by Zachary V. Zagger
Cheryl Vermilya sat at the dining room table on the third floor of the Town Shop Youth Center cutting cloves of garlic for a future meal or cooking lesson. She was still indignant.
Only recently a man getting coffee next door accused her of “cooking the books” for the Town Shop, which she and her husband have run for the past 36 years. She was infuriated by the accusations, but tried to stay calm. She told of the volunteer work the teens do around the village of Camillus, at places like the St. Paul’s Samaritan Center, the Sunshine Horse Rescue and soup kitchens in Syracuse.
But she said the man was not appeased. At the next village board meeting, he stood up and said Cheryl had approached him, angry and yelling. She was not at all happy how he portrayed her to the community.
“Where does this depth of hatred come from?” she asked. “I don’t know.”
Teens Not A “Problem”
Since the Town Shop opened in 1971, the Vermilyas have understood that some dislike the Town Shop because it sits on the main street. But the Town Shop has been at its current location for almost its entire 36-year history, and Dave and Cheryl think the teens are not the problem some portray them as.
“They’re nice kids but they are not the athletes or the national honor society students for the most part,” Dave said. “But they are still good kids, kids who in other places are under served.”
Some have told the Vermilyas the teen center is bad for local business. Others have said they just do not like the look of the teens standing outside the building.
“Is this not America?” Cheryl asked. “Can’t people stand on the street and talk?”
Whatever the criticism, Dave and Cheryl just use it as motivation to continue.
“They are wrong and some of them border on evil,” Cheryl said. “I would never let evil win out.”
But they believe most in Camillus support the center and their efforts. The Town Shop depends on taxpayer money and state grants. Whenever Dave or Cheryl needs something, the Town board usually comes through.
“Usually towns won’t even try this, and Camillus listened,” Dave said. “It was pretty amazing and in hindsight, looking back, it was brilliant, letting young people in right from the beginning on the creative process, from interviewing the staff to picking the building.”
Dave and Cheryl have been married for 37 years. For 36 of those years, they have run the Town Shop. Working with one another is the glue that has kept the couple at the teen center, at least for Cheryl.
“I get to be with someone that I love,” she said. “And the best part of it is that I love and respect him.”
As a current Town Shop participant Garrett Koloski put it: “The Town Shop is Dave and Cheryl.”
A Place To Go
The Town Shop sits in a three-story, red brick building on Main Street in the village of Camillus. The building – more than 100 years old — is believed to be an old Pony Express office. The bottom floor houses ping pong, foosball and pool tables. Local teens look relaxed and comfortable sitting on the worn in furniture, watching TV and drinking coffee. A walk up to the third floor engulfs visitors in the thick aroma of incense. The third floor’s walls display the artwork of Town Shop teens dating 30 years back. Sheet blankets emblazoned with Eastern motifs swoop down from the high-arched tile ceiling.
Dave keeps ambient music constantly emanating from the large amps and speakers draped with Christmas lights. Koloski approaches Dave with the new Nirvana album and Dave excitedly glances over the cover.
“Can I borrow this to make a copy?” he asks. His album collection is already extensive.
For Dave, it is not just about providing a place for teens to go; it is about building relationships.
“I think many of them might say it is significant to have adults in your life who are not your parents or school teachers, and you’re on a first name basis with,” he said. “Someone you really have this sort of friendship relationship with. It’s significant to have adults who are interested in your life and want to know your story.”
And the teens feel comfortable talking with Dave or Cheryl.
“They treat you like you are the same age,” said Logan Messina, 15, a high school sophomore. “They don’t talk to you like they’re your parents; they treat you like an equal.”
Koloski agreed. “They don’t talk down to us,” he said. “It’s kind of like home, only better.”
Dave and Cheryl have created an atmosphere for the teens where they do not feel the peer pressure and stress that exists in school.
“There are no cliques here,” said Steve Burnham, 18. “Everyone knows everyone.”
There are no rules posted in the Town Shop, and that is how Cheryl likes it. Many teen centers post large signs of with the rules. Instead, Cheryl sits down with every new teen and goes over the Town Shop etiquette with them.
“They are here to supervise but not here to enforce,” Burnham said.
“My Backbone As A Teenager”
Travis Ingersoll, 30, lives in Philadelphia but grew up in Camillus. He often frequented the Town Shop. Travis’ father abandoned his family, leaving his mother a single parent and forcing him to cope with his own personal problems, while basically raising his siblings.
He struggled in school and was advised to just drop out and earn a GED. Dave and Cheryl were important mentors to Ingersoll while he fought his way through such a tough young adult life.
“Basically they were like my backbone as a teenager,” Ingersoll said. “Dave and Cheryl alone, as people without the Town Shop, are two of the most positive influences in my life.”
“And the Town Shop, without being involved in that, I don’t know what I would have done if I didn’t have that as a resource because based on my background, limited amount of resources that my mom had as a single parent,” he continued.
“They brought me everywhere, large trips. They introduced me to volunteering at soup kitchens and helping out the elderly and a million other things, Habitat for Humanity, cleaning up roadsides, and it gave me a sense of accomplishment and that I can contribute to the world. Where before I never had that feeling.”
Ingersoll eventually went to college at SUNY Buffalo, and has since earned a master’s degree in social work. He is currently working toward a doctorate in education with a specialization in human sexuality at Widener University in Philadelphia. When he finishes, he plans to go into therapy, helping people deal with sexual trauma.
“They shaped me into being a human service professional,” Ingersoll said. “I wouldn’t be doing what I am doing today if I hadn’t met Dave and Cheryl or became a participant at the Town Shop.”
Dave and Cheryl still stay in close contact with Travis and take pride in knowing that he and other Town Shop participants are making positive contributions to their communities.
“It is the purpose of a youth development program like this to support the kids in a way the schools can’t,” Dave said. “There are always those students who fall through the cracks of functionality or they don’t do well enough in school. So they don’t get the encouragement to make it. We can look back at so many people from the past who we are still in contact with and they let us know what they are doing. And we are amazed at what they have done with their lives and we feel that we had a part in that.”
Love At First Sight
When Cheryl met Dave in her senior year at Hobart and William Smith Colleges she fell in love with him at first sight.
“I saw David on campus and little bells went off in my head, and I knew he was the one,” she said.
Dave was into reptiles at the time and on their first date Dave asked her if she wanted to come up to his room to see his lizard. Cheryl, not understanding his intent, was taken aback.
“I thought ‘who does he think I am?’” she said. “I mean I just transferred from Catholic college.”
The couple married on campus June 13, 1970, the day before graduation, to celebrate with their college friends. They moved into a small apartment in Geneva and Dave took a job as an agricultural researcher for Cornell University.
“We were like little hippies in those days – we wanted to live close to the earth. I in fact we still do,” Dave said. “But we viewed it as a temporary situation.”
About a year later, Dave received the news that would inevitably change his and Cheryl’s lives. His father told him about a teen center opening in Camillus that was looking for a director. Out of respect for his father, who gave him the referral, the couple made the hour-long drive to Camillus on a snowy February night with little intention of even accepting the job. Waiting to conduct the interview, much to their surprise, was a group of almost 50 teens.
“They were at the time only looking for one director, but by then we had been married less than a year,” Dave said. “We were inseparable and I was the applicant, but Cheryl accompanied me everywhere I went. The kids asked all the questions. There were adults present but if there were 50 people, there were 44 kids and six adults, maybe. We were told that everyone in the room had an equal vote, which was pretty amazing. And we thought the kids asked great questions.”
“We were really impressed with all the high school students. They were really only a little bit younger than us.”
Dave and Cheryl made an immediate connection. It was as if they were meant to go to the interview.
“One young woman followed us out to our Volkswagon Beetle, and came over and gave us a hug. She said I hope you two get the job, even though it was only one of us applying. She and they could see that we came as a team.”
A week later they were offered the job. Ever since, the Town Shop has consumed both their lives, to the point that most people they know were somehow involved with it. And most of their lifelong friendships have grown out of it too, which Cheryl appreciates.
“I am so lucky that every friend I have is some way associated with the Town Shop,” she said. “They’re like gifts to have been able to meet them. That’s why I am still here.”
Still, Dave is astonished that he and his wife are still directing the center.
“No one could have dreamed in 1971 that we would be sitting here 36 years later still managing a place like this,” he said. “In fact the anticipation was two years, maybe two and a half. Projects like this just didn’t have longevity.”
An Attack Generates Support
In the early 90s a town board member attacked the Town Shop saying that there was nothing anyone could say to prove to him that it had ever benefited anyone. According to Dave and Cheryl, this attacker had never set foot in the building. They decided to write an editorial in the local newspaper to emphasize the value the Town Shop has to the community. The story prompted letters of support, and former Town Shop teens from all over the country joined the campaign. Over 450 letters swarmed the local government mailbox.
“Sometimes I think about what’s our legacy,” Dave said. “I’d love our legacy to be that in another 30 years I’ll be almost 90 and that I could maybe come through this village and still see this place functioning.”
“But even if that didn’t happen, even after we leave and someone else isn’t able to keep this place alive, which I hope is not the case,” he continued. “But even after 36 years, there’s a struggle involved. I think our legacy is all these young people who have gone on with their lives to do wonderful things and make contributions to the world, and to know that we had a small part in supporting them as they were developing.”
The board member made his first trip to the Town Shop to ask Dave and Cheryl to call off the campaign, but there was nothing they could do. The generations of Town Shop teens were determined to defend their former mentors and friends, Dave and Cheryl.
Cheryl still keeps all the letters and wishes to be buried with them.
“I’m sure I can get into heaven a hair faster if those letters are with me,” she said.
Remembering the letters, she smiled, fighting back tears in her eyes.
“Sometimes I pull some of the letters out and read them. I think, uh oh, this is why I am here. It’s a God thing.”
Zachary V. Zagger is a student at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. This article is part of a series of profiles written by Newhouse students for Eagle Newspapers. To read the entire series, go online to cnylink.com and click on “Familiar faces.”