Employees of Imperial Beach’s Sports Park Recreation Center worked their last day on May 23; they lost their jobs due to the city’s privatization of the facility and grounds.
With tears in his eyes, program coordinator Jim Coates said he will fondly remember how he influenced the young people — and how they influenced him. "I'm a better person and they've made me that," Coates said.
The Boys and Girls Club, which will take over management on May 27, was the compromise choice of the Imperial Beach citizens’ group that initially focused on fighting the privatization altogether. The Boys and Girls Club was seen as a more local and trusted organization than the YMCA.
That compromise comes as cold comfort to Coates, recreation leader Fe Fernandez, and aide Shawn Kelley, who are losing the work that involved improving and even saving the lives of kids and youth in Imperial Beach; the soon-to-be ex-employees said their rec center was once a safe harbor to two teens who showed up and said they had been ready to commit suicide. Instead of going through with it, the teen couple came to the center's back door, where Coates and Fernandez were able to talk to them.
"I'm getting goosebumps remembering this," Fernandez said.
The incident was the most extreme example of what they offered as a place for teens to “decompress” after school before going home, as well as a place “to get away from gangs, drugs and peer pressure," Coates said.
They see kids and youth from the 1st to 12th grades but they have the most impact on the ages from 13 to 17, Coates said, which is why he thinks it would be a mistake for the Boys and Girls Club to make big changes.
"Despite what people say, teens take to change with caution," Coates said, adding that he hopes the new management "don't change anything at first" and they make any changes gradually because it's the youths' "second home." Coates stressed that the Boys and Girls Club should keep the rec center open for the after-school hours of 2:30-4:30 p.m. "like we've done, for free."
Budget cuts mandated by the city have greatly decreased the rec center’s hours over the years. Coates said that the current staff had built up years of trust and good relationships with the teens to the point where the youth tended to take care of each other at the rec center.
"They've taken ownership of this facility," Coates said, to the point where the older youth mentor the younger ones. For example, "when things get heated during a basketball game," Coates said, “older ones will pull aside the younger ones and help them calm down.”
Coates said their reputation over the years gained notice of other recreational directors and city managers, who came to get pointers on how to successfully work with teens.
"It starts at the door,” Fernandez said. “We had to get their respect. Before you know it, they're confiding in us" about problems they have during the day. For another youth, the center has been an alternative to bad influences in the teen's family.
“My family are all gangbangers…this place has given me a place to go and be myself,” is what Coates remembered the teen saying.
Though the text of Boys and Girls Club’s agreement with the city requires that the club “offer the Current Employees the opportunity to interview” for jobs under the new management, the current staff reported little contact from that organization. The club “dropped off applications after the fact,” when the privatization was finally voted into effect by the city, Fernandez said.
The Boys and Girls Club did not reply to calls for comment.
Despite earlier reports, Coates said he is not ready to retire and would have been ready to stay on at the rec center indefinitely. He had even offered to work for free.
"We started in 1999," Coates said; Kelley was his first hire. “Me and Shawn were the first to do it.”
The current employees said they didn’t know what exactly was going to happen under the new management.
"Nobody tells us anything,” Fernandez said. “It's been, like, for two years."
Imperial Beach city manager Andy Hall said that though the Boys and Girls Club will be running the center, it is still a public facility.
“It's still public,” Hall said. “That's why we went with the license to operate” instead of leasing the property. The text of the agreement also requires “Public access to programs/events” and that “members of the public shall not be required to join” the club “to access any program and/or events.”