Riding Out the Storm: The Martha’s Vineyard Boys & Girls Club Looks to the Future

Malik Magnuson and Taylor Hughes (with volunteer Sarah Brooks) play on the club’s Edgartown grounds, which include a vegetable and flower garden.
Jen Brown

The Martha’s Vineyard Boys & Girls Club has provided an affordable safe haven – replete with lots of fun – for thousands of Island children over the years. It’s weathered tough times that might have defeated a less determined group and still faces difficult circumstances today, but the nonprofit organization has a long history here, and the club’s directors have no intention of letting it go down.

Founded as the Edgartown Boys Club in 1937, then becoming the Edgartown Boys & Girls Club in 1982, the organization decided to take an even broader approach in 1985, when it changed its name and opened its membership to kids from all six Island towns. Within a few years, however, the club faced a perfect storm of challenges, starting with declining revenue, increased need, and no clear consensus among its leadership on how to resolve the conflicts.

“The early nineties were bad economic times, just like today, although maybe not quite as bad,” says Raymond LaPorte, a longtime (now retired) director and president of the board from 1994 to 1996. “As a result, donations, which are the fuel the club runs on, dwindled. On top of that, the whole dynamic of the Island was changing. There were single-family homes and homes in which the economy made it necessary for the mother and father both to work. And there was dissension among the troops.” Some people involved with the club wanted it to move from its Edgartown site by the school to a more central location near the high school in Oak Bluffs; others wanted it to stay put.

“Frankly, there were some poor financial decisions made,” Ray continues. “The club nearly hit the skids in the early 1990s and we met twice a week to figure out how to keep the doors open. Tony Meyer [another longtime director] was a financial wizard, and the club hired Greg Rawlins to run the club. Those two men, along with George Martin, brought the place back on track and it’s still thriving today. Everyone was proud to name the club the Anthony H. Meyer Clubhouse in his honor when Tony passed away last year.”

A new generation

Peter Lambos was a youngster living in Edgartown when he joined the Martha’s Vineyard Boys & Girls Club in 1987. Twenty years later, he came full circle when he returned to his boyhood club as its executive director. He talks about his strong belief in the Island’s critical need for the services the club provides for Vineyard families.

“Today the After School Program remains by far our core program,” Peter says. “School closes at 2:40, and by 2:41 the sprinters from the nearby Edgartown School arrive. Buses bring students from other towns on the Island with the kids from Oak Bluffs and Vineyard Haven arriving by 3:30.”

From arrival time until 6 p.m. when
the club closes for the day, students have their choice of how they want to spend their after-school hours. Some work on homework or do Internet research and play computer games in a small technology lab. There are outdoor games and sports, indoor table games, and a studio for arts and crafts activities.

“It’s an active place,” Peter says. “With 375 members, we have about 85 kids here each afternoon, and some days up to 120.”

The cost of a membership? Twenty dollars a year. With such low fees, the club relies heavily on the revenue from its Second Hand Store, private donations, and public funds, though state funding for such programs has significantly diminished in recent years. Membership fees bring in about $7,500 annually, Peter says. Today kindergarten through grade six membership is at a high point, and the 10,000-square-foot clubhouse is rented by other groups for sports and private gatherings. Operations at the Second Hand Store in downtown Edgartown, traditionally a strong source of revenue for the club, have turned around in the past two years following a period of difficulty.

The After School Program, which costs about $225,000 a year, accounts for half of the club’s $440,000 annual operating budget. The club’s fees for its summer camp and sports programs are low compared with other organizations, and the club offers financial aid for any students whose families might have difficulty paying for them.

Club members these days cover a wide range of the Island population, including many Brazilian-American children and other children of immigrants who may not be fluent in English. There are kids who go to Disney World for every vacation and those who won’t leave the Island until they’re eighteen. “It’s a nice melting pot of kids – here, they’re all just club members,” Peter says.

Filling a niche

Rising time and again to surmount its challenges, the club has a robust program in place that meets many needs of the children of Martha’s Vineyard and their families. “We’re old and strong. We guide our kids while encouraging their own self-growth,” Peter says with a smile. “We always raise enough money – barely.”

The Boys & Girls Club also finds a way to fill other gaps on the Island. When the Vineyard’s autumn flag football league went defunct a few years ago, the club took it over, putting smiles back on the faces of eighty Island flag football players. It introduced cheerleading last year, and recently took over the youth basketball program on the Island.

Peter sees the mission of the Martha’s Vineyard Boys & Girls Club as different from the new YMCA of Martha’s Vineyard, despite their common goals. “A lot of kids here will never see the inside of a Y,” he says. “Many of them can’t afford it. And they and their parents know what a good thing they have at the Boys & Girls Club.”

Ray LaPorte agrees, describing the Y as more of a family club, whereas the Boys & Girls Club helps parents by taking care of their children and keeping them safe. Peter acknowledges that the Y had approached the Boys & Girls Club for a partnership or even a takeover, but club directors demurred. “I’m always looking to expand programming into what the kids want to do,” he says. “I’d be happy to partner with the Y to run some programs together. If we can work together on those things, it would show good community. With the Y or without it though, for us, the future looks good.”

Christine White, the co-owner of Edgartown Pizza and a former board member, says her interest in the club grew from her daughter’s involvement. “I was a single parent raising my daughter, Ariel, on my own. She went to the After School Program from first through sixth grade. Then she became a mentor, a junior counselor, and a counselor. It was a safe place for Ariel to spend her youth. Anyone who doesn’t think the club is a vital part of this community should think twice,” she says. “That club was the savior for me.”