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School crossings in Toronto were once the preserve of retirees, but as COVID-19 led many to quit, younger people took their place. The Globe spoke to six of them

Photos: Tijana Martin, Chistopher Katsarov, J.P. Moczulski/The Globe and Mail

In the early months of pandemic life in Toronto, crossing guards started looking noticeably younger. They’d stand out on the corner, some singing, dancing or twirling their stop signs.

It was yet another ripple effect of the pandemic: a new wave of youthful recruits appearing at school crosswalks across the city.

“We’ve tripled over the course of the pandemic with the young people,” said Sarah Miller, operations manager of the school crossing guard division at A.S.P. Security Services, which staffs 323 Toronto intersections and employs about 420 guards. (It is one of two private companies contracted by the city.)

Before the global health crisis, the job was viewed primarily as a retirement gig. But the past two and a half years saw more retirees leave the work. Some felt especially at-risk in the early days of COVID-19; others were tired of being denied washroom access as public-health restrictions closed businesses. Guards also faced protracted layoffs during the first wave as schools moved to remote learning and shut their doors.

Crossing guard training moved online, attracting younger recruits, particularly postsecondary students who were studying virtually themselves and valued the flexibility of the job. Typically, crossing guard shifts are divided into a morning period, lunch and dismissal, aligning with the school day.

The labour shift has seen a younger cohort of guards interacting with their neighbourhoods in a way they hadn’t before. “We don’t view them as just a guard. They’re part of the fabric of the community,” said Owais Memon, managing director at Carraway, which staffs 450 Toronto intersections, employing more than 600 guards. “They are ambassadors when it comes to road and neighbourhood safety.”

Mr. Memon said older crossing guards now refer their grandkids. Other young recruits are taking over crosswalks from retiring guards they remember from childhood. “They bring a fantastic energy,” Ms. Miller said.

The Globe and Mail spoke with six young Toronto crossing guards about their experiences.

Ines Valente, 24, says she and people in the neighbourhood where she works as a crossing guard have come to recognize each other, even if they don't socialize much.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Ines Valente, 24, took on the role in February after a friend posted about her own crossing guard job on Facebook.

“I just loved it, like, from the first day I started it,” said Ms. Valente, who begins her library technician studies this fall at Seneca College. “I’ve pretty much only worked retail jobs. That’s one of the reasons I decided to try this. It’s nice to not deal with money.”

An introvert, Ms. Valente said the work has given her confidence. “Even if I don’t talk to people, I know they recognize me and I recognize them. It’s nice to have that.”

She spends many of her breaks reading at the local library. “This job has helped me realize how important public libraries are to the community.” She’s also become acquainted with neighbourhood café and restaurant owners; one brought her a free falafel lunch earlier this summer.

There are other new friends, too. “I have made a meaningful connection with a dog,” Ms. Valente said. “There’s a man who walks his dog named Luna in the morning and she loves getting belly rubs and is always excited to see me.”

Amir Patel says teachers and students have been friendly, though it's sometimes hard to get motorists to follow his instructions.Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

When his shift is slow and the street empty, Amir Patel, 25, practises his cricket swing with his stop sign.

“I love cricket,” said Mr. Patel, an international student from India studying to be a computer system technician. He began the crossing guard gig, his first job in Canada, in the fall of 2021.

“What can I say? I love everything. I’m making friendships with school teachers and students. Everyone knows me.” A neighbour even invited him over for tea, he said.

The job is not without its challenges – careless drivers chief among them. “Some don’t stop when I raise my stop sign. They don’t look at me, they just pass by,” said Mr. Patel, who added that working a crosswalk has made him more highly attuned as a driver.

Bitter winters are also demanding. Mr. Patel recalled a heavy snowfall last year: “I was thinking, I am going to call my supervisor and I’m going home right now because I can’t stand it. But I had to make it.” He now wears double socks inside his boots.

Destaney Desmond, 19, got into the crossing-guard business at the urging of her sister.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

When she started as a guard at 18, Destaney Desmond initially felt awkward donning the bright orange vest and stop sign in a neighbourhood filled with people she knew.

“At first, honestly, it was a little embarrassing, but you find pride in the thing you do, especially when you know you’re keeping people around you safe and being a staple in your community,” Ms. Desmond said. She began in September, 2021, at the urging of her sister, also a guard.

Some days she has long conversations with locals. “I met an elderly man who said he lives alone, does all his own grocery shopping and takes care of himself. He said he doesn’t talk to many people and that it was really nice to speak to me. It made me feel really good,” said Ms. Desmond, who is now 19 and will study accounting this winter. “There’s a deeper meaning to our work.”

Ugatua Ebikeme, 22, is a Nigerian international student at York University. He says kindness from children is his favourite part of crossing-guard work.J.P. Moczulski/The Globe and Mail

“Where I’m from in Nigeria, there’s no crossing guards. I was like, you know what? This is something that can bring change in a community so I decided to give it a try,” said Ugatua Ebikeme, 22. The York University information technology student started working as a standby guard in March, referred by a friend.

“My favourite part of the job is interacting with the kids, seeing them so happy coming back from school. They say ‘thank you.’ Some ask how your day is going. It makes your day.”

Adults have been kind, too. “One time, this one lady offered to get me coffee because it was a little bit chilly,” said Mr. Ebikeme, who described Toronto’s weather as “bipolar,” necessitating various jackets stashed in his car.

The job has introduced him to close-knit neighbourhoods. “It shows me the togetherness of families in the community. A lot of them know each other – they talk a lot.”

Abby O’Dell, 20, says she 'started falling in love with knowing my community' when she began this work in February.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Abby O’Dell, 20, has had children tell her about their day at school and show her their art; one boy even pulled a Nestea out of his back pocket for her. For younger guards such as Ms. O’Dell, the age difference between her and the kids isn’t a chasm. “We’re still in touch with them so they can connect a little better with us sometimes,” she said.

Ms. O’Dell started as a guard in February. “I started falling in love with knowing my community. People recognize you and smile at you.”

When foot traffic slows down, Ms. O’Dell said she chats up locals, or dances. (“The dancing crossing guards that we have, when they’re away for a day, we hear about it. We get calls at the office asking if they’re okay,” said Dave Harris, A.S.P.’s service delivery manager.)

Working outdoors, Ms. O’Dell checks the weather vigilantly. Still, one steamy day in June, she was caught off guard by torrential rains. “I was wearing a pair of jeans and my vest. I just stood there and let it happen. Whatever comes my way, I have to deal with it.”

Crossing-guard work is 'a really fulfilling job,' says Demitrius Marshall, 21, who is studying for an electrical apprenticeship at Humber College.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

After starting as a guard in March, Demitrius Marshall, 21, had people rolling and stopping their cars in the middle of his intersection, leaving him escorting families around vehicles. Many others didn’t bother to indicate their turns. For those who repeatedly ran his stop sign, Mr. Marshall would jot down their licence plates for his supervisors.

“The parents, kids and even random passersby will be thankful I’m there for them,” said Mr. Marshall, who is studying for his electrical apprenticeship at Humber College. The gratitude surprised him: “It makes me very happy. I didn’t anticipate it to the extent that it happened.”

Kids have offered water and security. TTC drivers and school bus drivers have volunteered to deliver lunch to his crosswalk. A stranger brought him an umbrella in a downpour. And an elderly women he’d help cross the road told him that if needed anything, be it water or a washroom, her house is the one with the blue door.

“It’s a really fulfilling job,” Mr. Marshall said. “There’s a lot more nice people than I thought there would be.”

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