30 years serving youth
Rec center’s most familiar face
By Angie Landsverk
Sandy Abraham is passionate about working with youth.
“When I walk into the building at 3:45 p.m., the kids come running,” she said.
They hug her and say, “Sandy’s here.”
Abraham works part time at Waupaca’s recreation center.
She has done so for 30 years and does not plan to stop.
“One wouldn’t stay at a job for 30 years unless it was gratifying and fulfilling,” Abraham said.
She started working for the city’s Parks and Recreation Department in November 1987.
A former director created the part-time position after she first volunteered for two years at the city’s community center.
At the time, Abraham lived on Fulton Street and noticed students heading to the center.
The center was located in what is now The Paint Store.
She asked if volunteers were needed and soon found herself there during the day on Saturdays and Sundays.
Abraham remembers everything about the former space.
“There was a pool table, ping pong, board games, TV,” she said. “We had a jukebox in there. There was like a bar in there along a wall. We would make sundaes and root beer floats.”
As the center grew, the former Armory across the street opened up to the youth as well.
Once Abraham became an employee, she worked Friday night and during the day on Saturday.
“Eventually it kept growing and growing to Friday and Saturday nights,” she said.
When the rec center opened on School Street in early 2005, it opened up more recreation opportunities for youth and adults.
Abraham’s goal remained the same.
It was to cultivate relationships with students and be a constant in their lives.
“I’m always willing to listen to them and provide an outlet,” she said.
Abraham meets them at their level – listening to them and never judging.
Her job is not without challenges, however.
“I run a tight ship,” she said.
There is zero tolerance for swearing, alcohol and drugs.
That means she sometimes must tell students to leave and stay away from the center for a period of time.
Abraham wants them to know she means what she says.
Before they return, she talks to them, as well as to their parents and teachers, about why they were asked to leave.
Abraham said the rec center is an amazing building with “so many opportunities for kids to grow here.”
On Friday and Saturday nights, students in fifth through 12th grades may go there.
“There are so many kids who don’t have anything and no place to go,” she said. “This is just a warm environment here, and there are so many things for kids to do.”
Abraham and the others who work there find students prefer going there and hanging out with friends.
They do not want organized, structured activities.
When they play, parks and rec staff members often join them.
Abraham also teaches the youth to include everyone, regardless of what brand of shoes or piece of clothing they wear.
If a staff member notices someone is standing in a corner or not playing with others, the staff member approaches the student and engages him in conversation.
Abraham encourages parents to go to the center with their children.
“I would like to have parents come down and interact and play with their kids and see that it is a fun, safe environment,” she said. “There have been more families coming on weekends from Weyauwega, Wild Rose, from Amherst. I would love to see more parents from Waupaca here, because they judge it.”
It costs $1 every Friday and Saturday night for youth to go to the center, with the money going toward equipment needs.
When students do not have $1, Abraham finds little jobs for them.
She sees that as a better alternative than turning some of them away after they been dropped off and do not have cellphones to call their parents.
Abraham was recognized for her 30 years of service to the city during last month’s common council meeting.
That night, the council voted unanimously to name the first volleyball court in the recreation center’s new gym the “Sandy Abraham Court.”
Aaron Jenson, Waupaca’s parks and recreation director, saw it as an appropriate and fitting gesture due to her dependability, hard work and passion during the last 30 years.
He said Abraham is a dedicated employee who will continue to work for the city.
“Sandy has been a part-time employee during this entire span and a rock solid piece in the Parks and Recreation Department,” he wrote in a memo to Mayor Brian Smith and the common council.
She works evenings Monday through Saturday, and Jenson said Abraham makes the rec center a welcoming and safe place for all children and families in the community.
She is also a resource for large weekend events and coordinates officials and teams for the adult volleyball leagues that run three nights a week, six months out of the year, he said.
Jenson asked Abraham to attend the December Parks and Recreation Board meeting to recognize her years of service.
“I was so overwhelmed, shocked. Why me?” she asks after the decision to name a volleyball court in her honor.
Abraham said, “I’m so flattered and overwhelmed, because I love my job so much. I meet so many people. It’s a fun place to work. The facility – it’s a privilege to work here.”
Through the years, she has formed many relationships with youth.
They later return to the rec center during their college breaks to play basketball.
Others send her Christmas cards or visit when they are back in town, introducing her to their own children.
“For 30 years I have worked here, and it doesn’t feel like I’ve worked at all,” Abraham said. “I look forward to coming here on Friday nights at 4 p.m. The kids are all ready to play.”
She said children need a place where they may be themselves.
Another bonus for Abraham is her daughter, Bailey, has been part of the center’s staff the past 11 years, ever since she was a sophomore in high school.
Bailey and her older sister Andrea both went to the center with their mother when they were children.
“So I was never cheated out of time with them,” Abraham said.
She says, “I’ll never quit this job. I never want to quit. I would be sad. I would miss the kids so much.”