Opening doors and possibilities
The seven-hour trip up I-95 from Philadelphia to Martha's Vineyard has been a life-changing experience for a special group of teens and for the Island community that welcomed them.
Neighborhood First (NF), a Pennsylvania-based outreach organization working with at-risk youth, has been making the trip for the past three years, thanks to the efforts of Eric Adams, an Island painting contractor and a Philadelphia native who worked with NF before moving to the Island six years ago.
This summer, Mr. Adams faced an unexpected challenge when he learned several weeks ago that housing facilities formerly provided by The Cottagers in Oak Bluffs would not be available this year.
Enter Elinor Reed of Penacook Avenue in Oak Bluffs who opened her spacious home to 10 teens and their two mentors, Neighborhood First deputy director Walter Sims and counselor Dwayne Snelling.
"I was at wit's end, making phone call after phone call to try to get housing in August on the Vineyard on a tight budget," Mr. Adams said. "Then I thought of Elinor's house. I called and she agreed immediately and said whatever we could afford would be fine," he said.
Reached at her home in New York this week, Ms. Reed said her action was a continuance of an old family tradition. "When Eric called, I was reminded how my parents brought city kids to the Vineyard as part of a program called Fresh Air almost 40 years ago," she said. "I feel blessed to have the Vineyard community, one that knows my family. It's thrilling just to be able to continue the tradition and offer the Island experience to young people who haven't had experiences like the Vineyard."
Ms. Reed is moving to the Vineyard full-time herself in September after being laid off as a social worker in the city. "I'm going to look for work on the Vineyard and in Boston in health care social work, such as diabetes planning," she said.
Last Sunday, the 13- to 19-year-olds relaxed in her comfortable Penacook Avenue home and talked about their vacation. Many had never seen a ferry or an island. Kayaking, swimming in the ocean, the Ag Fair, were all brand-new experiences. Tony Lombardi, organizer of Camp Safe Haven, helped the group record a music CD, which was a big hit among the teens. But in conversation, virtually all of them said being in an environment at peace and interacting with friendly, respectful people was the most powerful part of their experience here.
One teen spontaneously thanked Mr. Adams for helping him to overcome his fears of swimming earlier in the day. Mr. Sims said empathically, "There is no way that would have happened last week."
As this group of teens with their new sense of possibilities in the world board the ferry for home this week, Mr. Adams is hard at work planning for next year and an expansion to include a trip for young women and perhaps a trip to Pennsylvania by Island youth to see their guests' environment. "The foundation is firm for the program. People like Steve Zeltzer who sponsored the kayaking trip, are really showing up," he said.
Mr. Sims talked about the trip. "We encounter about 2,500 kids a year and the 30 or so kids who've made this trip are different. It's life transforming. They are changed by it. They achieve differently," he said, pausing for a moment. "I'll tell you the truth. When I got on that ferry to bring them here, I got a little emotional."
At first sight: Impressions of the Island
Robert Colter, 15: "Most unusual thing? The way people talk to you. They don't look down on you. They are kind. It's relaxing."
Rafael Singleton, 19: "It's all new, not what I'm used to seeing. It's like a new start. Just walking down the street is cool. It sort of inspires me to do better at everything."
Brandon Ampere, 14: "I like kayaking and managing myself. This is not like Pennsylvania. People talk different here."
Jason Worder, 14: "What stands out? How peaceful this place is. Swimming on the beach."
Nick Daniels, 13: "I like the respect you get from the people. I never heard of Martha's Vineyard. I thought it would be like a city. I didn't know what to expect. I never heard of a town on an island."
Sayeed Scott, 17: "It's good, a new experience. The houses are bigger. They have more rooms. I like seeing the President fly over today and making the CD."
Marcellus Woodlyn, 18: "The most surprising thing? That I got picked to come. It's an honor. It's so peaceful and quiet here."
Tyrone Roberts, 15: "This is wonderful. Today was the best. We made a (CD) music track. Everybody's so friendly, there are no problems."
Matthew Irving, 18: "I was here for two days last year. It's an honor to come again."
Shaquille Vaughn, 15: "I saw the pictures from last year and I wanted to try it. I didn't know what an island would be like. Just walking around, the nice people. And no mosquitoes."
Donations for the 2010 summer trip can be made to Neighborhood First, Inc., care of Eric Adams at P.O. Box 2331, Vineyard Haven 02568.
Jack Shea is a regular contributor to The Times.