For nine city kids, a recent Island experience was formed less by the wind-sculpted terrain of Aquinnah and the storybook houses of Oak Bluffs than by the peaceful nature of the Island.
“It’s so quiet here at 1 or 2 in the morning. No car horns or yelling on the street,” said Brandon Summers, a 16-year-old participant in the Neighborhood First project from Bristol, Pa. “The most unusual thing for me is that the people are so nice, even drivers. They’ll stop and let you cross the street. It’s pretty different from home,” echoed 14-year-old Chris Randolph.
Conversations last Sunday night with the young men at the YMCA teen center in Oak Bluffs indicate the second-year program is doing what it’s intended to do: show troubled teens a different way of living and new possibilities not limited by an often dysfunctional environment of urban Bucks County outside Philadelphia.
“These five days open their eyes to life possibilities that they simply don’t see from their windows at home,” said Eric Adams, YMCA youth director. Mr. Adams had the same experience some 20 years ago when he first came to the Island from the same area. He said the experience helped broaden the world for him and led to a commitment to provide the experience to the next generation. “There is something about this place that allows them to drop their guards and walls,” he said.
Mr. Adams has built a successful Island house painting business over the past five years and is engaged to marry YMCA colleague Amanda Thibodeau. He will step down this week as YMCA youth director and credits YMCA executive director John Clese for supporting the program. “I hope [the program] can continue and grow,” Mr. Adams said.
The five-day trip was packed with experiences, including: Illumination Night, the fireworks, breakfast at the Aquinnah Shop in Aquinnah, a tour of the Cliffs and the Vanderhoop Homestead, a Vineyard Sound sail, courtesy of Tisbury’s Rob Doyle and yachtsman Tom Grew, as well as jumping off Big Bridge on Beach Road, and, of course, requisite beach time and basketball on the Oak Bluffs courts.
The visitors’ comments centered on the commonplace — wonders in their eyes that Islanders may take for granted. The Oak Bluffs basketball courts intrigued several boys who counted the courts as the most fun. “The court surface (which has a resilient surface coating) was so smooth, not like we have at home,” said Chris Randolph, “and they have real backboards and nets.”
Inside the YMCA center on Pequot avenue, Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School teacher Tony Lombardi, has constructed a basic recording studio. “It was great hands-on stuff. The kids created a music CD. They created the music and wrote lyrics. It was great watching them get into it,” Mr. Lombardi said.
Neighborhood First is a six-year-old program in Bristol County Pa., supported by community funds. Its goal is to reach teens tracking the wrong way and it’s working, said Walton Mims, deputy director of Neighborhood First.
“Neighborhood First is a leadership, mentoring and monitoring program, We work with about 100 Bristol County kids now,” he said. “We see a difference in their lives when they are exposed to new life possibilities, new ways of living,” Mr. Mims said. “But it’s a struggle. We’re always looking for more — resources, volunteers, money — so we can do more,” he said.
The nine participants shared some of their dominant impressions:
• “It took me a while to notice how safe it is here. You can put your flip flops down at the beach and they are still there two hours later,” said Vince Ridle, 16 years old.
• “I liked swimming better this year. I guess I got used to the ocean ... and the arcade was a lot better,” said Michael Johnson, 17, one of two returning teens from the initial 2007 trip.
• “Everybody’s so mellow here. Jumping off the bridge? Man, if we did that at home, there’d be cops there in a second,” grinned 15-year-old William Sloan,
• “I love that big TV screen and the computers and games and the (radio) studio at the center here. The sailboat ride, that was different,” said Chris Randolph.
• “I like the houses. They are separate from each other. The doors are right out on the street, different from where I live,“ said Tamir Caraway, 15 years old.
• “The basketball court was the best, and the people, man, they are so friendly. They just walk by and say, ‘Hi, how you doing?’ Not like that at home,“ said Andy Mims, 14 years old.
• “I like that you don’t have to lock the doors and that, every night, how the streets will be empty and then, boom, they’re full of people,” said Semaj Bowie, 15 years old.
• “Everything’s easy here. The beach is close, you can walk to it and the people are nice,” said R.J. Hopkins, 14 years old.
• “The fireworks were really long and so loud. Different from home,” said Brandon Summers.
But if impressions of Island living differed for each visitor, at least one kid has already developed a plan. “I called my mom and said, ‘We gotta move here.’” said William Sloan who is embarking on his life goal. “I want to become a vet. I found a school with related courses and I’m going there this year,” he said.