Fogo Island’s Zita Cobb is unique and inspirational, but as one woman puts it, perhaps it was her farewell to Fogo that’s cause for celebration
As Director of Guest Experience at the Fogo Island Inn, Amanda Decker-Penton usually has her hands full. In these pandemic times, however, the lifestyle around her Joe Batt’s Arm home is a little less pragmatic and a whole lot more spontaneous. A quick overnight trip to the cabin, for instance, before preparing the kids for another school week is one of the joys of a rural life.
As a mom to ten-year-old Maggie and five-year-old Stella, there’s no better lifestyle to be led than living on Fogo Island, Decker-Penton opened. “My dad was a fisherman all his life. I was raised in a fishing family here,” she shared proudly. But, like many before and since, Decker-Penton left Fogo to potentially find her fortunes elsewhere.
She went to school and began nursing in Alberta. She married fellow Joe Batt’s Arm native, Jason Penton, and before long they had their first child, Maggie. But Decker-Penton was feeling the tug of home, particularly as she headed back to work one year following her child’s birth.
“We got a nanny. I went back to work, but we kept thinking, ‘we’ve got to bring this baby home sooner rather than later.’ We can’t wait until she’s in school and she has her own life in Alberta because then what? I knew she needed to grow up at home. She needed to know her grandparents. She needed to be raised by those people from back home and the influences they bring to help her round out into who she really was. I felt that was important.”
At the time, Zita Cobb and the Shorefast Foundation was developing the Fogo Island Inn and tackling other revitalization projects around Fogo island. The Inn was one of those projects that Decker-Penton was drawn too, namely because no one knows hospitality better than a Newfoundlander.
“The idea of the Inn was a place we could highlight our hospitality and grow the economy, because, of course, hospitality was naturally in us. Zita reached out and said that I could help with that hospitality piece.”
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RETURN TO HER ROOTS
Decker-Penton had known Cobb all her life. Their families had grown up next to one another and in fact had shared a garden.
When Cobb suggested that she return to her roots, she paused.
“I said, ‘I’m a nurse. I just can’t let that go.’ Zita said, ‘You don’t have to live or die doing that. If you can look after people in a hospital, you can look after people in a hotel.’ It’s not really the same, I remember saying, but in the end, we decided to just do it, so we came home.”
She “fell in love” with every aspect of the job, she readily admitted.
“Everything about it – from the potential it had and what it was going to become to how we were going to look after strangers and share with them our love for this place – was beautiful.
“I remember saying to my husband, ‘you know what? I cannot sit and then 10 years from now look back and be like, oh my God, that all happened without me.’ I committed full time to making the guest experience the best it could be,” she shared.
Best of all? Her children get to call Fogo Island home.
“I knew this was the place to raise my children. The children needed the influence of the culture of the island and the influence of the people; aunts and uncles and grandparents. That’s how we were raised and I just felt they needed those things to be good, well-rounded people. They really needed to know their roots and feel their connections to the past. It’s not exactly what they’re predestined to be, but more helping them develop what innately they are,” she said.
It was important to her and her husband that their children grow up with some influence from their Fogo elders. It was also important they be part of the future of this place they hailed from.
‘A NEW PRIDE’
Growing up in many an outport, social interactions – be they at the post office or the grocery store – were not an obligation, but a necessity, she added.
And, most of the time in those early days, the conversations were around the excitement generated by Cobb and Shorefast.
“You had conversations in the grocery store and it could have been just about the weather, but it was important and you could feel the buzz. You had conversations at the playground with other mothers and there was just an energy around what was happening. The restoration of the buildings, people were employed and were interacting over what colour they painted that building. I had come home to visit in the past and it felt so deserted. Now? There was a new energy and a new a new pride in what was happening.”
While the Inn’s guests were often world-famous and the elite, the community remained true to form, and that was the best possible outcome, according to Decker-Penton.
“This is a community-based business and the revenue falls back into the community and investments are made in projects and programs. But we were counting on the fact that Newfoundlanders in general want to look after others in a way that people are not used to being looked after. If you want to see all the different communities, understand the culture and really kind of get it, they have to just experience it,” she said.
Sometimes, the responses can be comical, she admits.
“The first-day people arrive here, say from New York, they are skeptical. Every time you say good morning, they’re like ‘Oh. She wants something.’ But then by the end of that first day, mentally, they’ve arrived and they understand the interaction is genuine. And then it’s a whole game-changer.”
Strangers open up. They absorb the community. They embrace members of the community.
MORE THAN A FEELING
“Guests drive to different places together, and they kind of just have a conversation about the history and listen to what the guest is interested in. They’ll visit a community hall or will end up in somebody’s shed where a boat is being built. It’s a way to integrate naturally. If somebody came to your house, you would want them to have a good experience. It’s the same thing here.”
It’s easy to see what the guests fall in love with. What about Decker-Penton? Ten years in, is she just as enamoured?
“It is so hard to put into words because it is so much more than a feeling. It’s hard to articulate this feeling of connection and pride and growth at the same time. Just that feeling of zooming in on what we were naturally good at and finding the right balance.”
It’s emotional, she continued.
“Zita helped – and I’ve helped Fogo, in a small way too– hold on to its past and we are all shaped by its past. Dare I say, nostalgia? You feel all of those people who have come before you and all of that hard work that they did to get us to this place every day as you walk around.”
But there’s more, too, she added.
“You feel this obligation to take that forward then to make this place successful in a different way. We have an active fishery which is very important to this island, but we’re a layer on that layer. We’ve kind of just added a leg, I suppose – we always say that this is another leg on our economy. So I think by people just coming to be here, it’s not just the coming to some pretty place. There’s lots of pretty places. It’s about the depth of the culture and the growth of the future. And it all comes together on this island.”
‘THE VALUE OF THIS PLACE’
Thinking of Cobb, Decker-Penton pauses. It’s emotional she shared.
“I think about this every day. I think, thank you Zita for recognizing what this place could be and thank you, Zita, for going away.”
Thank you for going away? We ask for clarification. “Thank you for going away. So she could feel the desire. Thank you for going away so you could understand the value of this place. It’s like you don’t know what you’ve got until you let go,” she said beautifully.
There’s more. “Thank you Zita for motivating Fogo Island to live up to its potential. It was always there and that drive was there but it was almost like she turned on the light. So thank you. Thank you for turning on that light.
“We are doing things with a lot of dignity. Her vision has allowed us to hold on to our past and shape our own future and our own destiny as a community.”