The best thing about Brenden Torres’ summer job at the Long Island Game Farm Wildlife Park and Children’s Zoo in Manorville is also the worst. The 17-year-old from East Moriches says he enjoys cleaning the enclosures for the llamas, the alpacas, the donkeys. He says he especially likes tending to the zebras.
But this favorite part of his job has a flip side: Torres has to discard the animals’ uneaten food and scoop up their droppings.
Getting that official paycheck — a rite of passage for kids as they go from being cared for by their parents to starting to take care of themselves — makes the not-so-fun parts of working worth it, say Long Island teens experiencing their first formal employment this summer. They may have baby-sat or been paid off the books for work before, but this is the first time they are clocking in, donning a uniform, starting to log their contributions to Social Security. Across Long Island, teenagers are earning minimum wage of $11 an hour — or maybe a dollar or so more if they’re lucky — at venues including retail establishments, state parks and seasonal attractions.
Dominique Herbert, 14, of Levittown, is working as a swim instructor at Saf-T-Swim in Levittown. “I didn’t want my parents to have to pay for everything I do,” Herbert says of why she applied for the position that gets her into the pool three days a week. She banks about $100 from her biweekly paychecks, and she spends the rest on going out to eat or shopping. “I’m into makeup,” she says.
What she says she's found the most challenging about her work: “A lot of the kids are really scared of the water. It was one of my worst fears to drown, so I know where they’re coming from.” Herbert says she will talk to the kids, gaining their trust as she teaches them how to kick and stay afloat. In turn, she’s gained confidence in herself, saying she feels herself becoming more mature and responsible.
Isabella DeLeon, 16, of Westbury, also works with the water — she's a lifeguard at Pierce Country Day Camp in Roslyn. She says not being as available to go out with her old friends is the only down side of toiling all day Monday through Friday. "My friends were out going to the beach every day, and I was working," DeLeon says. But she loves the job. "Just the whole idea of being outside all day," she says.
Seventeen-year-old Mathew Stollow's parents told him if he kept up his grades and participated in sports and extra curriculars, he wouldn’t have to earn spending money. But he graduated in June from Westhampton Beach High School and so has started working at the Long Island Aquarium, a job he plans to keep while attending Stony Brook University.
Stollow's responsibilities in guest services can include answering guests’ questions about the fish, including the stingrays, whose petting tank Stollow recalls he once tried to climb into when he was a toddler visiting the aquarium. He’s saved about $1,000 so far and plans to spend some of it on clothes to start college. “I want to present myself well to professors,” Stollow says.
Working makes the teens feel like they have a purpose, they say. “It makes me feel important, helping customers,” says Patrick Bennett, 18, of Ronkonkoma, who works 14 to 16 hours a week selling work clothes and boots at the Work n Play store in Centereach. He says he was recently promoted to cashier and plans to keep working at the store when he starts St. Joseph’s College in Patchogue in the fall, studying math and secondary education.
Bennett’s father, Thomas, says he’s proud that his son sought work. “I’m a blue-collar guy, and it made me glad to see him see how the world turns,” says the senior Bennett, a union electrician.
Sometimes that work time can be fun, says Patrick Ensmenger, 17, a rising senior at Plainview's John F. Kennedy High School, who checks in climbers as they arrive at The Adventure Park at Long Island in Wheatley Heights. Talking with the public has helped him hone his people skills, which he says will serve him well as he plans to become a physician assistant one day.
Sometimes patrons will get frustrated by something that occurs, and he reminds himself that their ire isn’t directed at him. “I’ve learned just to stay cool,” he says. “As long as you’re cool, they kind of stay cool as well.”
Heavyn Giles, 17, of Uniondale, and Tayanee Peay, 17, of Amityville, literally try to stay cool as they work out in the sun at Jones Beach — they're employed by New York State Parks and their responsibilities include staffing the fee booths as cars enter the parking fields and cleaning up and collecting garbage from the beaches and bathrooms.
"Everybody treats you like family," Peay says. "You never really have to deal with negativity. Most of the time everybody's happy. We're at the beach. It's the summer."