At the local elementary school playground Tuesday evening, my son ran into one of his new kindergarten classmates, Conrad Daigle. Conrad and his twin brother, Caleb, were spending time with their neighbor Tom Mitchell.
As the two boys ran from the balance beam to the monkey bars, Tom called out to them, “I’m watching!” “Go ahead!” “Good job!” Soon my kids were looking for his attention too, shouting “Watch me, watch me!” as they climbed on the jungle gym, and Tom lavished praise on them as well.
Tom told me he’s worked with kids for years, running a roller skating rink and then coaching Little League. He was watching Conrad and Caleb in a less formal capacity. Their father passed away not long ago, and their mother had gotten in touch with the Mitchells to see if Tom’s 15-year-old son could help her out this fall, babysitting while she worked. Instead, Tom agreed to take care of them himself. He said he loves it. If he were starting all over again, he said, he’d be a teacher.
Tom has lived in the neighborhood for 14 years, and he said he noticed some things changing as the economy took a dive a few years back. He was out of work himself for two years. His family got by one his wife’s job as an underwriter, but it wasn’t easy, he said. More broadly, Tom said, he notices more kids playing outside these days.
“I think that, with the economy, more and more people are trying to go back to the old ways of life,” he said.
He’s back working, at Raytheon, now, he said. His day starts at 4:30 a.m., and he’s at work by 6 and back home at 3. Then, two days of the week, he takes care of the twins.
The boys’ mother, Sonya, came to pick the boys up as we were talking and joined our conversation. She works part time running an after-school program at another local school. She loves it, she said, although it’s hard work. She’s amused that some people don’t understand how she could be exhausted after her short day on the job.
“I’m like, ‘Have you ever spent three and a half hours with kids after school?’”
Since her husband’s death, she said, things have been tough but not impossible.
“I have a lot of support from my friends and family,” she said.
And she said money issues don’t worry her much. She doesn’t see why so many people feel like they need to go out and spend money on the weekends. She’s happy to hang out with the kids in her backyard.
“Financially we’re OK,” she said. “We’re not rolling in money, but I don’t need to be rolling in money.”
She said some families she sees through her job are in much more difficult situations. She and her colleagues do what they can to help. If there’s a child who isn’t being fed enough at home, they make sure to feed him breakfast, she said. I asked if there are many kids who aren’t getting enough to eat, and she said she sees a lot of them.
It’s harder than it used to be for her program because of government budget cuts. That’s true everywhere, she said, gesturing to the school building next to the playground, where our boys go to kindergarten. There used to be a good tutoring program that helped her daughter when she was younger, but she’s not sure if it’s there anymore because of the cuts.
Things are tougher for families too, she said, “Lots of coupon clipping, myself included.”
Even so, she said, she sees a bright side in the rough economy.
“I find that people are helping other people out,” she said.
Photo: Tom and Sonya with Caleb (left) and Conrad (right)