At 11 a.m. last Saturday morning, I attended the groundbreaking for a new $3 million, 7,000-square-foot headquarters building on the Sag Harbor Turnpike for the Bridgehampton Child Care and Recreational Center, a nonprofit institution that serves the children of marginalized families who live in the Hamptons.
Members of our board—I am Vice President—along with government officials and others spoke to the crowd of 40, many of whom had made major financial donations. After the speeches and photo opportunities with the hard hats and golden shovels, the longtime Director of the Child Care Center, Bonnie Cannon, announced to the guests there would be “further proceedings.” She then walked over to a nearby excavator in full view of the crowd, turned on the engine and, with the guidance of a workman who had joined her in the cockpit, moved some gears causing the excavator’s scoop to take a huge bite out of the upper floor of an old two-story building that stood on the site where the new building would go. A ripping sound followed, then a spray of shingles, old wood beams and sheetrock sprinkling down as the scoop ripped a long gash all the way to the foundation, exposing that part of the interior. The building was to be destroyed. This was the first blow. The opening act.
Before that finale, I was asked to be the first of nine people to speak.
I decided ahead of time to give a brief history of the six-acre property. Others could speak about who needed to be thanked. I’d use my two minutes to give a frame for what would follow.
“This old farmhouse was built in 1902,” I said. “It was what they call a dirt farm. The soil is not that good. There were chickens and ducks, and on the four acres in the back were cows and horses. In that small building over there they packed potatoes. Where the parking lot is today was a big barn. But that’s long gone.”
I said Bridgehampton back then was a farming town. Potato fields surrounded it. In the 1960s, when I got here, yellow school busses from North Carolina would bring up hundreds of migrant workers in August and September to do the picking. You wouldn’t see them downtown except on Sundays, when the locals went to church and the migrants, on their day off, stood on the sidewalks in the sunshine in shabby clothes drinking Thunderbird wine from bottles inside paper bags.
The rest of the time they were farming. They lived in primitive barracks. There was no heat, no light, no running water, no bathrooms.
“One morning in the summer of 1949, the wives of these men were told to get out into the fields and join the men because the picking was going too slowly. They’d have to leave their children in the barracks, alone. In their absence, a lantern turned over. A fire started, and two children died.
“This was a terrible tragedy in this town. The farmers, deeply moved, all got together, formed a nonprofit group and bought this six-acre dirt farm for them. If the women ever had to be out at the harvest again, the children could stay at the farm. And here they could have fun. There were sandboxes, fields and games, both indoor and out. Thus the Center was born, which since then has served the disadvantaged community, mostly African-American and now also Hispanic.”
After I finished, the President of the center, Paul Jeffers, spoke. He described his long 30-year commitment and he thanked those who were here to help the center through hard times. “They were like angels, brought to us as needed.”
The best speech I thought came from New York’s Lieutenant Governor, Kathy Hochul. She was not a Hamptonite, she was from upstate.
“But when I was a youngster,” she said, “we also had migrant workers coming north from the Carolinas to work in the mills. The housing was shacks. The air polluted. The children played around in the orange dust of the factory’s leavings. My mother decided to make a summer camp for the kids. She succeeded. But she was short a teacher for the kindergarteners. So she drafted me, age 12. I’d babysat. Now I taught K through 2. I know about this.”
Bonnie Cannon, our leader, has created a full-fledged institution to lend a helping hand to the needy. And she spearheaded this project. While the new building is being built, classes will carry on in the other buildings. Here, Cannon and her staff will teach music, computers, SATs, dance, chess, Scrabble, gardening and, in the summer, at camp, tennis, basketball, soccer and baseball. There’s also a lecture series and theater, plus many birthday parties and holidays celebrated.
Bring it on. The ribbon-cutting is expected next June. And all promised to be back for that.