A storefront that deserves more traffic

Up the streeet at the local elections ballot drop, the wise voters of Bainbridge Island were bringing to a close an often unpleasant political season, all Winslow Tomorrow and fiscal responsibility, building height and sidewalk width, too much of this and not enough of that, turf fields and unsolved arson, growth and development, water, parking garages, on and on.

Meanwhile, over at Stephens House, folks were refreshingly unmoved, at least by the cumbersome issues that hung over the island’s collective consciousness. A boombox pumped out classics by Michael Jackson, Billy Idol and Young M.C., and a dozen of the island’s more colorful young adults flashed their best dance steps before settling down to a Tuesday afternoon painting class.

Cheerful and upbeat, it was a good place to spend election day. In fact, we mused, a visit would probably prove the highlight of this or any week.

“Mine too!” enthused Shelley Long, the center’s energetic program director, as she showed some pretty fine dance moves of her own.

We’ve been chronicling Stephens House’s growth since 2001-02, when the Bainbridge Special Needs Foundation first rented its modest white cottage from the congregational church next door and set up shop. The goal was to provide a haven for young people facing developmental challenges; the center partnered with the Bainbridge Island School District to meet mandates for integrating special-needs students into the community as they enter adulthood. Perhaps “haven” is too passive a word; the center’s mission is decidedly dynamic, offering vocational development for a group to whom employment doors may not readily open.

Even with its prominent location and array of locally made products, Stephens House is probably not among the most prominent storefronts on Winslow Way. Yet besides the mini-doughnuts that put the center on the map, Stephens House offers an array of cards and other student artwork, notebooks, personal care products, and cut flowers in season. You could do worse for the coming holiday season.

Remember, the goal is to help these young people become productive members of the community and to experience the personal satisfaction that comes with industry. As a business, Stephens House needs customers; as a community service it wants friends.

Of course they would like it if you’d look at their prints – which are quite fetching – to raise money for programs. But Long and her charges might be happier still if more islanders would simply stop in at Stephens House to look around and say hi. You’ll be welcomed, and the least you’ll get for your time is a doughnut. More likely, you’ll come away with something more precious still – conversation with some eager and gregarious personalities, a few minutes of impromptu dance workout, or a hug from young people who seem pretty grateful to have a niche in the heart of our downtown. You’d be surprised how meaningful an hour’s worth of personal interaction there can be.

You may even come to appreciate a certain sanguine air at Stephens House, from a crowd enviably insulated from a lot of the nonsense going on in the world around them.

Tuesday, they wanted to make artwork and dance. There was wisdom there.