At the YMCA in downtown Berkeley, it is possible to have the monthly membership fee waived if you volunteer four hours per week per month.
I became a member of the Berkeley Y in February of 2003, but I didn’t decide to volunteer there until October of 2010. I was asked to volunteer in Child Watch, where parents leave their kids for a couple of hours while they go work out elsewhere in the building.
I started volunteering two hours per week on November 7, 2010. It was the first very rainy day of the season and the place was packed. The first three children I took care of were a five month old boy, an eighteen month old girl and a year old girl. Shortly after Thanksgiving I started working there on Thursday mornings for two more hours. I had the help of a lot of the paid staff, most of whom I considered my mentors. They had been at Child Watch from anywhere between ten and twenty years. They had started when their children were small. I enjoyed working with the Sunday staff who were from places such as Iraq, Iran, Sri Lanka and Algeria. Thursdays were a different story. My first Thursday, December 3, 2010, started off poorly and things went downhill from there. There were three women who were paid staff, with whom it was hard to maintain a pleasant work environment. They started on the first day, when I was accused of taking a child away from one of them, which wasn’t the case. They all reacted in an angry manner toward me in front of the children and the other staff.
Over the next year or so, I continued to have problems with these three women due to their criticisms of the way I took care of the kids. When I addressed the problems with my Thursday shift leader and the director of child supervision programs, they were not critical of my behavior or the other staff, explaining away the conflicts by advising, “There are a lot of different personalities. That’s what makes working at Child Watch beautiful.” To my mind this came under the category of a New Age Berkeley style response.
As I continued to work there, I found out that there was a lot of favoritism practiced by the supervisors, by favoring the paid staff over the volunteers. For example one staff member, whose hobby was photography, took photos of one child, with the permission of a mother, although as I was to learn shortly, it was against Y policy for any staff or volunteers to photograph children who came to Child Watch. In the spring of 2012, for my midterm project, as a student of photography at Berkeley City College, I wanted to make a photography project with various Child Watch children as the subject, of course with their parents’ permission. When I asked the director of the child supervision programs if this was okay, I was told it wasn’t. It didn’t seem right to me that another staff member was allowed to take pictures and post the photographs on the Internet, but I wasn’t. It was just as imbalanced as allowing some paid staff to take care of children outside of the Y, although another Child Watch rule is that no one is to care for children who come to the Child Watch outside of the Y, due to liability related issues, yet I knew this went on, because staff members talked about caring for children outside of the Y in my presence.
The one woman whom I had the most trouble with exhibited many disturbing behaviors. In late 2010/early 2011, she bragged to the parents and staff about getting into arguments with strangers in public. On September 24, 2011, she stopped talking to me or looking at me all of a sudden when we attended a compulsory all-staff meeting. (I don’t know why she stopped talking or looking at me, as she was communicating with other staff.) When I brought this up, the shift leader told me to wait her silence out. Three months later, when things still hadn’t changed, we agreed to transfer my hours to Friday mornings starting in January of 2012, at a time she would not be working. However our hours did coincide one Sunday in February of 2012, while she was subbing for another staff member. Her ex-husband came into Child Watch and she started a verbal altercation with him in front of their five year old child, the staff and the other children. I had a fifteen-month-old girl in my arms. The shift leader did nothing to stop them so I told them to “take it outside.” They continued their argument. When the shift leader, who is Chinese, told her she was needed at the Child Watch front desk, she replied, “You go do that in China,” a phrase which I had heard her say before, and perhaps was her idea of a joke. A couple of the staff members laughed. This was the woman who had abused her husband in front of everybody, a clear sign of insubordination.
In June of 2011, the supervisors and shift leaders called peer review meetings. The three women I had problems with, while working at Child Watch on Thursday mornings, got into it with each other verbally. The woman, who six months before had told me I was taking a child away from her, was yelled at by the other two women about how she would take babies away from them and other people. The Thursday shift leader and director of child supervision programs sat there letting them argue with each other. The woman apologized at the meeting to these two women, but that exchange didn’t change her behavior. But at least I learned all of their behaviors were not only directed at me.
The supervisors told me I was one of the more reliable people volunteering hours at Child Watch and I even often subbed for other volunteers, in addition to my regular four hours. During the summer of 2011, I subbed for one young woman on Wednesdays from 10-2 while she out of the country for two months, so that I was working eight hours per week. We had agreed that she was to cover my shifts in the fall. However that didn’t happen. The volunteer coordinator told me that it was unrealistic for me to expect her to sub for me.
After that I was very careful about who I would sub for.
There were other problems that continued to occur. Many staff workers enjoyed talking on the job. Sometimes they would sit in rocking chairs, holding infants in their arms, while talking, and these conversations would even take precedence over their responsibilities to watch over the children. I know this because I often had to supervise five or six toddlers by myself, which meant that I had to make sure they didn’t take each others’ food at the snack table, plus make sure that they were safely playing with toys or on the mini play structure. In general I was the one changing the most diapers, but more so when they got into these conversations. When I brought this up at the Sunday peer review meeting in June of 2011, the director of child supervision programs dismissed their behavior saying, “That’s their culture.” These people were from other countries.
The director of child supervision programs and the shift leaders had suggested having mini potlucks for all the staff during Child Watch hours. When another staff member and I mentioned that we shouldn’t do anything that would distract us from taking care of the children, or have food in an area where children might be able to get into it, as we were not to offer food to children other than what their parents provided, one of the staff members yelled at us, denying that she was talking with others at any time. Again, the Sunday shift leader and the supervisor did not acknowledge this disagreement. (Note the Y’s Volunteer Coordinator or other administrative personnel above the Child Watch staff never attended these meetings and were rarely seen in the Child Watch space.) Eventually, enough people complained about the potluck scheduling that they decided to have gatherings after Child Watch hours. However, the talking amongst the paid staff while working continued. Actually the volunteers seemed more consistently focused on the children, and this was not the only place Y personnel stood around chatting on the job. In the shallow pool there is so much socializing among untrained lifeguards that the rules of the pool are not enforced, such as making sure everyone takes a shower before entering the pool, and the patrons often have to inform new patrons of the pool etiquette. In the lap pool, swimmers don’t obey the designated speed signs for lanes, and even when the lanes are crowded, lifeguards do not intervene to help resolve the discomfort of swimmers going at different speeds.
Since I had been complimented for being so reliable, and working so well with the parents and children, I hoped that I would be rewarded by becoming a paid staff member. I filled out the application in the Spring of 2012, only to be told that they weren’t hiring paid staff and wouldn’t be doing any hiring for a while. Even though they didn’t say how long this would be, I decided to bide my time as I really enjoyed being with the children. I enjoyed them smiling at me, hearing them say my name for the first time, watching them paint and draw, and reading books to them. I really liked watching the children grow from infants to toddlers and into two-year-olds. Two year old boys playing with each other is very cute. I also became friendly with some of the parents.
Another difficulty resulted because of an ongoing problem of some staff not showing up for their shift hours and not arranging to have people cover for them. This problem started in February of 2012 and continued throughout the summer. As a result, in the room for older children, two through seven years, I was frequently left by myself, where I had to supervise the art table, the snack table and the loft, an area like a little apartment where children four and older are allowed to go, but where those younger than four have to have an adult with them. Sometimes there were fifteen to twenty children present in this older children’s area, and always at least ten or so. Even more complicated, if a child needed a diaper changed, I would have to find someone from the front desk to supervise the other children. Meanwhile, even with these attendance numbers, some paid staff remained in the baby area, talking to each other, even when there were only two babies in that area.
From early March through early April of 2012 I spent a lot of time traveling and I had trouble getting people to sub for me. But when I was there, one staff member, who was working well into her pregnancy, was evidently often not feeling well. She would sit in a chair in the infant and toddlers’ room, in a “woe is me” position, and not do her part in caring for any of the children, including her own six year old, whom she allowed to play roughly, throwing around a large plastic dragon that almost hit a baby in the head, who was resting in my arms. When I asked the older child to be careful, his mother denied that he was doing anything wrong, and continued to sit in the chair. One parent, observing this, was concerned about bringing her own child into the space. So I suggested the staff member’s child and his friend go play in the older children’s room instead of remaining with the infants and toddlers. The child finally left the room when a shift leader showed up and told him to go play with the older children. These problems were “addressed” in our June 3, 2012 all-staff meeting. Nothing really changed in people’s behaviors, however, except that the pregnant woman stopped bringing her older child to work with her.
In June of 2012, the director of child supervision programs informed the paid staff that due to the cost overruns on the renovations of the Shallow Pool that was closed from September of 2010 until January of 2011, Grace’s Pool that was closed from February of 2011 until August of 2011, (it was supposed to reopen in June of 2011), the downstairs women’s locker room that was closed from August of 2011 until December of 2011, (it was supposed to reopen in November of 2011), and the downstairs men’s locker room that was closed between May of 2012 until August of 2012, plus the regular maintenance of the Lap Pool, both in November of 2010 and May of 2012, (which as a long-term patron, I call the ‘two-year inconvenience’ because the renovations and the corrections for errors made in the renovations-- such as needing to redesign and reinstall the staircase in the shallow pool to accommodate disabled patrons’ needs (so the pool was closed again the entire month of September, 2011)-- the combined changes continued to require the Y’s members to be inconvenienced between the fall of 2010 and the fall of 2012), the Y had gone over their budget and therefore, the paid staff was going to have to accept cuts to their hours and their pay. I am sure this was disheartening to all the paid staff, but it was also disheartening to me because I knew that my becoming a paid staff member in the future went from a slim possibility to a none possibility. Their solution to maintaining adequate coverage was to “hire” more volunteers, as they termed it. But I continued to volunteer anyway, because I did enjoy being with those children and their parents.
In August of 2012 things took a turn for the worst. Out of the blue my Friday shift leader asked me if I would be willing to phase out of Child Watch and start working with older children in Fit Kids, a program for children ages six to thirteen. My Friday shift leader advised that I was “jeopardizing the other children” by favoring one child over the others. (This did not make sense as all staff, including this shift leader, spoke about their favorites, and they would joke with each other, “So and so your friend is here.”) He said this to me in front of the child and the other children. This was especially weird to me, as I had been praised by him for many months on how well I was taking care of the children.
The major incident happened in September when I called the front desk and requested that the parents of young babies not be allowed to come into the downstairs women’s locker room because the mothers blocked peoples’ access to their lockers and used the disabled benches as changing tables. The lifeguards would also let them into the shallow pool ten minutes before their swim class was scheduled to begin and they would hover over the adult swim/walk patrons.
The volunteer coordinator called me the next day. She said the branch director had decided that she couldn’t have someone work in Child Watch that “didn’t like children” and I was not to be invited back to Child Watch. Note I had never met the branch director. Nor had I seen this person anywhere at the Y, including the Child Watch rooms. I believe she was judging something that she knew nothing about. I suspect that there is so much anxiety among the Y staff that any disagreement with the administration, no matter how incompetent, is crushed.
If she had met me she would have known that I enjoyed the children and that the parents, staff, and some of the shift leaders had often praised me for how well I took care of the children. This happened a week before I went to Jerusalem. The volunteer coordinator had a meeting with me the day before I left for Jerusalem, and she said she felt the branch director was overreacting to my situation because of some other unrelated incident with another volunteer in another department of the Y. She and I hoped that things would turn around when she talked things over with the branch director. However, this did not happen. The day after I returned from Jerusalem turned out to be my last day. The volunteer coordinator had a meeting with me and told me that the branch director would not let me return. She brought up mistakes I had made in the past, such as favoring the baby area over the older children’s area (even though I had made a conscious effort to change, and there were some paid staff and volunteer who regularly favored one area over the other).
Since my membership fee was waived for volunteering at Child Watch, the volunteer coordinator asked me if I was interested in filing and cutting out Halloween decorations to maintain my hours. Before my trip she had asked if I would like to become a tutor and since I replied I was interested, she said I could start training after I returned. The tutoring option was not mentioned again. I said “no” to the option of filing and cutting out Halloween decorations, so I was told that my membership would expire at the end of September.
I decided not to return to the Y. I was not able to say goodbye to the staff, parents and children. I wasn’t the only one being punished by the branch director. The staff, other volunteers, parents and children were being punished as well. The best-case scenario is that the branch director didn’t think about that. The worst-case scenario is that she simply didn’t care and was just pretending that she valued customer service. I’m pretty sure that some of the children felt like I abandoned them. The Y, even though it is a non-profit, operates in a very corporate manner.
I eventually was able to speak with some of the parents who said that they were sorry that I was let go, that I had taken very good care of their children, and that they noticed that there was a lot of turnaround at Child Watch, particularly with the volunteers. One mother said that when she couldn’t get her child to go with her to the Y, if she told him I was going to be there, he was willing to come. Another mother said her child asked to see me, calling my name. During my almost two years of working at Child Watch as a volunteer, several people told me not to let the shift leaders, director of child supervision programs and the volunteer coordinator take advantage of me. I should have listened.
Tennessee Reed is the author of five books of poetry, most recently, New and Selected Poems, 1982-2011 (World Parade Books, 2012) and a memoir, Spell Alburquerque, Memoir of a “Difficult” Student (Counter Punch and AK Press, 2009)