Star Island: A Brief Overview and Introduction

candle lighting

This is the first segment on my series about the island and staff life.

Star Island is a small island off the New England coast, one of the nine Isles of Shoals that are accessible by boat from Portsmouth or Rye, New Hampshire. It is home to one of the oldest hotels in the US, the Oceanic Hotel, which has been active since the mid 19th century, as well as the long history that came before it built in 1857. Once a great tourist spot for wealthy merchants and artists, it's now a hotel/conference center for conferences affiliated primarily with the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ. The hotel and the island has been run by the Star Island Corporation since 1916, and the organization works to make the island comfortable and enjoyable for its guests every day.


Though the hotel does accept people who wish to stay there for a few days to a week on the island as a vacation, the most common kind of guest is a conferee: a member of a conference that stays on the island for a week during a designated time during the summer months. The typical island conference is not entirely religion based, though the majority of its constituents come from UU or UCC churches. There are the family conferees that are open to all age groups, and have programs tailored for each school grade or adult age bracket. There are the arts and interests conferences, which have a focus on creativity and expression through art, music, yoga, photography and more. There are the academic conferences, who's pursuit of knowledge through various areas of expertise is the focus of the week. And then their are the social conferences, which are filled with more youth and young adults that wish to get to know each other through discussion, community games, dancing, and general fun activities. Each conferences has a board or committee made of attendees of that conference that decides and plans the programming for their week on the island. Each conference has its own flavor, which is why handfuls of conferees attend multiple throughout the summer.


While I can continue to spout off facts, like how the island also has an intricate and delicately balanced recycling and waste system, it doesn't get to the root of why this island is so unique and why its guests keep returning every summer for decades. Yes, the island is a perfect representation of picturesque New England sea coast, but its beauty is only one factor that has folks coming back. It's pretty remote being out here; cellphone reception is fair or poor in most places on the island, and the wifi network can just sustain the wireless devices the staff owns, much less a island full of guests on top of that. But the people like it that way; most come from hectic lives in the city or have a large family to care for or have a high-powered highly stressful job, and they use their week or so on the island to get away from all of that and relax. But for the most part, people keep coming back because of the history and traditions of the community of the island, regardless of whether you're a part of staff or a conference or both. The friendships formed on the island stand the tests of time, and can be the most meaningful relationships one can ever find. The island pulls together people from different backgrounds and lives, and pushes them to get to know each other by sharing living spaces, work spaces, and community activities together. But it becomes a place for your soul, giving it rest and vitality and renewal and growth and exploration -- it's your spirit's home, as we say. Regardless of your reason for getting to the island in the first place, whether that be family, friends, church, or common interest in programming, you stay for one of those big three reasons.


It's also why our staff is so dedicated and why our guests are so invested in the work they do on the island, year in and year out. Of the 400+ people on the island during a large conference week, about a forth of that are our staff -- the people whose jobs are critical to the well-being of the island and the people on it. Only a fraction of that are year-round employees with salaries; they are the face of the island, while the body is comprised of the seasonal Pelicans. Often referred to as Pels, these employees only work in the summer between early April and late October, and most of them don't even stay for that full time. Paid by the hour and with free room and board at the hotel, the 100 or so Pels have a hand in everything from the drinking water and plumbing to the food guests eat to accounting to housekeeping, and more. The island is a living organism, with the Pels acting as the various organs and vital systems that sustain and nurtures life.


The majority of the Pels come to work on Star after attending one of the conferences for a number of years. Though there are some who come to work on the island and have never been there before, former conferees know how the island works and are more familiar with the quirks and traditions of the island -- and believe me, there are a lot of quirks. The seasonal staff comprises primarily of college-aged individuals and young adults, ages ranging from 18 to 27, along with several senior staffers in their 30s and even as old as early 50s. Most people out here see being a Pel as an opportunity to go to the island for free, and to stay longer than their conference's week allotment, but the real reason to be a Pel is much more than that. It's a chance to give back to the place you call your spirit's home, and to make it as magical for others as it is for you.


My goal with this blog is to give a slice into the life of a Pel this summer, most of which is not privy to the island's daily and weekly guests. It's a unique job environment, having to both live and work in the same space, and much of the things Pels learn out on the island can be hard to translate onto their resumes for future job interviews off island. But it is also a unique life experience, to live in a secluded area and on a beautiful but small island with the same hundred people for 2-4 months of the year, away from everything you've come to know, and learn important skills to use in jobs or for yourself throughout your entire life. I want to show why Pels are dedicated to their jobs, the unique but also common situations Pels come into contact with through living and working on Star, and why so many Pels call the island their spirit's home.