The word that comes out of her mouth most often is “walk.”
After two years at her summer dream job, Mary Schuetze is so used to telling kids to slow their roll that she sometimes says it to strangers when she’s not at work.
“I was at the movie theater a couple weeks ago, and I caught myself wanting to say ‘walk’ to every kid there,” the 20-year-old Clarkston woman said with a laugh.
When her shift began on a recent afternoon at the Asotin County Family Aquatic Center, Schuetze used her favorite word multiple times within the first few minutes. Groups of excited, giggling youngsters scampered to get to the wave pool, but they obeyed the friendly reminder from the young woman wearing the official red gear, a fanny pack with first aid supplies and a whistle.
“See what I mean?” she said. “I can’t quit saying it.”
As she scanned the big rolling waves, the gregarious employee talked rapid-fire about how much she loves being a lifeguard — but didn’t miss a beat on calling out antics or potential trouble in the water.
“Keep an eye on the boy by the ladder,” she told a co-worker via a radio. “He’s in too deep.”
Working as a lifeguard is one of the best summer jobs a young person can have, Schuetze said. It pays better than her old job as a hostess at a restaurant, and she’s getting a good tan.
“I definitely think it’s fun,” she said. “I like interacting with people, especially the little kids at the adventure pool. The only downside is that I like it too much. I think I’m becoming a workaholic.”
That kind of enthusiasm is common among the young lifeguards in the region, Lewiston-Clarkston Valley pool officials said. Pool jobs remain popular from Pullman to the Prairie in every town that still offers the amenity. (A list of area pools can be found on this page.)
Jayson Ulrich, recreation supervisor for the city of Lewiston, oversees two busy pools — Bert Lipps and the Orchards — and his crew consists of 20 lifeguards. The pay ranges from $11.50 to $16 per hour, depending on experience.
“It’s a pretty fun, sought-after summer job for high school and college kids,” Ulrich said. “I have a great group of lifeguards. They love to be around kids, love what they do and do a great job. They kind of recruit themselves. They tell their friends how much they like it, and it spreads like wildfire.”
Scott Stoll, director of the aquatic center in Clarkston, has 75 trained lifeguards who cover shifts throughout the year at the outdoor water park and indoor pools. Washington’s minimum wage of $12 per hour dictates the wages, and lifeguards are paid more.
In addition to being fun, the job teaches young people responsibility and lifelong skills, such as CPR, first aid and how to handle emergency situations, Stoll said.
“Some of our lifeguards have gone on to become firefighters, nurses, EMTs,” Stoll said. “We look for self-motivated people who understand the responsibility the job carries. They understand the balance between customer service and safety. We’re not always looking for competitive swimmers; they just have to be good.”
Stoll said the skills test consists of swimming 300 yards without stopping, treading water for 2 minutes without using hands, and swimming from the shallow end to the deep end, retrieving a 10-pound brick and swimming back holding the brick out of the water — in less than 1 minute, 20 seconds.
Lifeguards have to complete training and become certified before they get to wear the red swimming suit and climb on the tall chairs overlooking the pools. Many teens from outlying areas, such as Kendrick and Pomeroy, are trained at the Asotin County site.
As a kid growing up in Clarkston, Schuetze has fond memories of playing in the Snake River and hanging out at the aquatic center, but she wasn’t much of a swimmer when she signed up for training.
“Fun fact: I didn’t really know how to swim until a couple weeks before the class,” she said. “Luckily, I’m a fast learner.”
Ulrich, 42, was a lifeguard at the Orchards pool when he was a teenager in the late 1990s.
“The pay was still pretty good back then,” he said. “I did it for three years and made $6 to $8 per hour. The hours were long, but it’s the best job to get a tan.”
Stoll, 33, was on a swim team and worked as a lifeguard in the Spokane Valley, where he grew up. He’s been employed at the Asotin County Family Aquatic Center since 2010.
“I’m still at the pool,” he said with a laugh. “I never would’ve guessed I’d still be working at one back when I was 15.”
Schuetze, who was making $9 per hour at the restaurant job in Idaho where the minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, said food service wasn’t nearly as enjoyable. Now she’s paid $12.35 per hour and plans to continue working after she begins classes at Washington State University next month. She is studying to be a history teacher and will commute from her home in Clarkston.
“The pay is way better here,” Schuetze said, “and I wanted something a little more challenging than my hostess job. I really like my bosses and my co-workers here. We’re like a big family, and everyone is super close.”
From her perch by the wave pool, Schuetze must make sure she keeps her eyes on everyone in her zone. The most common problems are distressed swimmers and kids who panic.
“On opening day this year, two little girls got out too far and panicked, so I jumped in and grabbed them,” she said. “Little kids in the wave pool are the scariest. I do a lot of worst-case scenarios in my head when I’m sitting here. I’d rather be prepared than caught off guard. I’ll look at some guy by the pool and think through everything I would do if he fell.”
It takes a lot of mental energy to remain on high alert all day, and Schuetze said she’s pretty worn out by the time she gets home. Her favorite way to unwind is doing “a lot of mindless string art and crafts.”
Over the sounds of laughter and splashing, Schuetze said she can relate to the kids who show up every day at the aquatic center because she used to be one. From the concessions to the lazy river and slides, the place offers a lot of entertainment.
“When I was a kid, we had summer passes. We lived here,” she said. “When you’re a kid, this place is like Candy Land.”
As the temperatures steadily climb this summer, pools across the region will be filled with children who want to make the most of every hot day before school starts in the fall, Schuetze said.
Then she spotted another eager kid heading toward the water at a fast clip.
“Walk,” she said. “Walk!”
After the boy slowed down, Schuetze grinned and shrugged.
“It never ends.”
Sandaine may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or (208) 848-2264. Follow her on Twitter @newsfromkerri.