It was a typical day in my elementary after school program.
I was the newly appointed Site Coordinator after 5 years of being a line staff program leader working with 20 youth at the same school. I remember how excited I was to be promoted to the Site Coordinator position. I felt like for the first time someone had recognized my talent in working with youth. I remember how I felt when I received my staff collared polo shirt; line staff wore regular t-shirts. Somehow the collar told everyone around the school that I was the person in charge.
I remember getting a master key for the school from the school principal; she let me know how important it was for me to not loose it and the costs and consequences if I did. I received my own mailbox in the teacher’s lounge, next to all of the credentialed teachers and certificated staff. Needless to say I felt I had finally made it in after school. It was hard to stay humble those first couple of weeks, until the day that changed my life in a profound way.
I remember this day like it was yesterday even though it was October 10, 2002.
The school principal came to speak to me in the multi-purpose room with a student standing next to her. As she approached, I noticed that the youth was visibly upset, his fists clinched to the side of his body, with a look that I was familiar with from my upbringing. I knew exactly what it meant and that this could escalate very quickly.
She told me that Salvador had been kicked out of every program that he had been in, that he was failing in school, that he could not pass any single test, that his attitude was out of control and that she wanted to enroll Salvador in my after school program as a last chance. If he got kicked out of my program, he would get no more chances from the school.
I was shocked and definitely not prepared for this.
I could not believe that she was saying all of this right in front of him. All of my training and work in youth development had not prepared me to deal with Salvador nor with the principal. I was definitely out of my league. So I asked Salvador to please go sit with the rest of the 4th grade class in the program. He looked at me with his fists still clenched and let me know in his own words that he did not want to be part of my program or this school. I asked him again to try it out for the day and that we could chat about this after the program.
After the program, I spoke briefly to him about his day and as he was leaving, he says: “I don’t want to be here and I am going to steal your car.” I did not know what to say nor do as I was frozen and shocked. He left without saying another word.
The next day to my surprise Salvador shows up to my program after school with a black horn in his hands.
He walks straight to me, hands me the horn and says: ” See, I told you I can steal your car.” I asked him what this was and he quickly responded that it was my car alarm. I could not believe it. We went outside with the horn in my hands to where my small Toyota pickup was parked right outside the school office. I kept pushing my car alarm remote and nothing was sounding. I opened the hood and to my surprise, it was indeed the horn to my car alarm as I could see the space where it was supposed to go with the wires hanging out. I was furious. He looks at me and says: “Are you going to kick me out now?”
I had to pause for a moment. I realized that in my 23 years of life I had not had to make many life-changing decisions. Looking back at the entire situation this was definitely a life-changing moment for me, although I would not realize it at the time. Similar to the decisions I would later make such as getting married, having children and finishing my degree, among others; decisions that would impact the rest of life and would shape my career and who I am as a person.
Nobody can fully prepare a Site Coordinator to make these types decisions. It is the difference between doing things right and doing the right thing. My collared polo shirt and master key to the school did not prepare me for this.
After a moment I thought about the opportunities I had been given in my life, the chances that people took with me, the great teachers and mentors that I had and so I turned to him and told him that not only was I not going to kick him out of the program but instead I was personally going to work with him because based on what he had done with my car, he would be great in projects that I would find for us to do together. Right then and there, his whole demeanor changed. He relaxed his body and the look in his eyes was different.
Right then and there, I had gained his respect.
From that moment on, he came to the program each and every day. Never wanting to go home when his mom came to pick him up early from the program. He was a different kid. A leader in his cluster at the after school program, improved his grades and social skills during the school day. Completely different kid than the one all the teachers always talked about. We were all excited for him. He spent 3 years in my after school program. He asked me to go to his 6th grade graduation.
He asked to take a picture with me holding his certificate. He was so proud that day. Needless to say that I was promoted yet again that summer, moved to administrative roles within the after school program. I did not see nor hear about Salvador until two years ago when my phone ranged and a deep voice said: “Mr. Bruno, do you know who this is? It is Salvador from your after school program. Is there a way that I can speak with you about going to college?” I remembered holding my car alarm horn in my hands and then I remembered holding his 6th grade certificate. 10 years had passed and he was now 20 years old. He told me that he wanted to go to college and play baseball. The problem he had was that his family did not believe in college nor encouraged anything other than for him to get a job and help pay the bills.
He said that he did not have anyone that he could speak with about college and that he knew that I would answer the phone. This is when I realized that my career in after school was a success. I realized that I had made an impact on at least one student. I also realized how much this program and this one student had made an impact on me.
I always think about the struggles that Site Coordinators go through each and every day.
They are essentially the school principal during the after school hours, they are the keepers of safety not only for their students but also their staff. They handle timesheets, payroll, meals, they provide professional development, advice, encouragement; they are the connection between the parents and the school.
They are coordinators, event planners, mentors, managers, marketing directors; they are the most important person on an after school program simply because they have access to all the key stakeholders on a daily basis; the students, the parents, the staff, the teachers and principal, the school support staff, and have influence over program and school decision makers. I am not sure if anyone tells them any of this when they get a master key and a collared shirt but they are the keepers of the success of after school programs not only in their neighborhoods and communities but also throughout their state.
They are the key piece to the puzzle.
I have made a career in after school and as I continue to move up the ladder in different positions, I have never encountered a decision or situation that was more difficult than my time as a Site Coordinator. I cherish that time and I take it with me. I have never forgotten that feeling of my first speech to new staff on the first day back from summer. I have never forgotten that feeling of going to the dollar store with $80 dollars which $30 of them were my own personal money right before the program and trying to buy things to create a program carnival for 80 kids.
I have never forgotten that whenever I told a parent that my program was full and there was no room for their child and that they would have to go on a waiting list, that the decision that I had just made an impact on that entire family’s disposable income as they now needed to pay for child care or possibly stop working full time. I have never forgotten that one time a child went missing from the program because they decided to walk to the park after school instead of checking in to the program and their parents did not know where they were.
I have never forgotten that one child, Salvador.
As you read this, all I ask is this…Do you think you know what a former student would say if they called you ten years from now and said: “Because of you I…”
For breakfast this morning I had a protein shake.