Wearing a black parka and black scarf around her head to keep warm on a cold February day--possibly the coldest of the year--Janet stands behind the front desk of the
. Every time the double doors open, wind gusts fill the building.
She's recovering from a stomach bug... Her voice rasps, but she remains cheerful. “Enjoy your workout,” she says, smiling to members as they pass.
Janet's black hair frames a dark-skinned face and brown eyes. She speaks with a slight accent that suggests a foreign upbringing.
Every several minutes, the phone rings. “It’s a great day at the Silver Spring YMCA,” Janet says. “How may I help you?”
Though there are chairs behind the front counter, Janet rarely sits down. Instead, she moves deftly from task to task. While on the phone, Janet eyes a temperamental scanner in front of her on the counter. When the scanner, which resembles a miniaturized radar gun, doesn’t immediately recognize a member’s card, she nudges it.
In between nudges, Janet steps back to check the computer for scanner ID verification. She makes neat piles of flyers on the counter with the latest Y announcements – new classes, hotline sign-up sheet and information about the upcoming President’s Day event. Like a periscope in rough seas, she bobs her head up, on the lookout to greet Y members as they come in for their early morning workout.
Janet coughs. “Ooh, honey,” a woman passing the front desk commiserates with Janet. “Here’s a virtual hug for you.”
Janet grew up in the desert-filled country of Kuwait
, as the eldest child in an Indian family. She says she doesn’t have much recollection of those years. Only that it was “hard living.” Like most Indians living in Kuwait, her parents migrated for economic reasons. The oil-rich Gulf country held job opportunities scarce in her parents’ home province of Karnataka in southern India. Over the past decades, so many Indians have come to Kuwait that they comprise nearly 20 percent of the population. Immigrants in Kuwait do jobs that Kuwaitis don’t want to do, like construction, garbage collection and working as nannies.
Unlike most other Indians in the diaspora in Kuwait, who are Hindu or Muslim, Janet’s family was Christian, remnants from a small community in Karnataka. Her father died when she was in her teens. Janet remembers watching her mother toil after her father’s death, working as a nanny and caretaker for wealthier Indian families in order to make sure her children were fed, clothed and went to school.
Janet prefers not to dwell on the difficulties her mother faced. The memory visibly pains her, and she lowers her head. But they stand out on their own: single-mother, an Indian in Kuwait, a Christian in a Muslim culture. A triple minority.
Janet arrived in the US in 2001. Those were the pre-9/11 days, and Janet flowed into the country that year along with more than one million other immigrants. She and her son joined her husband who had come earlier for work. It was a chance for a new start. Building on the high school education she got in Kuwait, in the US she earned an associate degree, equivalent to the first two years of study for a bachelor degree. She raised her son and supported her husband.
She also joined the Y
. One day after working out on the treadmill, Janet asked at the front desk if there were any openings. She started work soon after as a member services representative. The work surprised her; at the end of a day of work, her legs sore from standing, she felt satisfaction. She realized that she liked interacting with people. It fed something in her.
She enjoyed handling people’s queries on the phone, addressing their requests in person, and giving prospective members tours of the facility -- all things that bring the Y closer to fulfilling its mission of helping to build stronger communities.
Out of the daily interactions, Janet fine-tuned a kind approach to people. “Even if they are nasty,” she says of the most difficult members, “you don’t have to be nasty to them. They may be having a bad day. I choose to forget.”
In her 50s, Janet is aging gracefully. She looks at least ten years younger. Maybe 20 years when she smiles. She is polite, affable and responsive. When I approached her to ask her if I could interview her for this story, she assumed I was a member with a query. She grabbed a pen and paper, ready to write down my request. When I told her that this was a different kind of request, she put down the pen and paper. But her eagerness remained. “Yes?” she said with a smile.
If the Y builds communities, then Janet is glue
. With her smile and pleasant demeanor, she ushers people into a temple of her own making, a place of warmth and good cheer. When I asked her about her dreams, she said she wanted to help people who are hurting. She intimated that would be in a place beyond the Y, maybe some place like India or Kuwait.
In a rush to make the world a better place, Janet greets the next Y member who comes in from the cold. She smiles. “Enjoy your workout.”
Written by Jeffrey Lilley
Member of YMCA Silver Spring &