Story Unmasked: Angela, Custodian at Hugh McRoberts Secondary School (Richmond, BC)

Interviewed by Sarina Sandhu.

"I go into at least 90% of the classrooms every single day to give them an extra sanitize just so I can say “Yes, you’re safe today!”
Angela Wiltshire, Senior School Custodian

What is a general description of your job?

“I am the senior day custodian. I have my rooms that I clean everyday and make sure that they get done before everyone gets here. And the rest of the day I’m maintaining the building, dealing with any emergencies, problem solving, running fire drills, lockdown drills… we’ve got painting starting next week so I’ll be coordinating that as well… Right now I have a help for extra sanitizing during the day, I have Ernesto, in the afternoon we have Genesis who is our senior custodian and he has Roband Ken helping him. And we have a four hour position right now that we are still needing to fill because the person has moved on to another school.”

How long have been working in this occupation? Where have you worked in the past?

“ I have been with the school board for 26 years… So, I came here from Gilmore; but, in the past I have done Sea Island, I have done most of the high schools in Richmond, multiple elementaries, I have done the works yard where all our trades workers are based out of, where the buses are based out of, so pretty much everywhere.”

Since you grew up in Richmond, which elementary and high schools did you attend? Did you always know that you would work in the custodian and sanitation services when you were older?

“ I went to Dixon, Hugh Boyd back when it was a junior high, and the original Steveston High… No, ...actually my plan was to be an educational assistant… I figured I could take that course during the day and do custodial work at night and [I] found that I really liked custodial work. I could interact with the kids if I wanted to, or if I was having an off day and I didn’t want to talk to [the students] then I didn’t have to. It wasn’t part of my job. But, I love working with the kids.”

I treat every school that I’ve worked at as if my kids go here; so, I clean it like my kids were going to be here, and that’s how clean I want the school. And getting the thank-yous with the personal notes from students—current and past students—it was huge! For me, it was really big.

What’s something about your role/ job that most people might not know about?

“ ...For me, I take on a lot of personal responsibility. Like, I treat… every school that I’ve worked at as if my kids go here; so, I clean it like my kids were going to be here and that’s how clean I want the school. So,... I try to keep it as clean as possible.”

Why do you think your job is important?

“... One, it’s going to keep [the students] healthy, and if [the students] have a clean environment it’s easier to focus and it’s going to work better for [the students’] mental health, and… [the students] will respect the property, if there’s graffiti on the walls [the students] will just add to it, if there’s nothing on the walls then [students] will feel bad if they write on the wall.”

How have things been different for you during the pandemic (personally or in your job) compared to before the pandemic?

“ Personally, I’m doing about 10X the work that I used to do. I have way more responsibility,... my goal was to make sure that nobody gets sick in the building…. Not only do I clean and sanitize my rooms; but, every morning I [am] sanitizing all the public areas, so everything in the hallways, the benches, the walls, the handrails, the doors… and I go into at least 90% of the classrooms every single day to give them an extra sanitize just so I can say “Yes, you’re safe today!”... And I am very tired. I am wearing a respirator; and, I feel for the healthcare workers who are wearing them for… 12 hours plus. I am wearing it for 2 hours and my face hurts...”

What has working through the pandemic been like? What are some challenges you may face on a day-to-day basis (if any)?

“... Just trying to make sure [that] everything is done. There are only so many hours [in a day]. I start earlier than I am supposed to; so, I’m doing overtime without getting paid just so that I can get everything done. And, I can feel comfortable and say “Yes, I did the best that I could do!”... My shift is 6:00am [until] 2:30pm; but, I walk in the door at 5:30am and start right away.

How have you coped and managed with the difficulties of covid-19?

“... I [have] probably been eating more junk food, as I am sure most people are. I am so tired by the time I get home, I don’t have time to exercise as much; but, I am moving so much that I am essentially getting a full workout during the day. I do an average [of] 20 to 30 000 steps every day when I’m [working]. And, probably about 15- 20 flights of stairs.”

If you could speak to yourself pre-covid, what’s something you would tell yourself?

“Work on your cardio!... I don’t know, maybe try not to stress too much, it’s an easy thing to say but it’s a hard thing to do…. You can tell teenagers not to stress and [that] everything will be fine; but, it’s really hard even as an adult to go... “You know what it will work out!”... And, I am worried, my husband is [in] law enforcement so, he’s… dealing with the general public right now in these conditions. Both my kids work in areas where they’re out with the general public, grocery stores, construction sites, and it’s very stressful.”

Is there a particularly memorable moment or experience that you had during the pandemic that you would like to share?

Thank-you poster by Sarina Sandhu

“ When [the students] gave me that card earlier this week, it reminded me how much and why I am actually working as hard as I am. Because [the students] here are great! I fought very hard to come back here, I did two temporary positions here before I was on permanently, and I fought to come back because… this is the best school I have worked at, in 25 years, this is the best school I have worked at. And getting the thank yous with the personal notes from students, current and past students, it was huge! For me, it was really big.”

What’s one good thing that’s happened to you in 2020?

“ In 2020,... my son got engaged. So,... that was good, he has someone who makes him very happy and even amongst all this he found something very good…”

What motivates/ inspires you?

“... Knowing that it may not seem like it to most people but, I do make a difference… To a lot of people I pick up the garbage and I clean up the toilet but,... I am actually controlling [the students’] health, I am making sure that [the students] are healthy while [they are] at least in the building.”

What’s something that you wish you could tell others that would help make your job a bit easier?

“... Make sure that you, [the students] are using the hand sanitizer when you come in through the door. I know that the stuff that they’ve given us is really gross and sticky; but, if we can keep the germs from coming in everyone’s going to be that little bit safer and just try and keep the distance. It’s hard, you know it’s hard to stay away from your friends… Pick up your garbage,... then it’s one less thing that I have to pick up.”

Empty Hallway at Hugh McRoberts S.S
This is not a defining moment in your life, and everyone has speed bumps.

What’s some advice that you would give to students at Hugh McRoberts Secondary?

“... Take time to relax. Your mental health is more important than your education right now. I am a… huge advocate… of mental health, especially in teenagers, I have gone through a lot with my own. And I see things in some of the kids here that I missed in my own kids; and, I wish I had seen it. So, take time to just relax and decompress and if you play video games then play something fun once in a while. If you’re watching movies, watch something funny and just laugh… This is not a defining moment in your life, and… everyone has speed bumps.”

Is there anything else that you would like to share with me?

“... Honestly, without any exaggeration, this has been the best school that I have ever worked at. And it’s the students and the staff that make it that way. I have had kids who just see me doing something and they just help pick up something before I even get there; or, they just wait until I am finished doing what I am doing and they say “I am sorry, didn’t mean to get in your way.”. Little things like that,... you don’t see in a lot of schools… So, McRoberts is a very different school from any of the other schools that I have worked at. In a good way!”

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