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Block Island's Molly O'Neill Can't Stop, Won't Stop

There's no such thing as not enough time for the busy volunteer

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Molly O’Neill knows, “If you want something to happen, you have to do it.” Juggling the formidable demands of family, business and charity on an island can be challenging but small towns have a way of self-supporting and with her quick laugh and common sense approach, Molly plays a quiet but major role.

She first worked at The Narragansett Inn during the ‘70s before her family purchased The Sheffield House B&B on High Street. Then in 1986, during her second year at Randolph Macon Woman’s College, she opened a small retail shop. In 1989, Molly moved to the island and over the next few years built a business, met her husband Chris, started a family and volunteered whenever she had the time. And even when she didn’t.

At one point, she cared for 32 ducks, three kids, two cats and a perpetually wandering black lab named Daisy, all while managing her store, The Scarlet Begonia, and a family linen business. She’s been a quiet force behind countless island projects, campaigns, fundraisers and benefits. In addition to more than 20 years volunteering with the Chamber of Commerce she served as the Lions Club president and Town Moderator. But first, there was The Scarlet Begonia.

The Begonia was her beloved shop of beautiful things assembled from countless artists, potters, weavers and painters. In 1990, Red Bird Liquor Store owner Mac Todd agreed to rent his storage building on Dodge Street but only if she moved all his inventory into the store. For a week Molly lugged heavy cardboard cases between buildings, locking the doors with each move to prevent a pair of opportunistic locals with an abundance of free time from scurrying in and helping themselves to his spirits.

The Begonia, with gorgeous rugs, rings for fingers and bells for shoes, framed art and Vera Bradley bags, remained a fixture with a devoted clientele until she closed its doors in 2013. That move left her, of course, with more time for family and volunteering. “I have no problems staying busy,” she says. She served meals for the Lunch Bunch, volunteered at the Island School, taught CCD at St. Andrew’s and now teaches English as a Second Language at the Island Free Library.

She and Chris go off-island occasionally for the usual checkups and shopping, although she firmly believes that “mayonnaise and going shopping are the worst things ever.” Molly loves living on Block Island, even with its challenges, like the take-out food mainlanders take for granted. “I’m a pro at reheating Chinese food. I can tell you the best way to reheat each item; some you have to steam, some stir-fry. There’s no such thing as hot Chinese food out here,” she says with a laugh. Working for the Chamber is a joy because, “I love where I live and where I work. I get to tell people all day long about how much I love it here.”

Now, one of Molly’s greatest passions is being an advisor to the Leo Club, a charitable offshoot of the Lions. Twenty-three island boys and girls from middle to high school volunteer time and energy for community service, like clearing Nature Conservancy trails and fundraising projects like selling Leo hats at the annual New Year’s Day polar plunge. With guidance from Lions Club members, they plan and coordinate their own events while managing their own calendar to learn the rewards of leadership and philanthropy.
With two of three children off to college, she stays true to the spirit of Lions and Leos, enjoying a good life busy with family, friends and charity with occasional visits to her favorite spot, North Light. “I’ve quit a few things… but then I’ve picked up a few things. I can’t help it,” she says. Molly O’Neill, busy as always.