Everybody loves a vacation, but perhaps nobody more than the boys who came to visit the Island last week from the Neighborhood First program of Bristol, Pa. They went fishing, swimming, bike riding and played in the arcade, but what impressed them the most was the peace and quiet and the people of the Island.
As they sat around a table in the Alexandra Gagnon Teen Center at the YMCA in Oak Bluffs last week, waiting to record some songs in the studio, the boys were full of laughs, lightly ribbing each other about whether one of them was spending too much time on Xbox. Mostly, they said they were grateful to have been able to visit the Vineyard.
For Quentin Mulbah, 14, the highlight was the trip itself.
Mike Johnson, 19, was on his third trip to the Vineyard and the only one in the group who had been here before. “It gives you a chance to explore and meet new people,” he said.
“To me, it [this trip] means that we’re special,” declared Raykel Holloman, 13.
Teen center director Tony Lombardi agreed. “[The Vineyard] is perfect for Neighborhood First because it supports the idea that the possibilities are endless because our community struggles as well,” he said.
Neighborhood First exists to help young people who have struggled in school or in their neighborhood and get them back on the right path.
“It’s a place to get kids off the street, to encourage the dream of whatever they want to be,” said Quentin.
On the Vineyard last week those dreams were alive for the Neighborhood First kids.
“It’s very peaceful,” said Raykel, adding: “It’s different from home because people don’t really speak to you there. Here there are really nice people.”
The boys admitted they were surprised by the Vineyard’s lack of a McDonald’s or a Wal-Mart and they did have one complaint, shared by Islanders and visitors alike — the high prices. Quentin marveled at a store that had priced a goofy pair of sunglasses at $19.99.
Every morning after a home-cooked breakfast, the group has a focus meeting where they discuss what they did the day before, how things are going in the house and what they’d like to do that day. This year the group stayed in a house on Pennacook avenue in Oak Bluffs, and the boys were appreciative of their nice digs. “The people who live here, they’re very lucky because every day they have the opportunity to go to the beach,” said Jordan Dyal, 14, who spent most of his downtime playing Xbox.
The boys listened to Mr. Lombardi describe the recent fad among teenagers to say that they’re “ghetto” or “hood” and expressed quiet shock at the thought. “They have no idea what we go through,” said Mike of life in his neighborhood.
Mr. Lombardi praised the program. “It’s one of my favorite programs in the country,” he said, noting that he plans to take Vineyard students to visit the Neighborhood First kids. “For the same reason it’s important for you to get out of that environment and have a breath, it’s important for us to go into that environment and come out with gratitude and understanding,” Mr. Lombardi told the kids.
Neighborhood First has been coming to the Vineyard for five years; the trips are coordinated by Eric Adams, an Island resident and part-time employee of Neighborhood First. “This is a big deal. There’s a lot of trust involved. Parents trusting the staff and the staff trusting the kids,” Mr. Adams said, adding: “They [the staff] let them experience some freedom that they may not have so much of at home.” He said this is the youngest group that the program has ever had, ranging in age from 12 to 15. “They don’t feel judged. They feel that people accept them for who they are. Those kinds of things are really meaningful,” he said. “We’re all kind of limited to what our own personal experience has been in our life,” he added.
“They want to go back again; they want to stay longer,” said Walton Mims, a Neighborhood First staffer who traveled with the boys.
The boys took advantage of everything the teen center had to offer from the recording studio to video games — including beating a newspaper reporter in a round of the video game Halo 3. They joked about their fishing expedition on State Beach where their only catch was a man riding by on his bicycle. Laughs aside, the boys caught something more tasty than a fish — a true Vineyard experience to take home.