Tony Lombardi: Making a difference
Tony Lombardi, rotund, imposing, sits outside Mocha Mott's nearly overwhelming the small café chair. With his girth, his smooth bald head, flushed complexion, and smiling expression, he is impossible to miss, and it seems as if every second person stops to say hello.
Mr. Lombardi first came to the Vineyard in 1986, when he was hired to work as an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter for a multiply impaired high school student. He brought with him a commitment to helping people and a growing sense of his own mission in life.
"I don't have HIV, but I was a heroin addict until 1984," says Mr. Lombardi. "All of my peers at the time - they're all dead. Back then, if you got HIV, it was a matter of months."
Mr. Lombardi survived against the odds, and feels that he was kept alive for a purpose: to be of service. "I only planned to stay for a year," he says, "but I got sucked in. I fell madly in love with everything about the Vineyard, the quiet, the isolation, the rhythm."
He soon took on a second job as a therapist at Community Services and became a fixture in the Island community. "I started to look around for things to do in the community," he says. "In the winter of '87, I offered my help to the Wintertide Coffeehouse at the Stone Church. I had been in the Boston punk scene in the late '70s, where I'd learned to do sound and produce shows."
Mr. Lombardi took over management of the coffeehouse the following winter and for close to 10 years, transformed Wintertide from a weekly church-basement activity into a full-time, year-round coffeehouse that provided an alcohol-free venue for local teenagers and other Island musicians. With Christine Lavin, he came up with the idea of the singer-songwriter retreat, which was the highlight of the Wintertide programs from 1989 until the mid-1990s. Eventually it attracted big name performers and became one of Billboard Magazine's top 10 performance venues in the United States.
"We were big stuff," says Mr. Lombardi. "Hundreds of singer-songwriters came to the retreat and wrote songs there... I started booking everyone I could get my hands on. Artists would come for next to no money. I offered them transportation, a nice hotel room, which was usually donated, Chilmark Chocolates, and a lobster dinner."
In 1994, Mr. Lombardi met David Butler, who was involved with the AIDS pandemic, and was a counselor for children with AIDS. Mr. Butler was interested in bringing HIV children to the Vineyard for a camp. He teamed with Mr. Lombardi and the two created the Safe Haven Project. "It grew so quickly," Mr. Lombardi remembers. We went from running a one-week camp here to flying around the country, paying for funerals, paying for groceries."
The Vineyard Safe Haven Camp has been held annually for 15 years. Another in Maryland has been operating for nine years, one in North Carolina for three years, and another in New Hampshire was started two years ago. For the past six years, their work has reached into West Africa, where they also educate young people about HIV.
The two men often speak at high schools and at conferences for young people. "I talk about the power of an individual to create profound change in their community and in the world," Mr. Lombardi says, adding, "If I can do it, anyone can."
"Service should be something natural," Mr. Lombardi says. "I want people to ask, 'How can I help?' Everything would be a lot easier with more hands."
Throughout all of this, Tony Lombardi continues his full-time work at the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School, is writing a book about his work, and is assistant director of the Alexandra Gagnon Teen Center at the Vineyard's new YMCA, working to facilitate a safe environment for teens on weekend nights.
"In between all of that, I have the best life I've ever had," he says. Although he lives with a congenital heart defect that among other things, contributes to his weight, he remains optimistic and fully committed to all his projects. "My goal is to be proof that a person can change their world in a positive way. All of the foibles of my human self exist in Technicolor, still," he says, despite his aspiration to follow Buddha. "It's all about the here and now: How can I best bring something positive to this moment?"
Donations for Safe Haven Project can be sent to P.O. Box 24, Vineyard Haven, MA 02568, or can be made through safehavenproject.org
Amelia Smith is a frequent contributor to The Times.