Henk and Georgia Parson...
WORKAMPERS at the OPERA
photos by Arline Chandler and Lee Smith
For over 50 young artists, Opera in the Ozarks located seven miles west of Eureka Springs, Arkansas, is all about opera, intense training, dreams of a moment in the spotlight, and sharing personal space. For the general directors, six Workampers, and a technical staff, it’s all about teamwork—pulling together with singers and musicians to mount and perform three major operas in eight weeks.
Dating back to 1950 and the first Inspiration Point Fine Arts Colony located on picturesque property overlooking the White River Valley, the training camp for aspiring performers maintains its motto: “The students are the stars.” No lead singers from professional ranks perform the principle roles. The non-profit educational organization, which is supported by Federated Music Clubs in several states, as well as other gifts, legacies, and donations, boasts an internationally recognized artistic director, experienced scenery, lighting, and costume designers, and a professional orchestra to accompany the operas.
On May 15, 2007, my husband, Lee Smith, and I joined Workampers Larry and Ann Wood and Larry and Sue O’Hara to prepare the facilities in less than two weeks for the arrival of a staff and 45 singers. A full hook-up site awaited us. For the first weeks, we worked alongside the general director, Jim Swiggart, and his wife, Janice, to sweep away cobwebs and dirt that had accumulated during ten months of non-occupancy in staff housing, the costume shop, dormitories, dining hall, auditorium, and dressing rooms. As a team, we filled dumpsters with trash, vacuumed the practice cabins and staff housing, and scrubbed the bathrooms. In both the girls’ and boys’ dorms, we vacuumed mattresses and under bunk beds.
Once the singers and staff arrived, I assumed more regular duties, setting out the continental breakfast and keeping kegs of water and lemonade filled. I emptied trash after meals, helped with morning dishwashing, swept—and sometimes—mopped the dining hall. I also vacuumed the kitchen several times a week and helped the cooks, Larry and Sue O’Hara, with the salad bar.
Both Lee and Larry Wood, whom we called Woody, kept unpredictable hours when emergencies, such as a washer that failed to drain in the boys’ dorm or a toilet that would not flush in a piano coach’s cabin, kept them working after dark. All day, Woody’s whistling mixed with Italian lyrics vocalized in the practice cabins as he emptied trash and sorted through piles of discarded sets for salvageable material. Ann, with her accounting background, worked in the office, taking reservations for the opera performances. When performances began, she also helped in the ticket booth.
Lee prepared a long list of needed repairs on buildings that had suffered years of neglect. He replaced window panes in an old barn, one of the first buildings on the property that had once served as dormitories. Today, the weathered, red structure houses hundreds of costumes for dozens of operas that have been staged in the past 57 years. Lee installed 18 shop lights in the old two-story building to provide proper lighting for the costumers to hang the opera wardrobes on long racks, and then to pull costumes for the next season’s operas.
Our ten-week contract called for six hours of work daily with four compensated hours. Benefits included site and utilities, three daily meals, seating at all operas, and passes to local attractions. Laundry facilities were available in the kitchen, which adjoins a dining hall and two large classrooms. As a bonus, our employers arranged for all six Workampers to attend a gala fundraiser dinner at the historic Crescent Hotel in Eureka Springs. Opera artists presented a musical program.
However, Opera in the Ozarks goes beyond a job where hours are tabulated and duties are clear cut. As a support staff, each of us committed to create an environment in which young people could develop and showcase their talents for loyal audiences. The job required physical stamina. We put in long hours, taking up the slack when someone had a day off or an emergency calling them away for several days. In addition to their administration duties, the Swiggarts pitched in to help in all situations from preparing meals on the cooks’ day off to hoisting five gallon bags of milk into the dispenser to scrubbing pots and pans, cabins, and dormitories.
During the summer, Lee contributed his handyman skills to the improvement of the camp. He repaired and constructed stands for electronic pianos in the practice cabins. In the dormitories, he replaced leaky faucets, hot water heaters or elements, and batteries in emergency lights and smoke detectors.
Together, he and Woody changed window air-conditioners in staff units, worked on clogged toilets, and mopped a large practice area in the boys’ dormitory basement. While Woody ran the weed eater around the grounds, Lee did trouble shooting on electrical circuits. He also installed new blinds in the dining room/student center, and common rooms in the boys’ dormitory.
As the opera sets went up, Lee installed permanent door knobs for entrances on a hinged screen used as a backdrop for The Marriage of Figaro. He ran five electrical lines for stage lighting.
The Workamper positions offered the six of us an opportunity to meet and mingle with singers and musicians from across the United States. Seeing a stage production grow daily with rehearsals in the dining hall and practice rooms, costume fittings, and scenery rising from boards and planks was part of the payback for the work of cooking, cleaning, and creating a home-like ambiance for the young artists. Starting with dress rehearsals and carrying through opening nights and four weeks of rotating opera performances, we as a staff were part of moments that moved audiences.
For the last two weeks of our contract, Opera of the Ozarks hosted two children’s camps, one for piano and strings, and another for vocals. With only one day to transition from opera singers to high school and junior high students, the staff put in a long work day cleaning staff housing and dormitories. The younger campers came with a full roster of counselors and sponsors who took over some of the daily duties of managing breakfast and cleaning up after meals.
For more information about Opera in the Ozarks and the 2009 schedule, go to http://www.opera.org/. Lee and Arline returned in 2009 as support staff.
Workamping at amazon.com
photos by Arline Chandler & Lee SmithExpress Employment Professionals put out the call for Workampers to join the temporary workforce for amazon.com during the 2008 holiday season at the Coffeyville Fulfillment Center. Located in the southeast corner of Kansas, only 75 miles north of Tulsa, Coffeyville is not necessarily a destination for RVers. A friendly, but economically struggling town of about 10,000, Coffeyville’s bottom-line draw to Workampers was good wages for a short period of time. Amazon.com, through their partnership with Express Professionals, hired approximately 330 temporary associates, most of them Workampers from diverse backgrounds and geographic locations.
In their typical style, Workampers established a community at Walter Johnson City Park in Coffeyville. Lee and I joined a smaller contingent at the private Heritage Park around the corner, and another group lived at Elk City State Park, closer to Independence, and at Altamont’s Louis P. Gartner/Idle Hour Lakes. Although the group exchanged information and ideas over the Workamper News forum, schedules precluded the usual socialization among RVers. Ten-hour shifts, both day and night, ran Sunday-Wednesday and Wednesday-Saturday—unless one worked the donut shift, which meant work days were Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday.
Lee and I had requested to work the night shift, but we were assigned to the “donut” daytime shift. Leaving Spot for long daytime hours was our biggest reason for wanting the night shift, but we quickly decided that we preferred the daytime “donut” hours. We liked having weekends open to attend church on Sunday, and Wednesday off in the middle of the week proved to be a welcome respite.
With people sleeping and working in varying shifts, get-togethers generally happened at a restaurant on Sunday evenings, but we did not get to attend, due to an early morning start time for our jobs. A chaplain for the group provided worship services at Walter Johnson Park each Sunday morning. However, before we knew about the services, we had started attending Sunday-school and worship at a local church. The townspeople also threw out their welcome mats. In October and early November, many local churches hosted community dinners and luncheons. Some Workampers availed themselves of Coffeyville’s favorite recipes, including chicken and dumplings.
Start dates at amazon.com varied from late September to November 23. Many Workampers began their assignments in late October, but Lee and I started on November 9, in time for the Christmas shipping rush. Our official ending date was December 22.
Starting as an online bookstore in the early 1990s, amazon.com steadily branched into retail sales of music CDs, videotapes and DVDs, software, electronics, and other items from tools to toys and apparel to sporting goods, and even gourmet food. Almost any product a consumer desires is available at amazon.com. The company now ships from 16 locations in the United States, including their largest center at Coffeyville.
Amazon's focus is on “working hard, having fun, and making history as Earth’s Most Customer Centric Company.” In the recent past, the company searched for smart, friendly, and dedicated people with a strong work ethic to pump up their workforce during the Christmas rush. According to General Manager, Andrew McLenon, the Coffeyville Fulfillment Center successfully accomplished their quest with Workampers. He says, “Due to excellent attendance and minimal attrition, Workampers accounted for fewer hires. They also helped the building achieve record breaking productivity in those peak weeks.”
Express Professionals Owner, Mark Kays, adds: “In the 2007 Christmas season, our company hired 1156 temporary employees for amazon.com. In 2008, we hired a third of that number. Yet those temporary associates turned out more work with less expense, problems, and unknowns.”
Before arriving at amazon.com, I worried that I could not physically do the 10-hour shifts. My neighbor at Heritage Park, Linda Rhoten, shared that she had the same fear. Linda started her job in receiving a week earlier than our start date, and she worked the night shift. Her husband, Larry, worked a day shift so one of them could always be home with their dogs.
Lee and I reported in the shipping department. We carpooled five miles to the plant with fellow Workampers, Al and Novella Cabrera and Bill Enriquez.
The first week, we worked half days, five hours. The pace was fast, and at first, I was concerned that I could never make the quota of items the supervisors expected me to ship. Green plastic totes came down a conveyor beside our work stations, and we pulled out items one by one, scanned them, and packed them into the proper shipping container.
We started work at 6:30 a.m., and left the plant at 5:00 p.m. After Thanksgiving, we were asked to work 11-hour shifts, making us go into to work at 5:30 a.m. In order to have time for breakfast and a walk with Spot, Lee and I started getting up at 3:30 a.m.
Two fifteen-minute breaks per shift were brief. Only 30 minutes were allotted for lunch. We walked a distance to clock out for lunch. The break/lunch rooms throughout the plant had machines that dispensed sandwiches and frozen meals, but we packed our lunches and snacks. Coolers for stashing food from home were available, as well as ice machines and microwaves. Amazon.com provided free beverages like Gatorade®, hot cocoa, and coffee. Filtered, cold water stations were available throughout the plant.
After we started full-day shifts, I was sometimes called to the gift wrap stations, which were stocked with different sized sheets of paper, ribbon, tape, and boxes. Since amazon.com also ships for Target, I discerned from the packing slip the paper or gift box to use for each company. From a conveyor line, I picked a shipping box, which might have one to five or more items inside, and name tags for each gift. After wrapping, I placed the packages back in the shipping box and onto a conveyor that moved to the slam line where the boxes were filled with dunnage and taped for shipping. An odd shaped item went into a gift box or a bag. I did not enjoy working in gift wrap as much as I did in shipping. At a later time, I sometimes was moved to a line called “jiffy pack,” and the items, mostly books and DVDs, were scanned and stuffed into white padded envelopes and sent down another conveyor to a slam line.
A majority of Workampers agreed that working at amazon.com was a good experience. Yet, the job is not for everyone due to long hours, strenuous work, and the pressure for high numbers of productivity. After Thanksgiving, the onset of 11-hour days and the five-day work week came as a surprise. Although overtime was not mandatory for Workampers, the day shift had to clock in an hour earlier. A few Workampers opted to leave an hour early at 4:00, but once I was there at 5:30 a.m, I had done the hard part. I never considered leaving early. While some, like Lee and Larry Rhoten, welcomed the overtime, I chose to not work the extra day.
Although most people knew that Kansas gets cold in the wintertime, the eight-degree mornings with packed snow on the streets and highways shocked the psyche of RVers who have the option to move to warmer climates before the first snowflake falls. Many started to think: What am I doing here?
Coffeyville is a town with welcoming people, but blasts of December wind with ice and snow and the permeating smell of gas from the local refinery make a less than desirable environment—especially for RVers who can choose any destination in any season. And it does get cold in Kansas. Brrrrrr.