SOUTH PLAINFIELD, NJ – Growing up in South Plainfield, spending time at the community pool is as much a right of summer passage as a trip down the shore and ice cream on a hot day. Each year, the local swimming hole welcomes residents of all ages, serving as a hangout, a competition venue, and, for many, a place of employment.
For the managers currently on staff, the South Plainfield Community Pool has been all these things and more.
From June through September, Shannon Dabrio, Anthony Gurrieri, Katie McLaughlin, and Elizabeth ‘Bissy’ Martin, under the direction of Aquatics Director Alicia Berardacco, oversee the daily operations of the pool, from checking PH levels and making sure the grounds are clean to ensuring safety procedures are followed and everything in between.
"Even though, as a manager, you are part of the back watch to ensure that all the pieces are working together, you are still very important in terms of saving people’s lives,” said Martin, a lifelong resident of South Plainfield who is serving her first year as a manger. “You have to make sure that your guards know what they need to run a safe pool and that people feel comfortable coming, whether they came swim or not.”
Gurrieri, who worked as a lifeguard for seven summers and was named a manager this year, said it is sometimes ‘a little weird to be the boss’ of people he used to work alongside, but feels his experience helps him do his job effectively.
“I feel that I know how to anticipate the reaction and reciprocate with proper instruction so that the guards know why a certain job has to be done and that they do not feel overwhelmed or feel they are doing something for no reason,” Gurrieri said, noting that he also prides himself on always saying ‘please and thank you’ and letting the staff know they are appreciated. “It used to mean a lot to me when any of the previous managers would thank me and I try to reciprocate that here.”
Berardacco, a kindergarten teacher at Kennedy Elementary School for the past 11 years, took on the position of aquatics director in 2010. In the off-season, she works closely with borough Recreation Director Kevin Hughes to prepare for the season, including the hiring of new and returning guards and staff.
Come June, she oversees swim lessons, inventory, and maintenance; handles problems and concerns; coordinates schedules with the swim team; and works with the schools to arrange end-of-the-year picnics; and more, including scheduling and supervising a staff that includes four managers, 20 lifeguards, and more than a dozen snack stand employees.
“It isn’t only a summer job; you literally work year-round to make sure everything is ready and that the right people are hired. Then, once the pool is open and operating, you are charged with ensuring that things operates safely and effectively each day,” Berardacco, a lifeguard and certified pool instructor, said.
While serving as a manger at the pool comes with a great deal responsibility, Berardacco said she truly enjoys interacting with the community over the summer. “You build a relationship and bond with the kids and their families over the years,” said Berardacco, adding that, over the past few summers, former students of hers have gotten jobs at the pool.
“My first class from when I did my student teaching just graduated and I’ve gotten to see them grow and mature from kids who I taught and who spent their summers here to now young adults who are working here.”
For Dabrio, Martin, Gurrieri and McLaughlin, a job at the pool not only serves as a source of employment but also the opportunity to spend their summers giving back to a place that they themselves enjoyed over the years.
The youngest of four children, Martin ‘literally grew up’ at the pool and, at the age of 15, took on a job in the snack stand, serving up ice cream and pretzels to save up money for college and a car. “Working there, most of us were in high school and it was nice to be in that environment,” said Martin. “Working with your friends was great and even the rainy day shifts were fun to get through.”
Martin, who teaches in Edison, spent a handful of summers during and after college working as a counselor for the borough’s recreation camps before taking on a managerial position as the pool this year.
“I wanted to give back to something that gave me so much growing up. I really saw the impact that the guards and the managers had on me when I was younger and wanted to be that to these kids,” said Martin.
While Martin refers to herself as the ‘newbie,’ fellow managers Dabrio, Gurrieri and McLaughlin could be considered ‘veterans.’
At 15, McLaughlin was hired at the pool and over the next six seasons worked as lifeguard and, later, as a swim instructor. The summer of 2017 marks her seventh year as an employee at the pool and her first as manager. While her position has changed and comes with much more responsibility, McLaughlin said it is still great to come to work each day and see residents she has known most of her life.
“We know all the families and the kids because they have been coming here for years; the lifeguards here know the kids and parents who come here and a lot of the kids who are in lessons now had older siblings who were in lessons when they were infants or weren’t even born yet,” she said, adding, “We all grew up coming here and still today families make the South Plainfield Community Pool part of their summer plans.”
McLaughlin, a lifelong resident of the borough, began coming to the pool when she was in preschool and, at the age of six, joined her older sister on the swim team. “I came here very day and spent all my summers at the pool,” said McLaughlin, adding, “Being a South Plainfield lifeguard was a big deal and growing up, my friends and I looked up to them and thought it would be cool to one day be one.”
Growing up, Dabrio joined the Tiger Sharks swim team when she was eight years old and the summer she turned 15 got a job as a lifeguard. “I have spent my whole life swimming and the pool was always a part of summer, something I enjoyed doing with my family so getting a job here made sense,” said Dabrio.
Over the years, Dabrio went on to serve as swim coach and instructor before being named a manager seven years ago. In addition to being on the Tiger Sharks for 10 years, Dabrio went on to swim at Rowan University and also served as the first swim coach at South Plainfield High School. She is currently a teacher and coach in Old Bridge.
“I have been coming here my whole life and being here reminds me of all those good summer memories,” she said.
Gurrieri, a resident of Menlo Park Terrace, began swimming with the Tiger Sharks the summer of fifth grade and, growing up, spent his summers at the pool with his South Plainfield friends. “We all swam together and hung out at each others houses. When we old enough to work we all got jobs here,” said Gurrieri, adding that he feels the camaraderie and a positive attitude amongst the staff make the South Plainfield Community Pool a ‘great place to work, even on cloudy and rainy days.’
Martin agrees. “Yes, it is a job, but it is enjoyable at the same time so you almost do not feel like you are ‘going to work,’” she said, adding, “I feel we are a very inviting pool and it provides a good feel throughout the summer.”
Berardacco said she hopes people are happy with the improvements that have been made over the past few years and feels the pool is a ‘great place for moms and kids to spend their time.’
“My managers grew up spending their summers at the community pool, spending time with their families, taking swim lessons or being on the swim team,” she said. “Friendships and relationships are forged here at three years old.”
“Most the kids know each other from school or outside activities and within five minutes they find someone to hang around with," said Gurrieri, adding, “The pool is a great skip from reality; it's a lot closer than the beach and a place to come and relax in the sun for a few hours.”
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