The Alexandra Gagnon Teen Center, better known as Alex’s Place, at the Martha’s Vineyard YMCA has always been intended as a safe place where local teens can commune, learn, and have a good time. As such, the environment and programming at Alex’s Place are geared toward giving teens the space and freedom they need to fulfil this mission, and the center’s most recent initiative works in perfect harmony with its goal. Amp Jam is a brand-new weekly program in which local teens can utilize Alex’s Place resources, like instruments, recording equipment, and a fully functioning stage, to hone their musical skills or simply explore sounds with their friends. Participants are encouraged to bring their personal instruments, and are also welcome to use any of the many pieces of gear — guitars, basses, drums, keyboards, and amplifiers, to name a few — that Alex’s Place has to offer. Drinks and snacks are provided as participants are encouraged to “check out the space, hang out with awesome local artists, jam with friends and foes, or just chill, talk shop, and admire our nifty stage and studio setup.” The free program, open to all teens from ages 13 to 18, will run until Dec. 16, and takes place every Thursday from 4 to 6 pm and Sunday from 2 to 6 pm.
In order to understand the impact that the Amp Jam hopes to have, it is important to appreciate the principles behind Alex’s Place. A 5,000-square-foot space spanning two floors, Alex’s Place was created by the Alexandra Gagnon Foundation in 2010. The foundation was developed in memory of Alexandra Gagnon, who is described on the foundation’s website as a “natural leader and captivating storyteller.” Her biography continues, “During her short lifetime, Alexandra explored her extraordinary talents, passions, and enthusiasm for life with gusto.” In honoring her legacy, Alex’s Place is dedicated to helping all Island teens foster their own talents and passions in a safe, drug- and alcohol-free environment. By the end of 2016, the foundation had awarded over $2,000,000 to Island nonprofits, and its support of the teen center at the YMCA continues. In addition to pool tables, high-end computers, and a full kitchen, the Base at Alex’s Place is a performing arts space including a black box theater with professional sound and lighting, and Studio 57 is a top-of-the-line facility where teens can record their work.
After the death of longtime Alex’s Place director Tony Lombardi in 2017, Ryan Schwab-Doyon stepped in to continue the facility’s mission. Schwab-Doyon recruited music veteran and Island resident of over 30 years Liz Disessa to lend her professional expertise to the center’s musical initiatives, and the pair are excited by the programming to come. A long-time touring musician, Disessa now owns and operates Heart Roots Music, a music booking agency that works with Americana, acoustic, indie-folk, and bluegrass artists across the country. Disessa’s passion for music is a great driver of her work at Alex’s Place, and she tells The Times, “The beauty of music is that it is immediate and visceral. You can walk by an open car window and get pulled in. It’s accessible in many different ways.”
Amp Jam is still in its fledgling stage, but its coordinators are hopeful that the program will grow as word spreads. Schwab-Doyon and Disessa view their larger project as having two phases: making the space accessible to Island teens, and creating programming that benefits the community. “For this generation, everything is very structured, so by the time they hit afterschool and the weekend, that’s not what they’re interested in,” Ms. Disessa tells The Times. To this end, the duo have adopted an approach that gives teens freedom to create in a space that offers resources in place of formal lessons. “Our best-case scenario is that it becomes a creative space,” Disessa says of their approach to Amp Jam: “Come on in. Make a musical mess.”
Embedded within the free-form quality of Amp Jam is the notion that all creative expression is welcome. “We’d love to have a group of kids to come in and do spoken word and shoot a video,” says Disessa. In addition to the jam, the space is open to band rehearsals free of charge by appointment. The Base is also opening up to local musicians and artists for concerts and live performances. After a $150 fee that will cover sound, a person to work the door, and lighting, all profits generated will go straight to the performers. In this way, the organization seeks not only to help foster creativity, but also to dedicate a platform for those who wish to share their talents with the community.
Amp Jam at Alex’s Place is open for free to all Island teens on Thursdays from 4 to 6 pm and Sundays from 2 to 6 pm until Dec. 16.