifestyle entrepreneur.
Favorite food? Indian food.
Favorite person, living or dead, who is not a member of the family? Kathy Lynch, she’s lived here about 10 years, but she’s connected as if she’s been here forever.
Favorite elected official? Cory Booker, U.S. Senator from New Jersey.