From: Port Richmond
First pool experience: Samuels Pool in 2001
Work with the pools: As a lifeguard at O’Connor Pool from 2010 to 2013
“One of the most important things about growing up,” Natalia Susul reflects from in the thick of it, “is retaining some innocence. You grow up, and so much stuff happens. Everyone has a rough life. Through all the stuff that you’re going through, whether it’s work stuff or family stuff or just life, you have to be honest, be simple. It’s the simplest things in life that are the most important.”
Natalia has the diminutive stature of a gymnast, but her curiosity is huge and honest. She is unflaggingly open-minded and interested in the world – and especially the people – around her.
“With my parents barely knowing the language, they’ve always stressed to me, know as many people as you can. Meet as many people from as many different backgrounds, because you’ll learn something from everyone. It doesn’t matter if they’re rich or if they’re poor. And that was my favorite thing about being a lifeguard. You meet so many different people. There’s doctors that come to the pool. There’s kids in second grade that come to the pool. People of all different backgrounds, of all different jobs, of all different ethnicities can still come to one place and share something in common. Regardless of their income, or regardless of their skin color – regardless of anything. “
Natalia – who, as the LG2 (head lifeguard) at O’Connor Pool, was my boss this past summer – was on track to become a Philadelphia Department of Parks and Recreation lifeguard by the time she was eight. She and her older brother grew up in Port Richmond (“culturally Polish,” she describes it, and fluent in the language) and attended programs at Samuels Rec, up the street from their house, for as long as she can remember. The summer she was to turn nine, her mother enrolled both kids in Samuels’ Swim for Life summer camp. “I’m pretty sure I threw up in the morning, I was so scared,” Natalia laughs. But by the second week, she was swimming in eight feet of water. She returned to the camp for six more summers, and passed the lifeguard certification at the end. She remembers the lead instructor, Mary Beth, as “the best person in the world. We were always messing around: ‘I don’t wanna swim,’ ‘It’s cold,’ ‘Let’s leave.’ Mary Beth always made us stay in the water, always made us swim.”
Natalia’s first year lifeguarding was 2010, when the City reopened all the pools after the massive closures the summer before. All the pools, that is, except for two that didn’t pass inspection – including the one at Monkiewicz Playground, where Natalia’d been hired. “I called Mary Beth. She looked out for her kids. She really didn’t have to! With all the cuts that were happening – I don’t know the full story of what happened with her and her job – but she wanted everyone to have a job; she wanted everyone to get something out of what they worked for. She within a day called all these different people,” and eventually turned up a lifeguard opening at O’Connor, where Natalia’s worked ever since.
“I knew nobody when I was going up there. I was unfamiliar with the area. I had no idea. I was never in South Philly. In the beginning, my first year, I was the only girl lifeguard out of five lifeguards, but everyone was just super nice. I always felt like someone had my back.”
Natalia waves her hands around as she talks, at times almost hopping up and down with enthusiasm, and laughs loudly and often. She radiates positivity, even when she talks about her brother’s death last year, and the hole that left in her family. Now a junior studying physical therapy at the University of Pittsburgh, she attended Catholic school from the time she was four, first around the corner at her home parish, Nativity BVM, and later at Nazareth Academy. Her goal in life is to help others, and the opportunity to do so is one of the things she loves about teaching swimming.
“It’s not just recreational. That’s the best part about swimming in all these pools; you learn a lot too. Swimming in general – it’s a huge confidence booster. It’s always scary to first learn how to swim. There aren’t many people who are comfortable with it in the beginning. I went to swim camp being like, ‘I really can’t swim; I’m not confident at all.’ And then in a week or two I was already on a better level. And now, seeing kids’ reactions when they can finally put their head underwater, and hold their breath. You see their progress. I’m not even a teacher. I’m not anything special; I’m a kid myself. But it’s gratifying – it’s just so nice to know that you helped. Simple things!”
Philly’s pools are part of the reason, Natalia explains, that she “wouldn’t trade growing up in Port Richmond for anything.”
“I loved growing up in a neighborhood, in such a small town but in the city. We’d play ‘til 10 o’clock at night, and then my mom would call us down the street to come in, and me and my brother would be angry – ‘Ahh, we wanna stay out and play!’ And in the morning it was back out, back out on the street. Freedom was our thing. Freedom was our game. We had a park around the corner; we have a bunch of playgrounds down the street.”
“Growing up in the city, we went down the shore every now and then. But the city gets hot; the city gets sweaty; the city gets gross in the summer. Having the pools is not only a way to cool down, it’s a way to be a kid. Through all the troubles of every day, just being a child again, being innocent again, and just frolicking around. Not everybody does have the money to go down the shore, or has the time to go down the shore.”
“Life is a cycle. You grow up, but there’s somebody else that’s also growing up. Try to think back to when you were a kid. Remembering what you had as a kid – the things you loved as a kid – all kids should have. Hopefully the pools will stay open forever.”