Crossing Guards Risk All for Love
Story and photos by Diane Andrews
Being an elementary school crossing guard is not a fair weather or risk-free job. Even on cold mornings and rainy days, Barbara Wolff stands at the corner of Forbes Ave. and Cornell Dr. at Sutter Elementary School, Santa Clara. Holding up a red stop sign, she blows her whistle and walks out into the street, halting traffic so that families can cross safely.
"We put our lives on the line to keep the children safe," said Wolff, a crossing guard for seven-and-a-half years. "Sometimes, once kids reach the other side of the road, I'm turning around to go back to my corner, and a car has already begun driving into the crosswalk, almost running into me. People get impatient."
"And early in the morning, people going to work don't watch their speed," continued Wolff, who is on duty Monday through Friday 7 a.m. to 8:45 a.m. and returns for an hour and a half when school lets out.
Millikin School crossing guard Cheri Squires tells a similar traffic story.
"I'm putting my life at risk. You're stepping off a curb in the middle of traffic and anything could happen," said Squires. "The traffic is awful. People try and run through the stop sign; they speed by on the phone. I've come close to being run over. Jaywalking is another issue."
"Our crossing guards are great, hard-working, dedicated people. They are an integral part of the community by keeping kids who walk or bike to school safe," said Santa Clara Police Department (SCPD) Community Service Officer Taylor Carpenter.
Carpenter supervises the 41 crossing guards, plus three substitutes, at 31 intersections at 13 Santa Clara elementary schools and one in Cupertino. Most are retired Santa Clarans over 60 (some over 80) who live close to the schools enjoy keeping busy and supplementing fixed incomes.
Reward trumps risk
"I love my corner. I enjoy the parents and the kids. I miss them when I'm not working in the summer and holidays," said Wolff. "Last Christmas, I never got so many hugs from kids in my life."
"The job is rewarding. I feel like I'm helping the community," said Manny Santos, a retired postal worker who has been a Washington Open School crossing guard for five-and-a-half years. His wife gave him a flyer about the job.
"‘You need to try this,' she told me. She didn't want me sitting around getting old," said Santos. "I never realized I would love it so much. It gives me purpose, a reason to get out and be with people. I see these little kids growing up, and now they're like family."
"It seems like you can't do anything without wearing a uniform," Santos's wife teased.
Except for shoes and gloves, SCPD supplies all uniform items, and the jacket has the official SCPD patch.
"I believe the uniform gives the crossing guards a sense of pride in the community," said Carpenter.
Unlike the city of Sunnyvale, which had to contract out its crossing guard services this year, Santa Clara has no difficulty filling openings. A 10 percent raise Jan. 2017 has to help. Carpenter filled six vacant positions in 2016, one to replace Ruth Lemus, who retired after 36 years, and has a waiting list of applicants.
Student and parent appreciation
"Barbara's great. It's fun because there's always someone to say 'Hi' when I walk to school," said Santa Clara High School student Stefan Laborde, a former Sutter student who lives in the neighborhood. "At the high school, there are no crossing guards, and drivers are not always the most aware. You feel a lot safer with a crossing guard."
Sutter parent Krishna Kotikalapudi is concerned that even with crosswalks, stop, yield, and school zone signs, people still don't slow down and are impatient with those crossing the road.
"Twice this week a motorist showed he was unhappy that I was crossing in front of him by gunning the engine, looking impatient and shaking his head," said Kotikalapudi. "One time, a car flashed its lights at us."
"I'd be more nervous without a crossing guard," said Kotikalapud's seven-year-old son Dhruva.
"What Barbara does is an amazing service," said Kotikalapudi. "Motorists need to come to their senses better, be more aware."
"[We] get complaints from the crossing guards, school officials and parents all the time around almost every school," said CSO Carpenter. "It would literally add 10 to 30 seconds more on [a motorist's] drive to go at a safe speed."
"It's a special feeling, knowing you're doing some good service. You get a lot of appreciation from the parents, and the kids are so sweet," said Squires, whose grandfather was a crossing guard, too. "I'm surprised that I'm still very happy with my job after ten-and-a-half years. I'll probably keep going until I can't walk anymore. It's a wonderful job."