On a sunny spring afternoon, local crossing guard Charles Gaters came across one of his many charges: a preschooler out for a walk with his mom. Gaters offered a high-five to the little kid, who bashfully obliged.
"This guy is awesome! He's amazing, he brightens up our day," the mother exclaimed.
Gaters, who has a background in therapeutic child-care work, holds a post on the corner of El Camino Real and Maybell Avenue before and after each school day. His gregarious presence as a crossing guard since 2010 has been gratefully received by his manager, parents, local residents and the students he shepherds across the busy intersection.
But it's not just physical safety that Gaters considers his mission: It's students' whole well-being.
Every day, he tries to maintain an active dialogue with the kids who cross his post, whether it is giving life advice, asking about their day or just making them laugh. He works to give them a little perspective on their childhood and teenage years. For example, he asks students what they think they will be doing in 10 years and then reminds them what age they were 10 years ago, in order to demonstrate how quickly life moves.
Palo Alto resident Trudi Clifton-Vizvary walks by Gaters' post every morning to get coffee and has often been struck by his energy with the kids. As a retired child-welfare social worker herself, she resonated with his approach, and over time they became friends.
"He has a one-on-one connection. He knows most of them by name; he always gives them a high-five," Clifton-Vizvary said. "There's sort of a kinetic, wonderful response between the two of them it's like energy between Charles and every child."
Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, where he worked with children in a mental health residential treatment center, Gaters moved to the Bay Area 30 years ago. When he first landed, he worked in group homes as a direct-care worker with adults with mental disabilities. Following that, he worked as a full-time and substitute custodian for 13 years in the Palo Alto and the Mountain View school districts and at Foothill Community College. He retired from his custodial work in 2008 but then became a crossing guard in 2010, after he found his retired life boring. The work was a natural fit, he said.
"I felt real comfortable, I really did," Gaters said. "I felt I had something to give to the kids."
The longtime school employee has always made his work about the students, whether as a crossing guard or a custodian. During past Halloweens, he has passed out candy, and this last Christmas he dressed up as Santa Claus.
"I get so attached to the kids. High-fiving them, fist-pumping them, (making) sure they have a good day at the start of the day, (making) sure they have a good evening when they leave. ... To me that's important," Gaters said.
When working as a substitute custodian at Walter Hays Elementary School, he developed a game with kids by rewarding whoever had the cleanest lunch table for a week. And during his time as a substitute custodian at Jordan Middle School, the students wrote a petition to the Palo Alto Board of Education to get him hired full time there.
Last year he retired from his crossing guard work because he and his wife were planning to move to Atlanta, Georgia. But when the move had to be put on hold and he got a call to cover shifts, he jumped right back in. He and his wife are still planning to move to Atlanta and fully retire in the coming year. Gaters expressed mixed emotions about leaving the Bay Area but also said that he cannot afford to live here anymore.
His time living on hold has not been wasted. He told one story of a kid coming up to him at work and telling him that seeing him every morning on his way to school made the student's day "perfect."
"I think what makes a good crossing guard is listening to kids, listening to what they are really saying," Gaters said. "If they talk to you, just listen to them."