The Value Of Four Minutes
By Bill Plessinger
Four minutes. Under most circumstances, four minutes is unimportant and forgettable. The time it takes to gas up your car. To pay the monthly bills online. To order a sweater on Amazon. At other times it can feel longer—taking a phone call from an unhappy patron, entertaining a salesman during his pitch at your front door, waiting for an internet connection.
For a lifeguard, what happens in four minutes can have consequences that last forever. The worst-case scenario is a drowning, unseen and silent. After four minutes, a submerged child will have irreversible and permanent brain damage. The lifeguard who misses a rescue may also bear life-long scars of guilt.
On the other end of the spectrum, in four minutes a lifeguard can make a huge difference in the life of a visiting family. This happened at Westerville’s pool a couple years ago. One lifeguard—faced with the choice of going straight from one chair to another or engaging in an uncomfortable situation—chose the latter. She could have kept the blinders on, walked on by, and hoped the problem would go away on its own. She chose to do the right thing instead of just punching in and going through the motions. That choice made all the difference. Apparently, in that instance, all it took was four minutes for a stranger to tell you that an unborn child would be named after you.
What follows is a letter I received then in the midst of one of the hottest summers on record. I have been sharing it with staff members ever since as a shining example of empathy and customer service.
Dear Mr. Plessinger,
I am writing to you in the form of celebration, not a rant or tirade. This summer’s heat has been brutal on everyone, and with children ages five and seven, I am constantly seeking somewhere to go to “beat the heat.” However, my circumstance is a bit unique. I am a single mother to a beautiful daughter, Allison, and a strong boy named Jack. Jack has autism with a very limited vocabulary, and behavior, aggression, and communication issues. This puts a strain on our family at times because we cannot stroll down to the local pool like everyone else. Recently, I decided that, while Allison was out of town, I would take Jack to the Westerville Parks and Recreation Center indoor pool. Everything was going smoothly until the dreaded whistle blew. noting it was time for the 10-minute adult swim. When Jack sees a pool, there is no stopping him.
The idea that he has to get out of the pool for TEN LONG minutes doesn’t make sense in his head. This is where my story takes a turn for the worse. I had to carry my 60-pound boy out of the water, dragging him every centimeter of the pool as he hit, bit, kicked, screamed, and cried. I managed to get him into his push chair, and as blood dripped down my arms and fingers, I could feel everyone in the pool area staring at me. I had no clue how I was going to manage to hold him down for another eight minutes, let alone try to make an escape to head home. Suddenly, an angel appeared in the form of a lifeguard named Devoney. She came with Band Aids and to see if she could help. At this point I melted into tears. As I tried to put the Band Aids on my chlorine-soaked skin, she headed back to the lifeguard office, only to return with more Band Aids. And then I heard a few magical words: “I checked with my manager, and it is OK for Jack to swim.” At this point, I sobbed even more. No one had EVER taken the time to make an exception for my son not being able to understand. I was floored! Devoney even relayed the message on to her fellow lifeguards so they would understand why Jack was allowed in four minutes early. Before I could open my tear-soaked eyes, she was gone. I never got to properly thank her for the 25th time. I was able to find a lifeguard who told me her name. You have no idea how something like this
can impact someone. I only wish the surrounding parents who stared at the situation could have been more understanding. If they only knew what one day was like in our house, they may not bat an eye the next time Jack is allowed to swim four minutes early. I only wish there were other places to take special-needs children where they can truly fit in, not only for my sanity but for my daughter’s also. I feel she misses out on things since we cannot attend everything like a typical family can.
Thanks again, Devoney! If I have another little girl, we have her name picked out!
Thank you for taking the time to read about my experience, and I hope you will consider sharing this story.
The names of the patrons have been changed. Devoney’s name is real. She went on to become a teacher and still stops by the pool every now and then to say hello. This letter is now a part of our training and has been read at in-services, orientations, and conferences about how one person can make a difference in the life of another. It doesn’t matter if it is someone you love, a co-worker, or someone you have never met before. It doesn’t matter if you are a parks and rec director, front-desk employee, gym attendant, or lifeguard. When a patron interacts with you, you are the face of that agency.
This is why we do what we do. This is why our worth as parks and recreation professionals is important. This is validation. As lifeguards, our skills can save lives. As human beings, we can add value to the lives of others. The currency we use is kindness.
Bill Plessinger, CPRP, is the Aquatics Manager for the city of Westerville in Ohio. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.