Tony Lombardi, director of the YMCA’s teen center, stood in the doorway of an office at the Y on the Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road last Thursday afternoon as members and staff filed through the wide, clean and bright hallway behind him. Every other person seemed to tap his back and say, “Hey, Tony.” Mr. Lombardi waved to them all like old friends and continued talking.
“This is without a doubt the best Y in the United States,” he declared. “The rest of the Ys in the country would freak out if they had to deal with us. These walls have been pushed to their max, physically and creatively. If it’s a positive idea to move us forward, yes, we’ll try it. We will play a rock concert in the pool. We will bring a famous person into the basement to play the small sound stage.”
On Saturday night, which is teen night at the Y, Mr. Lombardi proved a man of his word when he actually did put a famous person in the basement. At about 8 p.m. Carly Simon floated down the stairs into the venue, which looked and felt much like a cool basement party from high school, tricked out with comfortable sofas, Christmas lights and a member-painted mural. Wearing a stunning puffy blue turquoise coat, Ms. Simon somehow blended in. As her godson Noah Stuber, 16, sang songs in the tradition of Jack Johnson and his friend and mentor, Ben Taylor, Ms. Simon provided whispery back up vocals. Noah’s set was preceded by poetry and followed by rap. His twin brother snapped photos from the front row, and his mother, Tamara Weiss, beamed from the sidelines.
“My boys love this place,” she said. “They are always here. And I’m trying to get Carly to teach songwriting classes — she’s into it!”
The can-do-anything spirit of the Y is one of its defining aspects. It seems there’s nothing you really can’t do here, in this buzzing hive of energy at the center of the cold winter Island. The Y is the Oz behind the Vineyard’s winter curtain this year; it is the winter community and the new definitive answer to that very old question, what do you do in the winter?
Earlier in the day, Emily Galligan, director of facilities, sailed through the main lobby into the pool area at a quick clip. “You know what you hear every day? You hear: ‘I don’t know what I did before this place.’ I hear it several times a day, and I love it,” she said.
“It’s fabulous,” said Anne Sylvester, toweling off after her deep water training class where she and 12 other seniors had just finished working out. “It’s so social, and I’ve known most of the women for years,” she said.
Ms. Sylvester especially likes the deep water training class because, much like the spirit of the building it takes place in: “You feel like you can do anything. You can do all kinds of things you can’t do on land, like . . . ” she paused to demonstrate and swung a leg wildly in the air. “Like that,” she laughed. “High kicks, cross-country skiing. I don’t know, I just don’t know what we did before. I love it, and I love the light in this place,” she said, turning to the sky-high windows that frame the pool. “You can work out, look out on the trees and of course I love the café, because I can limit myself to one cup of coffee here. Otherwise at home I would drink it all day! Oh, and last summer the kids from the camp came over and gardened with us ‘old people.’ Just fabulous.”
At the other end of the pool, a young person was learning how to swim. Oraibi Voumard held his fidgeting son Ian as the five-year-old learned to trust the water. “We come here every day, at least we try,” said Mr. Voumard, holding the thin-limbed, gangly new swimmer in his arms. “He used to cry when you mentioned water. Now every morning he asks me, ‘Are we going to the pool?’ He gets so excited he jumps up and down.”
Every day in the YMCA pool brings more progress, his father said. “Today,” said the father, “he put his head under water. He’ll be swimming by the end of the month.”
“In addition to the pool,” Mr. Voumard added, “everyone’s really nice here. My girlfriend Patti teaches yoga here, and we’re here all the time. Just from a family perspective with three kids, the place is relaxing, and it’s a good environment for the kids to be around people who are local to the Island. The sense of community is something we really love.”
After their swim lesson, Mr. Voumard and Ian headed to the café, where families with wet hair and flushed cheeks sucked down smoothies and nibbled on French fries.
At one table in the café, avoiding the French fries, sat YMCA personal trainer Jose Sanabria, who despite training nine people a day, had a minute to chat. “It’s the beginning of the year, so the world is seeing a lot of resolutions right now,” he said. “But I tell my clients, this is an investment in your future. It’s not about your summertime body. It’s for life. You’ll still be seeing the results 10 years from now.” He said he comes here with his family. “We work out together, we make time,” he said. “It’s a social place. When else are you going to see your kids?” he laughed. “If you want, you can just drop them off and know they are in good hands.”
A short walk from the café are the bright and boisterous child watch rooms, where the activity mirrors the sort you’d see around a kitchen table — drawing, play dough and homework. A small group of girls scrambled to have their picture taken by the newspaper photographer. Another talked about the parties she had attended at the YMCA.
“The last swim party was a Hannah Montana party, which is weird, because no one likes her anymore,” the girl said.
Other children talked about the food in the café — sliders, chicken fingers and fries all got high marks.
Downstairs on Saturday night, teenagers huddled around video games, played pool, worked away on shiny new Mac computers and made audio recordings under the moniker Studio 57.
“We’ve already recorded 12 songs and are mastering them now,” said Mr. Lombardi, at home behind a sound board nestled next to a professional-looking vocal booth. “We’re also doing some spoken word stuff and some voice-over work, along with film production stuff. Comcast (which contributed all the equipment) really came through for us.” He continued:
“The thing about the teen center is that we’re here for you. A dilemma we face out here is we have an Island economy that forces families to work two or three jobs — we all work a lot. We, as an Island, work a lot. It’s always something. And if you have a family and children and two or three jobs, the kids are sometimes put in a situation where they have to create their own wisdom. And kids shouldn’t have to create their own wisdom.”
WMVY deejay Laurel Redington is also a teen mentor for the center. Her middle school daughter Tessa also loves to hang out here. “It’s really nice here,” Tessa said, nursing a ginger ale and fiddling with the chess set. “There are lots of choices. Sometimes I play pool, sometimes I hang out on the computer.”
“If I was a teenager, I’d hang out here,” Ms. Redington said, stretching her legs out across a couch. “We get the groups who don’t want to get themselves in trouble. It’s not hundreds of kids but it’s a good amount. We listen. We do a lot of listening. We try to interact with the kids, we try to scan the room. If someone is lost in thought or by themselves, we might go over and just check in. Really, they just want someone to listen. But for the most part, we just hang out and have to be ready to embarrass ourselves and have fun.”
Curtis Chandler, the teen center’s assistant director, seconded that. Mr. Chandler, who also works as a ranger for the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), joked about his commitment to the job within clear earshot of the teenagers. “I started working here because my fiancée wouldn’t let me play video games anymore,” he said with a wide smile. “I had to find someplace else to play. But now the kids are starting to crack down on me for it too. But I get it . . . it’s just because I’m better than all of them,” he teased.
A low murmur of dissent rose from the couch.
“Just kidding, guys,” he said. “Not really.”
“Some people think we just lift weights here,” concluded Mr. Lombardi. “But it’s all about the undercurrent. There is so much activity going on. The mission is so much bigger. And this is just the beginning. We’ve been allowed to sprout, and we’re working on the blossoming. But the ideas have definitely been planted.”