Retirees become lifeguards; city raises wages & pays for certification

Local retirees have become lifeguards to keep Key West's MLK Community Pool open. CONTRIBUTED

The smell of chlorine and sunscreen. The splash of cannonballs and the relentless refrain of “Marco,” “Polo.” Summertime is synonymous with swimming pools — or at least it’s supposed to be. 

A lack of lifeguards has forced the city of Key West to drastically reduce the hours of its only public pool this summer. But a dedicated group of residents, many of them retirees, are rallying to keep the Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Pool, 300 Catherine St., open seven days a week by obtaining their lifeguard certification and spreading the word about the southernmost swimming pool that overlooks the Atlantic Ocean.

“I’ve always loved that pool,” said Karen Adams, who has lived five doors away from the pool since the early ’90s. “When I read they’d have to close if they didn’t find lifeguards, I said, ‘Well, that can’t happen.”” 

Adams, 63, and her friend and fellow swimmer, Annie Johnson, who’s 72, decided to get their lifeguard certification through the College of the Florida Keys and take their places in the elevated lifeguard seats for as many shifts as possible. Two others followed suit.

The Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Pool, 300 Catherine St. CONTRIBUTED

“Annie started straightaway and was working five days a week, but I could only commit to 10 hours a week, and the city was initially holding out for full-time lifeguards,” Adams said. “But now they’re happy to work around anyone’s schedules.” The city is also going to increase the pay for lifeguards to $18 an hour, is considering a signing bonus and is paying the $150 fee for people who get their Red Cross lifeguard certification and agree to work for the city. 

“Now there’s four of us who work down there, and another three people were due to take their lifeguard test this past weekend, so hopefully they passed and can begin,” said Adams, who started a Friends of the MLK Community Pool group. She has posted fliers around town encouraging people to support the city pool and consider becoming a lifeguard. Another supporter started a Facebook group with the same name. Find them @MLKPoolKW.

“Come on, high schoolers, we’d love for you to spend your summer lifeguarding at the pool,” said Samantha Farist, the city’s human resources director. “We are lacking two full-time lifeguards and three part-time ones. We also need a pool facility supervisor, who would also be a lifeguard. The supervisor would handle scheduling as well as the chemicals and equipment.”

Farist added that the city also would welcome anyone who is qualified to teach water aerobics classes, swimming lessons and other activities. 

“The city is a great place to work, and full-time employees get a great pension, health benefits, paid vacations and holidays,” Farist said. 

The current staffing shortage keeps the pool closed Saturday, Sunday and Monday, Adams said.

“And that’s just awful to not have it open on the weekends for kids and families to come cool off,” Adams said. “Right now, it’s open Tuesday through Friday from 9 to 11:45 a.m. for adults and lap swimming. It’s closed for lunch from noon to 1 p.m. and then open swim for kids and everyone is from 1 to 5:45 p.m.”

Key West’s MLK Pool is open Tuesday through Friday with open swim in the afternoons and lap swimming in the mornings. CONTRIBUTED

She added that she is encouraged to see some much-needed repairs taking place at the pool, including replacement of awnings, and the reopening of the women’s restroom, which was unusable for months. 

“But the city can’t fix these things if they don’t know about them,” she said. “I’m glad people are paying attention, and hopefully we can get the pool fully staffed.”

For more information about employment, contact Farist at [email protected].

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Mandy Miles drops stuff, breaks things and falls down more than any adult should. An award-winning writer, reporter and columnist, she's been stringing words together in Key West since 1998. "Local news is crucial," she says. "It informs and connects a community. It prompts conversation. It gets people involved, holds people accountable. The Keys Weekly takes its responsibility seriously. Our owners are raising families in Key West & Marathon. Our writers live in the communities we cover - Key West, Marathon & the Upper Keys. We respect our readers. We question our leaders. We believe in the Florida Keys community. And we like to have a good time." Mandy's married to a saintly — and handy — fishing captain, and can't imagine living anywhere else.