YMCA of Martha’s Vineyard unveils mural, plans for Teen Center

Performer Charlotte Benjamin played at the YMCA of M.V.'s Teen Center on Friday, Jan. 21. — Photo by Lynn Christoffers

“With the power of soul – anything is possible.”

This inspirational message is inscribed in the center of a vibrant new mural, now temporarily installed in the YMCA of Martha’s Vineyard Alexandra Gagnon Teen Center.

The work, which was unveiled Friday, Jan. 21 at an open house, was commissioned by the Y and executed by six students of Janice Frame from the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School and M.V. Public Charter School.

The words, meandering through the mural’s swirls and swoops of bright colors, flow with the palpable rhythm of the piece. The word “soul” rests on a pair of cupped hands, while music icons float among the dynamic color waves, a powerful message that speaks to the vision of the Teen Center and its director, Tony Lombardi. Talking to Mr. Lombardi, it’s obvious that the center is his passion and mission.

“One of the things that I knew worked with kids was creative opportunities. If you aim for the creative spirit you can reach them,” he said. This remark addresses Mr. Lombardi’s general philosophy in working with kids, as well as the spirit of the event, which included musical performances by four talented young women. He added that in the commission he urged the young artists to “create something that will speak to your generation. Put something up that will be a legacy to who you are.”

Right before the unveiling of the mural, Mr. Lombardi took the makeshift stage briefly to talk about the genesis of the new Teen Center, the foundation of which is currently being poured. He explained, “In November we got the call saying we have someone who said ‘We will donate the money if you break ground today.’ And trust me — we got shovels.”

The “someone” is an anonymous donor offering the funding through the Alexandra Gagnon Foundation, which also funds the existing space and the former Teen Center in Oak Bluffs. According to Mr. Lombardi, the new two-story building on the Y campus is scheduled to be completed by early summer.

The current Teen Center is a relatively small, low-ceilinged space in the basement of the Y. It is fitted with cafe style tables and chairs, large screen TVs for movies and Xbox, a wall of computers, and a pool table. A second small room serves double duty as a recording studio and office.

For the unveiling, chairs were set up facing the stage and a crowd of 135 attentive guests — mostly teens — filled every seat and then some. The mural was painted on three movable panels so that it can be moved to the new Teen Center. Ms. Frame’s students spent a semester planning and executing the work, which was created with special high-grade spray paint and hand-made stencils on masonite panels donated by E.C. Cottle Inc.

The music legends depicted represent a sampling from the history of rock and pop ranging from Ray Charles to Bob Dylan to Mos Def and Tupac. Noted artist Noelle Nelson, “We came up with a list of really prominent and influential figures.” Kira Shipway added, “It was a great collaboration. We really brought different things to it that alone we couldn’t have accomplished.”

Just before the lights went on to illuminate the mural, Mr. Lombardi announced to the audience, “The first fingerprints from your generation have been added to this space.

“One of the dilemmas was not only how to attract kids here but to give them ownership,” Mr. Lombardi said.

He noted that the event drew the most people the center has hosted since it opened in April. He hopes that the party will introduce some new faces to the existing loyal group — numbering upwards of 50 on some nights — who now regularly take advantage of the facility. The Teen Center is currently open on Thursdays from 3 to 7 pm for middle school students and from 6 to 11 pm Friday and Saturday for high schoolers.

After the unveiling, guests enjoyed chicken wings and other snacks, while senior Jordan Wallace introduced the evening’s performers. The three young singers (freshman Charlotte Benjamin, senior Amalie Tinus, and recent MVRHS grad Hannah Marlin, accompanied on guitar by senior Justin Oslyn) displayed impressive vocal talent and remarkable poise considering their youth. Charlotte and Hannah sang some very pretty neo-folk tunes, while Amalie performed two powerful original works and then brought her sister, freshman Mikayla up for a duet. The three young women all have very different styles of vocals, which worked well as they harmonized for one final song.

Ms. Marlin has almost completed recording a track at the center’s recording facility — dubbed Studio 57. Mr. Lombardi notes that others who have utilized the state-of-the-art studio sponsored by Comcast, are a half-dozen rap artists and a country and western duo.

Mr. Lombardi, who managed the legendary Wintertide Coffeehouse for many years, noted, “One of my hobbies is cultivating new talent.” He added, “I’m starting to see some real talent out here again.”

One teen who frequents the Teen Center, junior James Felix, said that he has been encouraged by a performer friend whom he met at the center, to start writing rap lyrics. Mr. Felix, who moved to the Vineyard in August, notes that he has benefited from having a safe place to hang out with other teens.

“It keeps me out of trouble,” he said. “Where I was last, in Sandwich, there was nothing going on. I was getting in trouble.”

Another Teen Center regular, sophomore Victoria Sadowski, uses the facility to “chill out with friends and people who work here.” Surrounded by some other center habitués, she seemed entirely at ease. “It’s really, really chill here,” she added.

Mr. Lombardi stressed that the Teen Center could be so much more for so many more. He would love to raise the additional operational budget to keep the center open six days a week and introduce new programs such as homework assistance and martial arts.

Mr. Lombardi, who has run special education classes at the high school for 25 years, seems to have his finger on the pulse of the youth community. “We’re at an interesting crossroads with our kids, where we’ve just gone through a very dark era in seeing how far convention could be stretched. One of the results was that the value system changed.”

However, Mr. Lombardi feels heartened by a tendency away from the violence, negativity, and vulgarity that exemplified the rap movement of the 90s. He believes that the current generation is being inspired by more positive influences and that change is evident in the ways kids express themselves. “Kids are realizing that vulgarity has become a cliché,” he said. “If they want to be creative and unique they have to be open to new modes of expression.”

Laurel Reddington, one of the Teen Center mentors/chaperones, couldn’t seem to say enough about Mr. Lombardi and his positive influence on the teens. “He’s like a medium through which the kids can follow their dreams,” she said. “And you can either be one of those people who crushes somebody’s dream or one of those people who clears the way for them.”