by Jeanne Albanese
Without the Town Shop, my life was a dull gray. Now it shines with beautiful colors.
Shannon Bower-Portal, former Town Shop participant
Thank you for all the opportunities to view the world outside the box, giving the kids a broader view and a calm place to be themselves.
Susanne and Bob Gemmill, parents of current participant, Sarah
I cannot fully express the esteem I hold for David and Cheryl Vermilya. Even though running the Town Shop is their job, I feel it is more their calling. Their enthusiasm and selfless dedication to the town’s youth is immeasurable. They have contributed to the personal growth of my son by introducing him to the importance of community service and being a part of the community. My son has become a confident and socially conscious individual due to their influence.
Susan M. Czerwinski, parent of former participant
These words – and thousands more like them – sustain Cheryl Vermilya.
A box filled with more than 800 letters and poems from teens and their parents gives testimony to the profound influence Cheryl and her husband, Dave Vermilya, have had on the teens of Camillus for the past four decades. As co-directors of the Town Shop Youth Center, the Vermilyas have provided opportunity, adventure and a safe haven for any and all teens who walk through the door at 67 Main St. They’ve done it – together – since the center’s doors opened in 1971.
They work constantly: afternoons and evenings at the center, nights and weekends on cross-country ski treks, camping trips or volunteer outings. Through the years, they’ve weathered the storms of working in youth development: battling negative perceptions of teens, handling budget cuts and dealing with the typical ups and downs that come with the teen years. Cheryl’s box of writings helps her through those stressful days.
“What these expressions, thoughts, do for me is buoy my spirit,” Cheryl said. “I don’t think truthfully you could do a job like ours without that constant buoying.”
Working side-by-side with her spouse provides another constant lift.
Cheryl and Dave, both 60, met during their senior year at Hobart and William Smith colleges. They married six months later, the day before their graduation, in the campus chapel. Cheryl majored in Latin and sociology, Dave in political science. Working with youths never crossed either of their minds.
They were living in Geneva and both working after graduation when Dave’s father called to tell them a new youth center was opening in Camillus and to suggest he apply for the director’s job. Not wanting to disappoint his father but having no real interest in the job, Dave and Cheryl drove in for his interview. They were greeted by 40 eager and intelligent teens who conducted the interview.
“I left that interview with a completely changed attitude and heart about that job,” Dave said. “The kids asked us great questions.”
Shortly after they returned to Geneva, the couple got the call – they were both hired.
“I think working with your spouse as an equal is probably pretty unusual,” Dave said. “It’s been good. We each bring strengths of personality to different aspects of it.”
“It’s really not hard,” Cheryl said. “It is great to love your husband, but I admire and respect him amazingly.”
After 39 years of marriage, they call each other pie – shortened from cutie or sweetie pie – at work and they say they don’t argue. Their one rule is that all work talk must stop when they cross over the Thruway on their drive home.
When the Town Shop opened in 1971, even those involved didn’t think it would last more than a handful of years. But it filled a need for teens searching for involvement, acceptance and just a place to hang out. And, just as quickly, Dave and Cheryl got hooked on the work.
“Youth work- frankly, it chose me,” Cheryl said. “That’s how I think of it when I think of my life. It chose me. Then at some point very quickly it felt like an adventure and then next it felt like a wonderful adventure and that’s what it has continued to be, an adventure with trials and tribulations and smooth, snowy peaks of trust and love.”
Dave said he felt more secure in the job as each year passed. When the center made it to 10 then 15 years, it didn’t feel as fragile. The community supported it, and teens loved it. Still, Cheryl figured she’d have to quit at 40 because at that age, she’d be out of touch with teens.
“Then one day I realized it doesn’t matter your age or how you look or how you dress,” Cheryl said. “If you give teenagers or other human beings trust and throw in a little affection that’s sincere, it doesn’t matter.”
That’s a vibe- most any teen will tell you – they don’t get from many adults. Cheryl, with no children of her own, has been called a mother figure to hundreds of teens. But that’s not how she sees it.
“When a teen comes in the front door, I don’t judge them,” Cheryl said. “I see the light or the beauty in them. I feel like they’re my equal, though I know I have much more wisdom than they do. I think of them as friends.”
Dakota Bateman, 14, would agree. She said she rarely sees the Vermilyas get frustrated or angry with the teens.
“Dave and Cheryl are just amazing adults you don’t really find,” Bateman said. “You don’t see a lot of people that are willing to run a place for teenagers, who are probably the people that get the least amount of respect in the community.”
That openness helps contribute to the welcoming atmosphere of the center. Teens can drop in any time after school to play ping pong, pool or foosball, watch TV, listen to music and have a cup of coffee. One floor of the center is devoted to the teens’ artwork and photography. The center hosts open mic nights for teens to sing and read poetry.
Bateman describes herself as different from most teens and said she had one friend before she started participating in the Town Shop. Now, she’s got plenty and she’s involved in her community through the program’s volunteer efforts. It has made her calmer and more accepting, she said.
“When I went to the Town Shop, it’s like a family there,” Bateman adds. “Everyone pretty much accepted me.”
Much more programming happens outside the center. Weekly volunteer outings send teens to the Samaritan Center to serve meals or to the fairgrounds to work on a horse rescue program or outside to clean up Onondaga Creek. Adventure outings could mean kayaking, camping or skiing or attending a folk music festival. Every year, the Vermilyas take teens to Cape Cod and go whale watching. The teens are involved in just about every aspect of the planning.
For the Vermilyas, the rewards far outweigh the stresses. Watching teens come into their own, try something new, express themselves and feel proud of their efforts all add up to a great day’s work. Dave describes a recent moonlit cross-country ski outing to Beaver Lake Nature Center. Three teens on the trip had never been skiing before. They didn’t know how they’d do. By the end of the night, Dave could feel their excitement.
“You could just feel it,” Dave said. “It was palpable. They were pumped up. They could have stayed home and watched the Grammys, but they took a chance. I feel good when I see that and when I experience that.”
Source: The Post-Standard