A week on Martha’s Vineyard is a voyage of self-discovery as much as a vacation for inner city kids from the Philadelphia area who visit the Island each summer.
Certainly the sights are new. Most of the teenagers have never seen an island or a ferry, for example. They rarely go to a beach, and some have never been to the ocean.
But the young men also recognize they have entered a calm, peaceful environment. They are struck by the simple and genuine daily interactions they experience in the community here and that simple fact changes them, according to their mentors at Neighborhood First (NF), an outreach organization based in Bristol, Penn., that works with at-risk youth.
Over the past four years, more than 50 young men, aged 14 to 18, have visited the Island for a week, thanks to the grassroots effort of Eric Adams, an Island painting contractor, and by Elinor Reed, a long-time Oak Bluffs resident who opened her home to the group in 2009. Mr. Adams is a Philadelphia native who worked with NF’s at risk teenagers before moving to the Island six years ago. This year, five young women joined the group for two days.
While the program is growing in popularity, funding is not. NF’s newest challenge is funding for the $5,000 trip in 2011 during a period of budget reductions for nonprofit social service agencies. Donations for the 2011 summer trip can be made to Neighborhood First, Inc., care of Eric Adams at P.O. Box 2331, Vineyard Haven 02568.
Neighborhood First deputy director Walter Mims says the trip is life-changing for his kids because they see life possibilities far different from their experience. “First, you have to understand that these are kids who are not used to promises, even small promises, being kept — or even made. Their expectations are low in that regard,” he said recently in Oak Bluffs, during an interview along with counselor Dwayne Snelling on the final day of this year’s NF visit.
“In my view, this experience is the single-most powerful thing our program does for these kids,” Mr. Mims said. “It’s a chance of a lifetime that they wouldn’t otherwise experience. The idea was so foreign to them I almost had to sell it in the first year. Their life experience had no perspective to offer them.
“Being selected for this trip is now a goal for kids. The first group provided perspective to their peers. Now, kids have to earn the trip and they are willing to do the work to be included.” The work involves improving school grades, making and achieving goals, and performing other tasks that demonstrate personal responsibility.
The annual visit includes going to the beach (almost every day), hiking, sightseeing, biking, sailing, and kayaking, along with daily strolls on Circuit Avenue. Mr. Mims said the Island culture has worked wonders. “I was concerned the slower pace of life here would bore them, but they love it,” he said. “The slow pace actually has become a major draw and makes them want to stay.”
“What they see gives them hope that they can attain some things they see other people having. This trip moves them outside the little box they live in. They see a lot of trusting, open-minded, generous people. They aren’t always familiar with those aspects in people. As a result, I see more determination and drive to accomplish and a desire to be around people who are succeeding.
“Where we come from, we’re almost told you’re not supposed to speak except when spoken to, so they grow up a little cold and callous. I don’t know why, but something about this place makes them more sensitive, more open and connected, more caring and generous. Every minute here becomes a teachable moment.”
The Neighborhood First voyage has encountered choppy waters along the way. Last year, their scheduled housing became unavailable as the planned trip drew nigh and Mr. Adams began scrambling.
Enter Ms. Reed, in the finest Island tradition of helping those in need. A Penacook Avenue resident with a large home, Ms. Reed immediately offered her home to the group at whatever rent it could afford.
Mr. Adams’s call reminded Ms. Reed of the efforts her grandparents had made to bring inner city kids to the Island 40 years ago through a program called Fresh Air Fund.
“I feel blessed to have the Vineyard community, one that knows my family,” Ms. Reed recalled in a 2009 interview. “It’s thrilling just to be able to continue a family tradition and offer the Island experience to young people who haven’t had experiences like the Vineyard,”
On a bright Saturday afternoon as the Philly kids sat on Ms. Reed’s lawn saying goodbye and exchanging phone and e-mail addresses with new Island friends, a bespectacled young visitor named Tyron Handy sat on the verandah, writing in a notebook.
“A journal?” he said, in response to a reporter’s question. “No, this is a poem. I’m writing a poem about this place. It’s so beautiful here,” he said.