The Martha’s Vineyard YMCA’s $30 million field-house expansion, set to add classroom space and an indoor basketball court and track to the Oak Bluffs facility, has cleared its final permitting hurdles and is preparing to break ground next spring.

A surge in the number of members and other visitors has made the need for expansion urgent, said executive director Jill Robie-Axtell.

In the last year, an average of 700 to 800 members have checked into the Y daily, with an additional 300 or 400 daily guests visiting the café, taking swim lessons, attending childcare programs or using the teen center — none of which require membership, Ms. Robie-Axtell said. “We have to turn people away or put them on a waiting list,” Ms. Robie-Axtell said of the Y’s most in-demand programs, including summer camp and childcare, which have their enrollment capped by the amount of existing facilities space.

Of the expansion’s $30 million total project cost, $15 million has already been raised, Ms. Robie-Axtell said. An additional $10 million must be raised by the end of the year for construction to break ground next March.

Summer camp at the Y is in full swing. — Maria Thibodeau

The Martha’s Vineyard Y officially opened in 2010 and Ms. Robie-Axtell has been at the helm since the beginning. When she first arrived on the Island in 2009, it was nothing more than “a big open field.”

“It was scary,” Ms. Robie-Axtell said. “I had come from YMCAs that had been in their communities for 100 years. I came here and I thought, oh my gosh, it’s not even built!”

In the years since, the Y has become a staple of health, wellness and childcare programming on the Island. In 2023, it had the highest rate of community engagement of any YMCA in the country, with more than 30 per cent of Island residents regularly using the facilities, Ms. Robie-Axtell said.

The facility had originally been built to accommodate an estimated 13 to 16 per cent of Island residents, a rate of use closer to off-Island facilities.

This year, all of its summer camp programming sold out a mere three hours after enrollment was opened online in February, Ms. Robie-Axtell said. The waitlist now holds more names than the total number of program slots.

Ms. Robie-Axtell has spent her entire career working for different YMCA facilities. In 1986, she began working as fitness director for the YMCA of Mobile, Ala., before returning to work for YMCAs in her home state of Connecticut. She arrived on the Vineyard in 2009 to consult on the Y’s first round of hiring.

Ultimately, the Y’s board decided to hire her as CEO, a position she has held ever since.

At first, communicating the Y’s mission to the Island was a challenge, Ms. Robie-Axtell said.

“People didn’t have any understanding of the breadth of services that the Y has,” she said.

But as exercise classes, childcare programming a teen center and more opened up, “people started to see that the Y was more than just a gym.”

“We started really weaving ourselves into the community in a lot of different ways,” Ms. Robie-Axtell said.

When the Y’s childcare programming reached capacity a few years ago, Ms. Robie-Axtell vacated her administrative office so it could be turned into additional classroom space. Now, Ms. Robie-Axtell keeps her desk in the Y lobby, across from the check-in counter, amid throngs of summer campers and the smell of chlorine. She greets guests by name, and regularly stops them for a chat.

For her, the Y is a community space for all ages, offering everything from childcare and swimming lessons to the communities’ youngest members to fitness and safety classes to its eldest.

“The Y is an organization that I believe in, not just this particular Y but the organization as a movement, what it stands for, what it delivers in the communities that it inhabits,” Ms. Robie-Axtell said.

“For someone that’s a career Y person to walk into a community that’s never had a Y and see firsthand the differences it makes for all the different people that come, it’s pretty cool,” she said.