Alex’s Place at the YMCA is always changing

Sarah Dawson, an MVRHS senior, performs in The Base. — Photo by Laurel Whitaker

Music shook the subterranean walls, and neon lights illuminated the faces of a hundred dancing teenagers gathered in “The Base,” on Friday, March 14, for a middle school dance. The monthly dance is one of a variety of events in the YMCA of Martha’s Vineyard’s Alexandra Gagnon Teen Center, better known as Alex’s Place.

The Base is an inviting performance and dance space. A trippy mural dominates a wall facing a stage outfitted with state-of-the-art lighting and audio equipment donated by Comcast, as well as a complete DJ station at which anyone is welcome to try their hand.

In back, Studio 57 includes a soundproofed room with sound-mixing and recording equipment, as well as an assortment of drums and guitars valued as high as $5,000. The entire facility is free and open to all ages.

Upstairs, three days before the dance, a small crowd of high school students milled around Alex’s Place. A pair of boys played chess next to the air hockey table, while a third looked up magnesium phosphate for his chemistry homework on one of the center’s three brand new iMacs (Alex’s Place also has 15 MacBook laptops and a small library). Nearby, a couple lounging on a lush couch watch anime on a flat-screen TV, while they waited for a friend to bring fries from the Y. Alex’s Place also has its own well-equipped culinary space, “Alex’s Kitchen.”

The scene was familiar to Tony Lombardi, director of teen activities at the Y and manager of Alex’s Place since it was founded on December 10, 2010.

“We get 40-60 kids a day, pre-Dairy Queen; post-DQ, more than 30,” said Mr. Lombardi, laughing. “The high school basketball players come every winter to play xBox before practice. The numbers vary, but there’s never less than a dozen kids during the six hours we’re open.”

In 2013, Alex’s Place had 5,000 visits from Island kids, and since September, more than 900 kids have signed up.

“When you think that the high school only has maybe 700 kids, we’re hitting a huge swath of the population,” said Mr. Lombardi.

Alex’s Place was established with a grant from the Alexandra MM Gagnon Foundation by the parents of Alexandra Gagnon, who died when she was 23. The goal was to provide activities for Island young people. Judging by the comments of many of those who gather there, Alex’s Place has fulfilled the foundation’s mission.

“If Alex’s Place wasn’t here, I’d probably be at home doing nothing, or somewhere in Vineyard Haven,” said Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School freshman Wilson Redfeld, playing chess with a friend on the center’s hand-crafted wooden set. “I like the atmosphere. A lot of my friends are here. I play pool, xBox, chess, air hockey. I do my homework here. All kinds of things.”

High School junior Cheyenne Tilton, who works on the center’s online magazine, “Seven Miles Out,” echoed Wilson. “Alex’s Place gives me somewhere to go, to be around people, because otherwise I’d be stuck in my house doing nothing,” she said. “They’ve made it a safe place for me to want to come; it’s warm and everything’s so nice. I feel at home here.”

Quality costs

The facility runs on an annual budget of up to $250,000 and receives generous support from wealthy benefactors such as Comcast. The money shows. In addition to the array of computers and performance equipment, including an old Elvis Presley mic and 12 new digital lights, Alex’s Place has three widescreen TVs, three xBox 360s and a Wii, a high-definition Sony projector, and a 10-foot screen. The center has its own WiFi and a pool table adorns the center of The Base in between events. To top it off, the walls host an assortment of Andy Warhol photography. A recent piece by Banksy, the renowned political graffiti artist, is sandwiched between motivational quotes, including one by Thomas Jefferson that reads: “Nothing can stop the man with the right mental attitude from achieving his goal; nothing on earth can help the man with the wrong mental attitude.”

The budget pays primarily for heat, electricity, and the salaries for nine staff. The remaining $80,000 to $100,000 pays for programming, which includes bringing performers and teachers to Alex’s Place.

“It’s an expensive, endless proposition that requires consistent community support,” said Mr. Lombardi. “The kids belong to the community, and Alex’s Place belongs to the kids, so by Algebra 2 default, Alex’s Place belongs to the community, and they have to help fund it.

“It’s that expensive because of the caliber and quality of the programming we hire: radio DJs, graphic designers, chefs, personal trainers, all of whom are creating opportunities for kids to experience a new skill.”

Alex’s Place provides opportunities for Islanders of all ages to advance artistic and technological ambitions. Jemima James, an Island musician who performed at Alex’s Place, emphasized the importance of the opportunities the facility offers. “It’s a great opportunity for young musicians, and for old people like me, because there aren’t many alcohol-free venues on the Island that offer a real performance experience.”

Ms. James said she would happily return for another performance. “It was one of the best audiences I’ve ever had,” she said. “Everyone, there were adults there too, was happy and excited to be there. Alex’s Place is terrific, for everyone.”

A blank canvas

Mr. Lombardi believes that Alex’s Place will only continue to succeed if it continues to change. “We try to keep this as much of a blank canvas as we can,” he said. “We strive to create a place that resonates with the kids who come here. Any given day or month The Place is changing.”

Part of this involves engaging with the teenage community. “I have to remain relevant. There’d be nothing worse than having an old bald dude in his 60s who thinks he knows what’s going on in the world of young people. I need to maintain a staff that remains relevant, and pay attention to the culture, not from an analytical point of view but from a humanistic point of view. What are the kids thinking and doing? The Place has to be able to adapt to that.”

Paradoxically, Mr. Lombardi believes this involves bringing more adults into Alex’s Place.

“Given the chance to go out Friday evening,” he said, “I think a teenager would be more inclined to go somewhere that’s not just a special place for kids. For example, we just had a punk rock band here last week. You can actually go out and catch a show in a legitimate venue, one that doesn’t feel like an institutional venue.”

Every day, Mr. Lombardi is planning a new activity, a new vibe. “This Place will never be finished,” he said.