Ryan Schwab-Doyon wears many hats at his job as the new director of Alex’s Place; he is a friend, mentor, and confidant to many teens on Martha’s Vineyard. “I basically assume a different role every day,” Schwab-Doyon said. “Sometimes I am just a friend to shoot pool and play video games with, and other times I am dealing with a real crisis in a kid’s life, and try to help them in any way I can.”
Alex’s Place was named in honor of Alexandra Gagnon, a 23-year-old woman who died of a heroin overdose in 1998. Her parents fully funded the youth center in 2011, with the hope that it would help young people cope with addiction and any other trials they might face. Schwab-Doyon will host an open house at the teen center on Friday, April 26, from 6 to 9 pm so parents and young people alike can check out Alex’s Place. The event will be in collaboration with the Spectrum Film Festival, happening this weekend at the M.V. Film Center. Winners of the writing and art contest held in conjunction with the festival will be announced during the open house, and the film “Geography Club” will be screened, all free of charge.
Originally from Vermont, Schwab-Doyon went to school to teach exercise science, but quickly found his passion in helping teens. He moved to the Island after meeting his wife Amanda, a lifelong Islander, while attending college, and began working at the Island Wide Youth Collaborative at Martha’s Vineyard Community Services.
While helping out part-time at Alex’s Place, Schwab-Doyon met Tony Lombardi. The two worked closely with each other as Lombardi served as the director for six years, until he suffered a debilitating stroke.
“A little while after Tony had his stroke, he told me he wanted me to take over, and I just couldn’t believe it,” Schwab-Doyon said. “That was in March of 2017 — it’s hard to believe that much time has passed since he died.”
At 30 years old, Schwab-Doyon provides the teens with caring and support that is directly informed by his own experiences growing up and navigating life’s many trials and tribulations. “Being able to interact with our youth and share my own personal knowledge of being a teen in this crazy world we live in, that is what really drives this experience and this job for me,” Schwab-Doyon said.
One thing Schwab-Doyon said he enjoys most about his job is being able to provide a safe, drug-free space for teens, no matter who they are. “We want kids to be able to come in here, hang out, chat with friends, and basically block out the outside noise of life for a little while,” Schwab-Doyon said. “Kids deal with a lot, and I think just being able to provide that place where they can be certain they will be accepted and supported is really important.”
Schwab-Doyon said he hopes to provide a “home away from home” for kids who need their own space to be their best and do what they love.
“We have one kid who has a band called Era of Good Feelings, and if the band ever wants to practice or even have a show, we make the downstairs stage available for them whenever they want,” Schwab-Doyon said.
Part of being the director of Alex’s Place, according to Schwab-Doyon, is understanding that every teen that comes through the door is different, with different struggles and ambitions.
“The staff at Alex’s Place really get to know all the kids so well, we aren’t mom or dad figures, we are kind of our own type of thing,” he said. “We aren’t too strict or anything — we really let kids explore using their own creativity, and see where it takes them.”
For Schwab-Doyon, the teens’ energy keeps him active and always on his toes. “I love the teens’ excitement for life,” he said. “Even though I am only 30, it’s like the kids keep me young. They have great willingness to try new things and open themselves up to new opportunities.”
Schwab-Doyon recalled when he was going to school in Vermont, and spoke about how far he has come since then. He said he never would have expected to be living on Martha’s Vineyard and helping kids do what they love. “This really is an amazing job. I am so thankful for my life here,” he said.
With a 3-year-old son, turning 4 in June, and his wife due to have another child the same month, Schwab-Doyon said his goal as director is to ensure that when his kids are teenagers, they will have the same unwavering support he has been able to provide kids today. “I want this space to grow and develop, so that when my kids are teens, they will be able to utilize this option if they want, and have that choice as well,” Schwab-Doyon said.
Alex’s Place is free for teens ages 13 to 18, and is funded solely by donations, along with annual support from the Alexandra Gagnon Foundation and the Comcast Foundation.