Yonkers Family YMCA
At the beginning of 2009 I was on top of the world. I had two jobs that I enjoyed doing very much and I was getting good grades at Westchester Community College. By the end of the month I was jobless due to downsizing and the eventual closing of both of my places of employment. In November of the same year I took a community service based internship with the AmeriCorps Future Leaders Program. Sponsored by the Community Service Act of 1992 signed by Bill Clinton, AmeriCorps sends volunteers to communities in the hopes of bettering it. At the time I thought it had just be another way of making money and I’d be placed in an area where I could skate by without being noticed. I had been hired because of a recommendation from a hometown native whom I’d earned the respect of by being charming, earnest, and ambitious while working at a local mom and pop run video rental store.
When I interviewed for my position at Americorps I was amazed at the level of thoroughness involved in their selection process. While I sat and went through my resume with my soon to be boss I absent-mindedly schmoozed and doled out the Mike Rosa charm that had landed me in her office to begin with. Smiles and a detailed highlight reel of my life were my keys to success. I would not let any bumps in the road keep me from becoming employed again. My resume was built for childcare, and at the time my major was elementary education, so when she told me that I would be placed at the Yonkers Family YMCA afterschool program, I was neither surprised nor fazed by the decision. Another job another dollar, it was no big deal. I was employed again and that’s all that mattered. Leaving her office would be my first steps to becoming the compassionate human being that I am now. Yonkers and its residents would change my life forever but at the time I didn’t have the slightest clue.
Fast-forward two months and I’m racing from Westchester Community College to the Yonkers Family YMCA. In my little ’98 Saturn wagon I could push seventy-five mph in the snow and ice and make it to the Y without thinking twice. With Danny Byrd blaring through my speakers and the cold wind flowing through my hair I was Batman racing to the City of Yonkers to aid forty-five children off their school buses and into the warm embraces of the YMCA. Forty-five screaming children bent on destroying the YMCA.
Work is work, and like any other job I was unhappy with the meager $200 bi-weekly stipend I had been receiving from Americorps. My foot grows lighter but the rest of me grows heavier. As I pull myself out of my car, it transforms from the Batmobile, to just another hunk of junk that I’m unhappy with. I was 19 and $100 a week was a ridiculous concept to me considering the amount of work I did five days a week for four hours a day. My journey to Yonkers always left me conflicted as I stepped out of my car and walked through the graffiti scrawled walls and poorly paved streets of Yonkers. The dismal feeling of regret I felt in taking this job, coupled with the fear of possibly getting my coat stolen right off my back with every turned corner made every step towards the Y swift and tactful. With every step that regret grew heavier on the back of my neck. I could hear my wallet weeping and my stomach roaring through the loud crunch of the snow under my old and worn Timberland boots. I rehearsed with authority the same 3 catch phrases that I was going to end up repeating thousands of times over the course of the evening. “Have a seat please”, “Keep your hands to yourself please”, and my personal favorite, “Don’t put that in your mouth!”
As I got closer to the Y I could smell Ms. Daisy’s meatloaf, rice and beans. My steps start to feel lighter as I hear her and Ms. Daina laughing through the colorfully decorated windows of the YMCA’s dining room. The decorations and laughter remind me that it was my team of counselors and I that guided our children through making the place more colorful and welcoming. That thought alone makes me smile and just like that I start to feel lighter.
Up the steps and into the Y, Ray a nine-year-old boy whose bus dropped him off early everyday, playfully exclaims, attacks me “I win again Mike!” I pat his head and hang up my coat. We get a plate of food while I ask Ms. Daisy how her weekend was. We sit together and he tries to guess the word of the day and I tell him (like I tell him everyday) that it’s a surprise. The two of us wait for the other counselors and children to arrive, so we can begin those long 4 hours of pushing, pulling, and pointing. My own tension rises in anticipation of the evening.
We have 45 children today- full enrollment and it’s about time that we start beginning the word of the day. The children sit at tables that seat 8, in a room that used to be used for aerobics. It is filled with mirrors for them to lose themselves in. With wonder and awe the mirrors that they sit surrounded by every day makes getting their attention a task that is a daily test of my patience. “If you hear me clap once! If you hear me clap twice!! If you hear me clap three times!!!” They all look up smiling at attention, and away we go.
Today’s word of the day is compassion. I explain to the children, or more affectionately, my children, that compassion means recognizing the needs of another person and having the courage and kindness to help them. The word of the day is always a new word to them, but they always understand once it’s given the proper context. I give them examples of what it means to be compassionate, and they tell me ways that they can be more compassionate everyday. Together we chant the word of the day in effort to remember it and just like that it’s time to start working on our homework. I pull out my backpack and set the proper example but there are always stragglers. After I get them into their seats I find my own. A big office chair reserved for Mr. Mike. I take my seat at the front of the room and set up shop.
My first customer is always Arnold. Standing at a mere three feet tall he hops out of his seat everyday at the same time and calls my name from across the room. After getting my attention he dances his way over to me. There’s never any music playing but you can tell by the look in his eyes that he feels it in his heart, and with every shimmy and shake he gets closer and closer to me. Each step widens his smile and mine, and after just a few steps I’ve gotten out of my seat and started to dance and laugh too. However when he gets to my chair, we both understand that it’s time to get down to business.
Homework in hand Arnold begins by rapping his ABC’s ending with, “… w, x, y, to the z!” Together we talk about the long o sound and together we manage to relate the sound to Christmas Day. “OOOOO I GOT AN X-BOX!” he exclaims. He gets it. Next is Timothy. Timothy is the one of the most defiant of the group and getting through to him is always a challenge. He struggles thorough every math problem and didn’t know what a consonant was even though they littered his report card. Today he holds in his hands a spelling test with a big red 100% on it. He smiles a toothless grin and gives me the strongest hug I’ve ever received from any eight year old. His silent smile and forceful embrace mean more to me than any thank you or paycheck ever could. By the end of homework time I’ve forgotten the meanings of stress, weight, and poverty.
The happiness shared at the YMCA was enough for me to forget about the troubles that waited for me and my children outside of the walls of the YMCA. More importantly it made me forget about my own inner turmoil and regret. Regret becomes a six-letter word with no meaning, and my paycheck becomes an unwanted thought and just another piece of homework that Timothy, Ray, and Arnold help me to correct with their innocence and appreciation. The walk to my car is weightless. The only thing that keeps me grounded is the smile that they gave me to keep.