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Onset Bay Center celebrates grand opening at ribbon cutting ceremony

Oct 9, 2021

Dozens of people gathered on Onset Beach, lining the pier and the sea wall, to celebrate the grand opening of the Onset Bay Center on Friday, Oct. 8.

The center, which encompasses the renovated bathhouse, Wickets Island, and other nearby Buzzards Bay Association properties, has been open since the summer of 2020, but the ongoing pandemic delayed a grand celebration. 

The bathhouse itself was also named the McFadden Center at the Onset Bathhouse in honor of Mary McFadden and Larry Stifler, who donated more than one million dollars to the project.  

Mark Rasmussen, the President of the Buzzards Bay Coalition, said one of his inspirations for the project was learning that a number of children in Onset couldn’t swim, and were afraid of the water. In its first year alone, the Center has worked with more than 400 children and 200 adults, engaged in programs ranging from swimming and sailing lessons to fishing charters and art on the beach.

“Well, I’m old, but I’ve spent all of my summers here since I was two,” McFadden said. “I’m so grateful that I was able to get my wonderful husband Larry to come to Wareham.”

She’s the fourth generation in her family to spend summers in Onset, and her own children learned to swim on Onset Beach. 

“I’m looking forward to having grandchildren learn how to swim here one day,” McFadden said, getting some laughs from the crowd.

“We invested not just in this phenomenal building, this phenomenal idea,” McFadden said. “We invested in Mark [Rasmussen]. He’s a visionary.”

She said later that the center is a “dream come true.” McFadden said her favorite memory of Onset Beach was swimming out to Wickets Island with Peter Labouliere, only to be confronted by the stern owner of the island, who didn’t believe they had made it to the island without a boat.

Senator Marc Pacheco shared his memories of coming to Onset Beach as a child, and said the center will help create those memories for many others.

“To me, this is a place where extraordinary memories have been made for generations,” Pacheco said.

He said that his own childhood memories of the beach include swimming, eating taffy, and simply enjoying spending time with his family. 

Representative Susan Williams Gifford praised the hard work that brought the project to fruition. 

Select Board member Peter Teitelbaum noted that the Wareham taxpayers, who have supported the project through Community Preservation Funding, should also be thanked. He recounted a story from his childhood illustrating the vitality of safe swimming lessons for children, and said that the center is a place to “reconnect kids in a waterfront community to the water. I think that’s crucial.”

Kat Jones, the president of the Onset Bay Association, said that it was time for the bathhouse to be revitalized.

“To experience the whole thing — what an opportunity for all of us,” Jones said, noting that “Anything that is worthwhile is never easy.”

Rasmussen noted that perhaps the first funding for the bathhouse renovations was $5,000 donated by the Onset Bay Association — funds donated for that purpose over the years. 

April Hall is the mother of three children who spent time at the center over the summer, said she was incredibly grateful.

“Watching the confidence they built was amazing,” Hall said. While her children already knew how to swim, they strengthened those skills and explored other ways to get out on the water through paddle boarding, sailing, and kayaking. 

She said that while at the Onset Bay Center, her children felt “safe, loved, and cared for” — an invaluable experience during the covid pandemic. 

Quentin Chafee, who runs the center’s on-the-water programming, said that it’s been amazing to see how empowered kids are by learning to sail or otherwise spend time on the water. Sailing requires safety knowledge, understanding of the weather and currents, and active decision making — skills that Chafee said gave him the confidence to overcome hurdles in his own life when he was learning to sail.

“I think we’re really hitting a home run here,” Chafee said.

He said he hopes to see students returning year after year and maybe someday working at the center. Chafee said that while sailing is still dominated by white men like him, he hopes to see more people from different backgrounds pursuing the sport.

Kat Garofoli, the director of the Onset Bay Center, said it was “spectacular” to finally get to celebrate the center after more than a year of programs. 

“I think that this is hopefully going to be the start of so many people experiencing how special Onset Bay is and how special this village is,” Garofoli said. 

She said she hopes to help people find different ways to connect to the bay. 

“Everybody’s welcomed us with open arms, and I couldn’t be more thankful,” Garofoli said.

The final project associated with the Onset Bay Center is a renovation of the Stone Pier on Wickets Island, which would make access to the island easier and safer both for boaters and first responders. A $150,000 Community Preservation Funds request for the project will be up for a vote at the Oct. 25 Town Meeting.