At the entrance to Alex’s Place, the teen center at the YMCA, there is a sign that reads Be the Best You — You Can Be.

On Saturday, the day after Jake Baird, a senior at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, died in a car accident, a large group of friends, teachers and mentors walked under that sign and into the space that had for many years been a second home to Jake. They came alone and in large groups to remember their friend and to comfort each other.

“We wanted to create a space for everyone to come together, and to let the kids lead,” said Brooke Ditchfield, who runs the theatre program at the high school. “I knew him, but never had him in one of my plays. But I wish I had. He was such a wonderful guy.”

It was a refrain that would be said again and again, this spirit of joy and inclusiveness that Jake radiated. “He connected to all kids,” said Laurel Redington, former assistant director of Alex’s Place. “He didn’t belong to one clique. He was one of those people who was always smiling, polite and optimistic, and looked to make other people comfortable.”

Jake, far left, in a pink unicorn onesie with his fellow IMPers. — Courtesy Donna Swift

As each new person entered the room, the space became quiet again as the friend was enveloped into the fold with hugs and tears.

“He was a good man and this sucks,” said Riley Craig, who met Jake in the auto mechanics class at school, a vocation Jake excelled at and planned to pursue after graduation.

Gradually the small talk would start again and more stories would be shared. And with each new story, laughter would fill the room.

Ev Wilson pulled out her phone to read some Jake quotes she had saved over the years. She, like most everyone else, had met and grown up with Jake as part of the WIMP and IMP improv troupes, some going back as far as fifth grade summer camps. To everyone, saving Jake quotes seemed like the most natural thing to do. They all knew them by heart.

“Read the one about the pumpkin,” Samantha Cassidy said.

Ev set the scene. It was during an improv performance, with Jake playing a guidance counselor.

“When I go to a pumpkin patch, I see three kinds of pumpkins,” she said, using a deeper voice to approximate Jake’s. “I see soft, rotten and hardy. And you, Dan, are a hardy pumpkin.”

As with all improv performances the performers have no idea what their fellow actors will say as everyone makes it up on the fly and goes with the flow.

“Everyone thinks you have to try and be funny,” said Donna Swift, founder and director of IMP and WIMP, who first met Jake in grammar school at one of her summer camps. “But really you have to be truthful. And that’s what Jake was.”

She remembered seeing him as a kid that first summer and being amazed at his talent. “He was so good, I told him he had to keep doing it.”

But in addition to humor and truth, perhaps the most important part of improv is generosity, trusting your fellow actors and being there for them in the spontaneity of the moment.

Samantha recalled a time when she tripped going on stage to start a scene. This was not intended and she felt a surge of embarrassment. “But Jake came on next and he made himself fall and it became part of the act,” she said.

And he was a master at surprise.

“We had no idea where he was going,” said Aaron Wilson. “And neither did he.”

During one performance, when the audience was instructed to shout out a fairy tale and the troupe would riff off that, the story chosen was Rapunzel. One player became Rapunzel, another Rapunzel’s mother. “And then Jake became a character who hid in the walls and talked to Rapunzel at night,” Samantha said. “Who thinks of that?’

“Jake did,” the group said in unison.

Because so many had grown up with Jake, the question was asked how he had changed over the years.

“He became older and wiser but he still gave me great hugs,” Ev said.

“He gave the best hugs,” agreed Della Burke.

“It didn’t matter who you were, he loved you,” said Samantha.

“The man radiated happiness,” Aaron said.

“He was a human black Labrador retriever,” Ev said.

Eventually the group settled back on the couches, sitting in a circle trying to process what had happened. They discussed the stages of grief, how every song reminds them of Jake, how they cry and can’t stop thinking of him, and feel as if he will walk through the door again at any minute saying, “What’s up guys?”

They also can’t stop laughing.

“He was always so happy," Samantha said. "It’s hard not to be happy when you think about him."