Miles and Carrie Woodfield — along with their 5-year-old daughter, Ruby — had many takeaways from their first visit to Chautauqua Institution; among them, two pots, four bowls, a mug and 11 shot glasses they made in ceramics class.
“After Ruby would go to bed, one of us would sneak away and get to practice a little bit more,” Carrie said. “Neither of us had done anything with pottery or throwing, so it’s been kind of fun to play with that learning curve.”
Aside from pottery, the family enjoyed seven days of performances, exhibits and exploration in addition to plenty of beach time during Week Six, ending with a concert featuring the Punch Brothers — Miles’ favorite band “on the planet.” School teachers with special education experience, the Woodfields are among this year’s recipients of a Family Scholarship, a program offered to families with limited incomes who have never been to Chautauqua. The scholarship covers costs such as gate passes, Special Studies classes, children’s activities and housing rental.
When they first stepped foot on the grounds, though, both described the experience as “overwhelming.”
“It’s not like ‘first day of high school’ overwhelming — you know, you kind of shut down,” Miles said. “It’s more like ‘first day of marriage’ overwhelming, where you’re like, ‘This is awesome! Let’s go do stuff.’ ”
While Miles had heard about Chautauqua from his father, who grew up in Bemus Point, he did not know what to expect as he and his wife were driving up from Buckeye Lake, Ohio. However, Chautauquans’ friendliness meant it was “easy to ask for help” and immerse themselves in the community as soon as they arrived, Miles said.
Carrie recalled going to the Children’s Beach one day and watching Ruby walk into a group of teenagers and, unannounced, join them in burying one another with sand.
“They were just so welcoming of this little 5-year-old girl coming in and joining their little clique, which sort of surprised me,” Carrie said. “I sort of expected teenage girls to go, ‘We’re kind of doing our thing, little child.’ But that wasn’t what happened at all.”
Miles said the balance between programs at Children’s School and family activities around the grounds was integral to the entire family’s positive experience at the Institution.
“It’s about us, but it’s not really about us,” he said. “It’s much more about bringing Ruby into the cultural fold than it is about us trying to experience music and things like that.”
In particular, he pointed to the “fairy houses” — what Ruby called the miniature structures on Bestor Plaza — as a testament to the way Chautauqua caters to visitors of all age groups.
“It seems so minor, but just having a thing on this very nice, well-manicured plaza for a 5-year-old to play with — it’s pretty cool, you know?” he said.
Hospitality was a recurring theme during their stay at Chautauqua, Miles said. A few hours before the Punch Brothers were due to appear on the Amphitheater stage, he and Carrie stumbled upon their rehearsal. Shocked by his luck, Miles stood outside the Amp in the rain to listen. That was when someone from a nearby porch asked if he wanted to go inside.
“It’s incredible to be invited to somebody’s house because you’re wet and cold and apparently homeless,” Miles said. “It’s pretty amazing.”
“The atmosphere here — there’s definitely a feeling of kindness when you talk to people, like, a gentleness that I think can come with faith,” Carrie added, noting that the house was a denominational house.
Miles said he hopes to return to Chautauqua next year — in fact, he has begun exploring the possibility of teaching a Special Studies course here.
“There are definitely ways to get it done; I think the problem for me growing up was that I never knew they were around,” Miles said. “The scholarship to even come here in the first place was a whim. I totally didn’t expect to get it at all.”
According to Rindy Barmore, executive assistant in the President’s Office, the most difficult part of coordinating the scholarship comes in finding appropriate housing for the families. However, she has enjoyed getting to know the scholarship recipients and seeing how they take advantage of “all the programmatic and community aspects” during their stay.
“(The Woodfields) enjoyed the Special Studies classes, lectures, evening programs and their daughter, Ruby, enjoyed her experience in Children’s School,” Barmore said. “(She) shared stories of her day with me with joy and excitement.”
In terms of spreading the word about Chautauqua, Carrie observed that the Institution may have to work on breaking into new circles.
“On one level, it’s very well known — like, our (ceramics) instructor is from California,” Carrie said. “But on a secondary level, like the people who interact with us, that’s not necessarily the case.”
At least, when they go home and tell family and friends about the week, Carrie now has new vocabulary to explain what Chautauqua is.
“It’s surreal to me. … I feel like time kind of slowed down and you have more of an opportunity to try things, or do things (in) a schedule that you don’t typically have,” Carrie said. “A lot of the struggles and stresses of everyday work, I feel like, kind of melts away here.”