Teen center at YMCA of Martha’s Vineyard opens Saturday

Down to the wire: Hunter Denman of Willett Electric at work in the kitchen earlier this week. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

Some teenagers find themselves at loose ends during long Island winters, or feel trapped here, and they sometimes make unhealthy choices about how they spend their time. For years, parents, teachers, clergymen, counselors, and law enforcement personnel have worked to find creative outlets for Vineyard teens, some of whom need a home away from home to find something that engages them, that challenges them, that entertains them.

This Saturday afternoon, from 3 to 5 pm, something special is taking place along the Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road. The grand opening of the Alexandra Gagnon Teen Center at the YMCA of Martha’s Vineyard is a huge, hopeful step for so many Islanders who’ve been trying for years to find a permanent space where young Islanders can gather and grow.

The goals of the new teen center are straightforward, according to a program proposal written by the Y: “Provide a safe, healthy and creative place for young people to gather; Offer innovative programs and events to inspire a positive lifestyle; Engender in teens a spirit of community activism; Enhance the educational experience of young people; Stimulate the artistic expression of teen center attendees; and Promote health, wellness, and compassion.”

To enrich and expand programs, the teen center will continue to collaborate with Island schools, businesses, and organizations.

That the Teen Center should find a home at the new YMVCA is no accident. In fact, it has been in the works for years; it just took some time to consummate. “One of the things that the folks who were planning the YMCA did that was really smart was to organize a program called the Y without Walls,” Tony Lombardi, executive director of the Teen Center, said early this week. “That allowed the Teen Center to take shape a good five years before the new Y building was completed. We were housed over in the Cottagers Corner building in Oak Bluffs for all of that time.”

In 2010, more than 500 Island teens utilized the makeshift Y. With a constituency that large, organizers learned what kids wanted and how to deliver it. They discovered that creative and performing arts were an effective way to draw teens in, and out. Consequently the new center has a stage and a recording studio.

“So the YMCA resurrected the concept of the Teen Center as early as they could, which was great,” Mr. Lombardi said. “There hadn’t been a fully functional teen center since the late 1980s when it was in the EduComp building in Vineyard Haven, under the direction of Tom Bennett and Shirley Robinson.

“Since then there were a couple of small, short-term programs here and there, but it wasn’t until the YMCA stepped up that the possibility of a full-service, permanent facility became real, and it became even more true when Jacques and Marfi Gagnon got involved.”

Sadly, the Gagnons’ interest in the teen center was precipitated by the tragic loss of their daughter, Alexandra. “We created the [The Alexandra Mary Martha Gagnon Foundation] the year my daughter died, 1998… in fact the same month,” Jacques Gagnon said in a recent phone conversation. Alexandra was 23 at the time. “The foundation was created with money that she had inherited from her grandfather.

“We started supporting the Y in 2003 with a program called Creative Choices,” Mr. Gagnon said. “We signed an agreement in 2006 with the Y giving us naming rights to the Teen Center. So far, we’ve (the foundation) given $1,216,513.”

In May 2010, the Y board decided that they had to start building soon, before the enactment of new state building codes, which would have driven the price up by some 25 percent. “I was talking to Jill Robie that summer, and said how much money do you need to get the Teen Center going, and we made that happen,” Mr. Gagnon said. “We didn’t want to wait two or three years before it got built.”

While the great majority of the funding came from the Gagnon foundation, others have pitched in around the edges. “We’ve had tremendous community support,” Mr. Lombardi said. “Many of the construction workers and subcontractors donated some of their time or offered discounted services. Comcast has helped provide the funding for the downstairs space, which is called The Base. That’s our performing arts center, which has a recording studio, a dance floor, a DJ booth, soundboard, a stage — sort of a la Wintertide (the coffeehouse that served as an off-season community hub for years). So there’s a little bit of that being resurrected as well. Crane Appliance has donated all of the kitchen, and on and on and on.”

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that so many Islanders have rallied around the teen center, particularly in a community so devoted to its young people. Still, it is impressive.

None of it would have possible without the generosity and determination of the Gagnons, however. “They decided to take the grief from losing their wonderful daughter, and channel it into something constructive in the hopes that they could redirect children going forward,” Mr. Lombardi said. “They approached us and said, ‘We’re ready to fund the building of the Teen Center if you’re ready to put the shovels in the ground.’ And here we are, ready to open a 5,000-square-foot permanent Teen Center.”

The Alexandra Gagnon Teen CenterHours:Mon.–Thurs., 3 to 7 pm,Fri., Sat., 3 to 11 pmSun., 3 to 7 pm for special community programs

Activities/Programs: Sound Engineering, Songwriting, Video Production, and Photography workshops; Homework Club; Digital Connectors IT Program; Vocal Training; Youth in Recovery; AlaTeen; Computer Lab; Games; Nutritional Cooking; Self Defense for Women; HumaniTeen Community Service; Weekly Dances; Weekly Performances.