Road Scholar Keeps the Light Burning Bright on Chincoteague Island

To understand what makes Chincoteague Island so special, it helps to have a little context. The only inhabited barrier island off the coast of Virginia, it’s a paradise for birders and nature-lovers, home to migratory birds and beach, dune, marsh and maritime forest habitats. Tasked with protecting these habitats, the Chincoteague Island National Wildlife Refuge on neighboring Assateague Island is one of the most visited refuges in the U.S.

The Chincoteague Lighthouse reflected in the water with wild birds in the front

But if the island sounds familiar, it’s probably thanks to children’s author Marguerite Henry, who came to Chincoteague in 1946 to write about the island’s famous wild ponies. Her book, Misty of Chincoteague, became an immediate best seller, and the island gained fame of its own.

Working with the Museum of Chincoteague Island, Road Scholar has been organizing learning adventures to the island since 1993. These programs bring thousands of participants to the island to learn about the progression of nature and human history in this fragile environment.

“When we started our relationship with Road Scholar, it made such a difference to our community and to the organization,” says the museum’s executive director, Cindy Faith. “I’ve been with the museum long enough to see it evolve from a struggling nonprofit with more dreams than funds to the thriving community center it is,” she continues. “We would not be where we are now without Road Scholar.”  

The Chincoteague Lighthouse light in the daytime

Where they are now is a fully staffed organization in a facility that has doubled in size, thanks to an addition to the original building. Without that added space, the museum couldn’t have successfully fought to save the Assateague Island Lighthouse’s original Fresnel lens.

“My mother was the executive director at the time,” Cindy recalls. “She was consumed with the desire to save the lens, and she pushed to get it into the museum. It was definitely our relationship with Road Scholar that made the expansion allowing us to house the light possible.” Installed in the lighthouse in 1867 and replaced in 1961, the light had lain abandoned in a field for 30 years before it was recovered. It has since become the centerpiece of the museum.

A wild horse grazing near the ocean on Assateague Island

The museum has had another recent success. In February of 2023, the Beebe Ranch, original home to the real-life Misty of Chincoteague, was put on the market by the Beebe family after 100 years. In the spring of 2023, the museum went to the town council in a push to save it. “And we did it,” says Cindy, “which was a huge deal for the island.”

The 10-acre ranch, purchased by the Museum of Chincoteague Island with help from fundraisers and donations from around the country, will now be preserved as a historic site. In fact, the museum is planning to work on the Beebe Ranch restoration with next year's Road Scholar Service Programs, setting up displays in the house in the spring and holding a barn raising in the fall.

“When we gave the town council an update on what we were doing, they were blown away by how much Road Scholar programs support not only the museum, but also the restaurants and hotels. These programs benefit the entire town.”

They also benefit the participants as well. “As a whole, when people come here and see the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, the lighthouse, the museum and the island itself, they have a better appreciation for how travel can affect the community. So, yes. I’m a big cheerleader for that.”  

The Chincoteague Lighthouse light lit up for the night

In fact, there’s no better cheerleader. “We offered four programs that first year,” Cindy says. “I was the assistant director at the time and became the Road Scholar Group Leader. We had such a long waiting list that we kept adding programs. Now, 30 years later, we offer 30 programs a year — almost one for every week of the season.”

The vast majority of the tuition Road Scholar charges for these programs goes to the museum, and the programs help preserve and maintain the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. Through these learning adventures, participants gain a better understanding and experience of island people, culture and heritage. In fact, service learning opportunities on Chincoteague give participants the chance to assist in preserving that heritage firsthand.

”The real success,” Cindy concludes, “is how many people come back again and again, some upwards of five times, because there’s always something new to discover.”

The Museum of Chincoteague is just one among thousands of places where Road Scholar plays an important part in helping to preserve the character and heritage of local communities around the world. To learn more, visit our Community Impact page.