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As beach season ends, four lifeguards look back at a ‘rebuilding year’

Evanston was rocked earlier this year by an independent report that found “pervasive” sexual misconduct by managers at the city’s six beaches. The report was sparked by a 2020 petition signed by more than 50 women that detailed allegations of sexual harassment at the beaches.

To create a new working culture at the beaches, the city hired Audrey Thompson as Director of Evanston’s Parks and Recreation Department, Michael Callahan as Assistant Director and Timothy Carter as Lakefront Recreational Manager.

“There’s definitely a learning curve,” said Carter, who helped institute new hiring and human resources practices as well as new guidelines and disciplinary rules. “We’re coming off the heels of a dark, dark time for our city and a dark cloud over the lakefront,” he said Saturday.

Carter called 2022 “a rebuilding year” for the beach staff. “And things will be better next year,” he said. “I hope to gain additional staff members and I hope to re-earn the trust of our community, so parents can send their children to work here at the beach office and know that they’re safe.”

A total of 72 lifeguards worked at the lake this year, fewer than in most previous years. Many headed back to college last month. Labor Day is the last day of work for the Evanston lifeguards who remained.

On this final weekend of official beach season, the RoundTable interviewed four lifeguards – two veterans and two “rookies” at the city’s three open beaches. We asked them their thoughts about the beach working environment in the past and the season just ending. Is there a new culture? Do they feel safe? Will they be returning?

Here are edited excerpts of what they had to say.

Zoe Cvetas: “I was 16 years old when I first started working here and the people in charge were mid-20s at least. That was a scary thing.” Credit: Richard Cahan

Zoe Cvetas has worked at Evanston beaches for four years, two years as a lifeguard, one year as a manager and this year as a supervisor. She is a sophomore at Santa Clara University in California and will leave for school soon.

I think the main issue was that the supervisors had a lot of power that they used in not a good way. And it was a very unhealthy work environment. They would PT [physical training: an order to do pushups or run laps to punish lifeguards] people just because they felt like it. So they would make people do things that we call runs or swims just out of spite because they didn’t like that person. It wasn’t for a good reason. I think they took it too far.

This year, we were not able to do any of those things like physical training to the guards, which I totally understand. I think it’s a better work environment. However, it made it a bit difficult to have the guards respect us. Because they weren’t scared of what consequences could happen if they didn’t show up to work or if they didn’t do their job right.

So that’s been a challenge this year. Each morning, we have them come in and they do an in-service, which is either a run or a swim, or work on their skills so that they’re always on top. They can swim in any condition and run in different types of weather so that they’re ready for any type of emergency.

At the end of the year, I think we supervisors all have to talk about what went wrong, what went right and figure out what we can do better. Because a lot of us were in the supervisory position for our first year. Everyone got completely swept out last year.

This year has been a new chapter, someplace that people are excited to come to. They want to come work at the beach because it’s the beach. You’re here hanging out with your friends and getting paid. It’s a great job. But I think with everything coming out in the news last year, it probably scared off a couple of people. My mom was terrified when she saw the news. She asked, “Do you feel safe at work?” I personally did feel safe. I don’t know if that was because my older brother worked here, and he was friendly with those guys. I never had any problems, but I definitely saw a lot.

I think this year it was good to see new people step up into lead positions, especially getting more women up there. In the past, it was mainly men up in that position, which gave them a lot of power and obviously didn’t turn out in a good situation. And it definitely is changing the culture.

There’s still some issues with guys not thinking that we can do as much as them. But I think over time that can be fixed.

Paul Martinet: “Last year, the big age difference between the supervisors and you made it awkward and uncomfortable. You can’t tell them everything.” Credit: Richard Cahan

Paul Martinet is working his second year as a lifeguard. He is a senior at Evanston Township High School and is on the swim team and water polo team.

There’s been a lot of change in management. Last year, our supervisors were a lot older. There was a big difference between us. And this year, I was just closer with my bosses. I knew a bit more of how the beach was run. So at least for me, it went smoother.

This year, I was managing Greenwood Beach and then Greenwood was closed. So I bounced around Clark and Lee street beaches.

It’s definitely a bit tiring to come in after school. But as the weather gets a bit colder, people and kids start going back to school, I don’t particularly mind that much. It’s a little sad because we’ve been with our friends the whole summer and a lot of them are going to college. But you’re moving on in the school year, so you have new stuff coming.

I think it is [a lot of responsibility]. But I think we get trained pretty well to handle all the situations that can come at us. In our first year, you are trained and prepared for everything. We get our certifications in CPR and how to handle codes [emergencies]. And then before the second year we go through training again.

When I was a kid, I didn’t like the lifeguards. But now that I’m a lifeguard I understand that they’re here just so that you are safe, which is the no. 1 priority even above having fun.

I plan on coming back. I love working here. I think it’s great work environment – at least this year. It is better than it was. You’re at the beach, which is a beautiful place. You’re working with your friends. It’s a serious job. It feels like you’re doing a good thing when you’re taking care of other people.

This weekend: I’d say it’s a sad time, but also a bit of a relief just because I’ve been working this whole summer. So it’s going to be nice to have a break from working.

Mitchell Nakamoto: “For me, the biggest challenge is probably the physical training. There are some days it’s pretty intense and challenging.” Credit: Richard Cahan

Mitchell Nakamoto is a senior at ETHS. He is a musician; he plays the saxophone, clarinet and piano.

I applied because I didn’t have anything that I was doing this summer. I wouldn’t really say it’s harder or easier than I thought.

You really have to pay attention when you’re up in the chair. And making sure you’re keeping everyone safe. And obviously, it’s something that you really need to just be diligent about. You can’t slack off.

There are certain days when there is not anything going on at certain beaches, a day where there’s just one person you’re guarding. But on days like today, when there’s a lot of people in the water, it goes by pretty quickly.

I had a moment this year where there was an old man in the water who yelled, “I don’t think I can get back in by myself.” And so we helped him, me and a couple of other guys. Other than that I really haven’t had too much in terms of saving people.

We had a 10-day training program. It was a mix of physical training, making sure all the lifeguards are fit to save someone if we need to save someone. EMS training, making sure we know how to deal with all sorts of emergency codes and responses. I feel the training was good. And I feel like I am prepared to do anything.

I think I learned a lot of good people skills this summer. I talked to people who I have never met before, people in all sorts of different age ranges coming up to talk to me for different reasons.

I’m applying to colleges right now. And I’m writing all my college applications. And I also have school, so it’s a little difficult for me to balance my time as of right now.

I’ll definitely be telling colleges that I had this experience. I think they should care. Because it is a job where you learn a lot. It’s a more serious job, obviously, because you’ve been protecting people’s lives. I think it shows colleges that you are focused.

My family is proud of me that I got a job this summer. And they are happy that I’m not just finding something to occupy my time. They are happy that I’m doing this job.

Malini Jhaveri: “Most of the patrons are nice. There are always some people that just want to be difficult.” Credit: Richard Cahan

Malini Jhaveri is a senior at ETHS. She just spent her first season as a lifeguard. She is interested in a career in nursing.

I worked as a gate attendant last year, but I wanted to be a guard this year. I really like it. I like a lot of the people that work here, and I like that we get to work outside. I wouldn’t say gate keeping is the most fun job. Because in the postseason [final few weeks of the year] people would get so angry because they couldn’t swim. And since the gate attendants are the first ones that they talk to, they kind of get all the heat. So in some ways, lifeguarding is easier, but more responsibility.

Last year, a lot of the supervisors were male. And this year, it’s a mix of both. And also, they’re a lot younger this year. I think it’s a learning experience for everyone.

Last year, it was really difficult. It was chaotic. In the morning that everything came out [WBEZ broke the story in July 2021], I remember everyone was pulled into the room and told that the article was coming out and that people would be coming to interview. And then that morning there were five different people who quit. And then two other people were fired. There was just a lot of stuff going on. I think that my parents were a little worried. But they knew that I really liked the job.

This time of year is hard because once the season is over then I obviously won’t have a job anymore. But I think it’s good because it’s been stressful for all the high school students. Because we have to go to school and then when we don’t have school we have to come to work. I think the biggest thing I’ve learned is to always, always stay alert. I’m always watching the people in the water.

I think the beach is the most beautiful in the morning because of the sunrise. There are some people I see every day. Usually they are just swimming laps. And there are regular beach people. I don’t get to know them, but I say “hi.”

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