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Parks & Rec set for a new start as lakefront season opens, says new director

Evanston’s six public beaches open this weekend and Audrey Thompson, newly appointed Director of Evanston’s Parks & Recreation Department, wants the public to know changes have been made.

Thompson told the RoundTable, “I am looking forward to visiting all of the beaches this weekend. I want the lakefront staff to know that I am there, I’m visible, and I’m accessible. I want to introduce myself to the beachgoers, too, and let them know I am on top of the situation.

“We’ve worked really hard to hire the right people and fix what was broken. We want this to be a safe, but fun, summer for everyone.”

Clark Street Beach on opening day. Credit: Wendy Kromash

This year’s opening comes just three months after a 379-page report was issued following an independent investigation by the law firm of Salvator, Prescott, Porter & Porter. The report showed city officials ignored information about a culture of abuse and harassment that endangered the young women in the lifeguard program.

Thompson said every recommendation included in the report concerning hiring and training practices at the lakefront, human resources, and policies and procedures for reporting complaints has been or is being implemented.

With these new procedures, new hiring practices, new staff and new expectations, so, too, there is an air of new excitement and possibility.

Evanston’s beaches are the only open water lakefront in Illinois certified by the United States Lifesaving Association. This certification indicates the lifeguards have met a designated level of training including swimming ability, health and fitness, strength training, medical aid certification and CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) certification.

Thompson, who has a Masters Degree in Social Work and is a licensed Master Social Worker, brings more than 30 years of leadership experience in social programming to her role, with experience working with all ages of city residents.

From left, Michael Callahan, Assistant Director; Victoria Foreman, Front Office Floater; Audrey Thompson, Director, and Tim Carter, Lakefront Manager. Credit: Wendy Kromash

Her new assistant director, Michael Callahan, moved from the city’s Public Works department as forestry supervisor and arborist. The new lakefront manager is Tim Carter, who previously worked at the Levy Senior Center as a program coordinator.

Thompson, Callahan and Carter worked very closely with Megan Fulara, Director of the city’s Human Resources department.

New procedures

Among their newly implemented lifeguard program procedures:

  • There is a new interview process for all lakefront hires, including new interview questions and new guidelines for identifying leadership qualities among staff.
  • A new manual is being written with assistance from Greg Petry, an external consultant who worked for 30 years as the Executive Director of the Waukegan Park District.
  • Previously, a lifeguard’s swimming speed was the basis for allocating beach assignments. Now more subjective qualities such as maturity, judgment, attention to detail, interactions with colleagues and the public, and responses to pressure will be factored into decisions, according to Thompson.

To rebuild the lifeguard staff and create a lifeguard training program, the city worked with Petry, who recruited Merrill Riley, a professional lifeguard from Los Angeles.

Riley, who recently retired, worked for the Los Angeles County Fire Department as an Ocean Lifeguard Captain for 38 years. He brings an extensive background in ocean lifeguarding, training, and certifying lifeguards.

The RT spoke to Riley, who talked about the team he is building in Evanston to help him run a training program for new hires. The city’s new lifeguard academy will involve 10 hours of training for nine consecutive days and begins on June 1.

A parallel program put together by YWCA staff is also being implemented for every lakefront employee regardless of age, title or level of experience. It will delve into healthy relationships, abuses of power and grooming, which is defined as “the slow, methodical, and intentional process of manipulating a person to a point where they can be victimized.”

Grooming awareness focuses on learning what that looks like, who to report it to, what to expect when one makes a report and one’s options if unsatisfied with the official response. Someone from Human Resources will be involved at every step. There will also be a way for criminal reports to be filed anonymously via Text-A-Tip.

Thompson said the important point for the lakefront staff to realize is that there are many people available and eager to help within Parks & Rec, Human Resources or even the Evanston Police Department if necessary. If a staff member is being made to feel uncomfortable, they need to let someone know. “I have an open door policy. I want them to know I am accessible,” said Thompson.

Playing in the sand on the South Boulevard Beach, Evanston Credit: Wendy Kromash

While the new manual is still being finalized, one item is non-negotiable – cell phone and social media use during work. Any social media posting while on the lifeguard tower is a fireable offense.

Another training seminar all lakefront employees are required to attend is on suicide prevention, recognizing the signs and how to talk to someone – and what to do – if someone is contemplating self-harm.

Thompson’s emphasis on safety even extends to new uniform options. Men will be provided swim trunks and shirts, and women will be provided one-piece swimsuits, optional shorts and shirts. All staff receive visors and whistles. Bathing suits must be worn by lifeguards on the stands, but shorts and T-shirts can be worn for office work and tasks that don’t require going into the water.

Thompson is concerned about protecting young skin from too much unhealthy sun exposure. “This is not about body shaming,” she said. “Last year’s abuses were about power. We want our staff to feel comfortable and safe on the job.”

Thompson, Callahan and Carter have told the young staff they need to be flexible and open to schedule changes based on fluctuating conditions like crowd size and weather.

Thompson said she is very aware of the changing lakefront culture. Many of the employees with institutional knowledge and history are no longer here, so she and her team are charting a new course. She thinks of it as a work in progress, but has been gratified by the community support she’s received.

Community patience

Thompson specifically mentioned that she appreciated the grace and understanding Evanston’s boating community has shown. Permitting issues created a delay in dredging lakefront sand near the Church Street power boat ramp, which should be finished by Opening Day.

There is a backlog in seasonal storage rack permit renewals, which the city is working through as quickly and efficiently as possible, she said.

Thompson said any boater she has spoken to has said words to the effect of, “We understand what a big task you have to rebuild the lakefront staff. We get it.”

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