Friday was the last day of the program for the summer, and my last day with the kids. We open the program space at 11am.
At 10:44 I got a text from the second adult staff, the substitute from the main branch of the program, letting me know that their car was broken down and that if they could come, they would be late. I called the director to see if I could open the space with one adult staff. They asked how many kids we had on average this week — no go. They told me to wait on their word while they contacted the adult staff member in question and see what was going on. I let the kids milling around on the porch know what was going on: that the other staff’s car wasn’t working, that they might be late, that I needed them to just hang out on the porch for a few minutes past eleven while I waited for a call from my boss because I couldn’t let them in until I got the okay.
The adult staff never answered their phone for the director or that staff’s supervisor. I called at around twenty after to be sure I hadn’t missed a call when a parent called to talk to their kids — I handed them the phone through the open window — and I was told I could not open the program space.
“…there’s a little park across the street. If I have a completely unofficial non-[progam]-sponsored picnic or something over there with the kids, would that be okay?”
I’d bought about thirty dollars’ worth of yogurt and frozen fruit and cake mix and all other sorts of additional supplies to make them earlier-promised smoothies and fare for a going away/end of summer party. We had some homemade pasta sauce left over from the cooking program the day before; lunch was going to be a surprise based on a mutual deal — they help make the program space sparkling clean in the first hour of program time, and instead of going down to the local elementary for the free lunch we make spaghetti and sauce and fresh veggies and garlic bread. None of that works particularly well as picnic food, especially since some kids have to be monitored by an adult staff until their parents can get them — I had seven kids like that Friday, whose parents said that it was totally okay for them to participate in a non-official hangout while club was closed as long as they were with an adult. If I can’t let them into the club I can’t exactly make the food.
So we rearranged things. They hung out on the porch for another hour, with the windows open. I handed through board games, paper, crayons, water, cups. One of the kids had their makeup kit and did makeovers and temp tattoos from a box of words that looked a bit like a magnetic poetry kit. I went back and forth to monitor them and make a cake out of a box. I leaned out the window with my arm dangling to get a tattoo that was put together just for me: “Imagine happy things.” I had already started crying a little twice while they were there, because I’d miss them. All the kids thought it was hilarious.
We walked downtown together and got pizza. I’m pretending I don’t remember how much I spent on pizza for the sake of my mental health. I brought the cake with me and we had it there.
We came back to the park, I brought the board games and crayons and paper and water and cups. We couldn’t use it in smoothies, so the kids whose parents wanted them in my sight hung out on the porch while I grabbed the watermelon I’d bought and cut it up to bring over. For a couple of hours, the kids played tag and laid on the grass. My makeover turned into making me into the Tin Man with the existence of silver stage makeup. I still don’t know why she had silver stage makeup.
I walked the kids home who needed an escort, because we ended early so I could get the program space clean on my own. I met cats and baby nephews and chatted with parents. I gave out my new mailing address and my email. The girl who gave me the makeover insisted on walking back with me to the program space, cried, pretended she wasn’t crying, laughed, asked a hundred times if she could just come in and help me clean and we didn’t have to tell anybody. She was okay when she finally did leave; I didn’t want to rush her so we sat on the program space sidewalk for a little while.
Cleaning didn’t start until five. It lasted until past seven. Over at the main program space they were staying open for the kids until 11pm, and it was like one big party, with dance music and a conga line and everyone ready to close out the summer and get ready for the fall. I gave my email to a staff I’ve had a crush on since I started working there because I was too nervous and awkward to give my phone number. She actually invited me to stay in that program space and watch the movie they’d just started upstairs, but I had to get home to finish cleaning out. But I’m glad I got to be there — it’s a place that I’d want to stay into the morning if I could, so I can’t imagine how cool it must have been for some of the teens that were using it.
In the parking lot, on the way to my car, a girl probably about 7 or 8 years old was jumping up and down screaming excitedly to her dad about what someone had done in the program space skate park.
One of my kids gave me stick-on earrings yesterday, and I’m still wearing one.
Am I sad to go? Well, I may have started crying a bit while writing the end of this. But more than anything, I’m glad I was a part of it. I’m glad that I had the chance to see that programs like this exist, and how they operate, and how much they do for the kids that need them. No matter how frustrating some moments may have been, this is a good organization for kids — and if you asked me privately I could even tell you which it was.
I’m glad this place exists. That’s the feeling I’m walking away with. And even though I’m going to miss my kids, even though the last day we weren’t even technically open — everything felt like it closed out the right way.
I just hope they take it easy on the new person.
But they won’t.
And when the new person shows them that they can take it, that they’re stubborn, that they care enough to stay, that person will start to become important to these kids, too. Whether or not the kids will admit it.