Jeneen Helms never questioned reporting for her next shift as a pool maintenance attendant at Baker Playground after a mass shooting on July 13 at the Overbrook center left seven people wounded. She’d been right there, locking down the pool for the night during a community cookout and basketball tournament, then rushing over to see who needed help after the gunshots stopped.
Two days later, a 19-year-old lifeguard at Vogt Pool was punched in the face in retaliation for a group of swimmers being told to take a few days off for bad behavior. She was back on the job in Mayfair in less than 24 hours.
Now take those stories and multiply them by the troubling and tragic headlines around too many of the city’s rec centers this summer. Wednesday, a man was shot during a pickup basketball game at Mander Rec Center, one of the spots on my poolside newsroom pop-up list.
I’ve popped into quite a few pools so far this summer, and I’m hoping to hit some more before the season ends, but already I know one thing for sure:
Behind those headlines are rec workers who keep coming back, and giving back. Their commitment to kids running out of safe places in this city trumps any fear for their own safety.
I went to visit the lifeguard who was punched. What she told me left me both horrified and heartened.
The Massachusetts Maritime Academy student, who understandably asked me not to use her name, grew up on the swim teams of city pools just like Vogt. They mean a lot to her. Her fellow lifeguards and the kids who swim at Vogt mean a lot to her. She was punched by a relative of a swimmer who’d been disciplined. The swimmer’s mother had called on family members to berate a couple of teenage lifeguards for doing their jobs. The father of another lifeguard was also attacked — by the same group of kids, the lifeguard who was punched believes.
She knows just about every swimmer who shows up at the pool. Even when they get mouthy and unruly, she tries to remember that they’re just kids, and that sometimes they’re dealing with a lot more than anyone can see. She used to bring in an extra sandwich for a little boy who she noticed would spend the whole day at the pool without eating.
As the oldest child of immigrants — her father is from Brazil, her mother from Latvia — she concedes she needs the job. She’s paying her college tuition on her own. But there are other, better-paying jobs out there, and that might allow her to afford a therapist for the anxiety she’s been feeling since the assault.
“I don’t want to have to be scared,” she said, crying.
Still, she chooses to come back. As does Helms, who grew up in and around Baker Playground. And as do so many other rec workers in this city — including Boston Berry, who at a youthful 68 runs the pool over at Lee Cultural Center in West Philly. The legendary lifeguard trained many of the city’s champion swimmers and its lifeguards over 50 years as a city lifeguard.
He stands as an inspiring contradiction when kids tell him, “Black kids don’t swim.”
“Somebody forgot to tell me that,” he likes to tell them, explaining that swimming can open up the world to them, as it did him — starting with a scholarship to Tuskegee.
And Eduardo “Macho” Sanchez, 30, the charming head lifeguard at Waterloo Playground who grew up in the house right behind the pool. Now he recruits neighborhood kids to be lifeguards, including Thalia Fallas, who devoured the training manual Sanchez had left her brother to become the lifeguard in the family.
Sanchez, who’s been at the Fairhill pool for 11 years, has since moved but returns every summer.
“This is my neighborhood,” he says. When the kids are in his pool, he says, they’re his kids.
Sanchez’s and Berry’s pools have been spared from any headlines this summer. Here’s hoping it stays that way.
The lifeguard who was punched takes two buses to her job. She used to walk from the bus stop to the pool every day. Since the assault, she runs, pepper spray in hand. Police are still investigating the incident. The Baker Playground shooting is also under investigation.
But when the pools open, there they are, even after Helms’ mother questioned her return.
The reason is simple for her and so many others.