Forty-two-year-old Missi Pfeifer meets me at the east Lawrence neighborhood pool that’s just across the street from her house.
It’s an unusually warm day for the first week of March. Pfeifer is wearing blue jeans and a short-sleeved black shirt and vest with slip-on shoes.
After unlocking the wire-fenced gate, she takes a seat next to me on one of the four wooden picnic tables in the deck area that’s shaded by trees, and I don’t have to ask a question. She immediately begins talking about the pool and why she’s volunteered her time, energy and money to keep it open for the past 11 years. At times, her bright blue eyes fill with tears.
“It is an amazing little place,” she said. “I started swimming here probably when I was a year old. This is where I learned to swim.”
She said her mother, Charlotte Hastings, operated the pool about 35 years ago for five years. Pfeifer, her twin brother and her sister spent all day, every day at the pool during the summer. They also made lifelong friends.
“This is where we grew up,” she says. “I love it. I love it more than anything and I hate to give up on it, but we are near.”
The pool — at Maple Lane and Clare Road near Kennedy School — was donated to the neighborhood by developers Bob, Bud and Al Moore in the 1960s. Since then, parents have volunteered to operate the pool, which is called the County Fair Swim Club. The area actually has a baby pool and a large pool that goes from 3 feet deep to 9 feet deep with a diving board. There also are restrooms, a concession stand area and a storage shed.
“Somehow, it has just kind of passed from volunteer to volunteer. Somebody just steps up and says, ‘I’ll do it,’ and then it just ends up being their group of friends or whoever wants to be involved,” Pfeifer said.
Problem is fewer people want to help and nobody has stepped up to take over Pfeifer’s job as president of the club. She’s volunteered in the position longer than anyone before her.
Dale Rorabaugh, who helps with maintenance and lawn care, said his close friend is the reason the pool has remained open.
“Missi organizes everything, buys supplies needed for it, does general maintenance, cleans it about every day. She organizes the lifeguards every year. Makes sure insurance is paid. She does a lot.”
She also recruits about a dozen friends, like Rorabaugh, to help out. The two used to hang out at the pool as kids. They swam, snacked on foods and played cards. It’s a bond that’s lasted a lifetime.
“I’ve have men who are just wonderful and willing to do almost anything for a 12-pack,” Pfeifer said, laughing. But she doesn’t sit back while they work; she’s right there with them.
“It has to be treated with muriatic acid and that is like one of the most atrocious jobs you ever want to do,” she said, explaining that it will take three or four weekends before they can even begin filling the pool with water. “We get better at it every year. I am an awesome cement worker because of it.”
She let out a sigh as she looked at the work ahead. A trash barrel sat in the baby pool filled with mucky water and leaves. The big pool also had dark brown, foul-smelling water inside it. Leaves were scattered everywhere and the trees overhead needed trimmed.
“I can’t even tell you what’s in the bottom of that big pool and I don’t even want to know,” she said, laughing. “Stuff falls in over the winter and it’s the worst smelling thing you’ve ever experienced in your life.”
But, that’s not the toughest part of her volunteer work.
“Running the pool is the fun part. It’s the trying to raise the money to run the pool that I’m tiring of,” she said.
Pfeifer has organized every kind of fundraiser you can imagine: chili feeds, silent auctions, Bingo, poker tournaments and holiday-themed parties. She’s filled out grant applications, but the grants are hard to come by.
“We just don’t fit a category. We are just a bunch of parents trying to keep the pool open for the kids,” she said.
She said the pool hit the jackpot — $22,000 — one year when it was chosen as a beneficiary of Lawrence’s annual St. Patrick’s Day parade. That helped her get through two summers.
Every year, she gets more creative. Last summer, Pfeifer booked her first wedding and reception. There were big tents and floating balls in the pools that looked like strobe lights. “It was pretty cool,” she said, enthusiastically. “I am willing to rent it for just about anything.”
It costs about $14,000 to operate the pool each year and she often ends up digging into her own pocketbook to help make ends meet.
“Honestly, we are broke,” she said. “But, I’ve been here before — many, many times. Every year, I don’t know how I do it.”
She charges $2 a day, but if somebody can’t pay she doesn’t turn them away. She estimated about 60 children use the pool each day and most of them are from low-income families. Many of their parents are divorced. If the pool weren’t open, she isn’t sure where they would go.
She gets to know all of the kids on a first-name basis and often they will do small jobs like pulling weeds along the fence to go swimming.
“When it’s hot, this place is packed,” she said with a big smile. “It is packed.” Pfeifer said people will order pizza and bring lunches.
“It doesn’t feel like the city pool. It feels more like your backyard.”
She has also hosted movie nights at the pool where they play a movie on the backside of the concession stand area. Sometimes, they furnish bags of popcorn or will have hotdogs and chips.
“It’s hard to find someone who loves it like I do,” she said.
Her mother agrees.
“If it wasn’t for Missi, the pool wouldn’t be open,” Hastings said. “For some reason, the community involvement isn’t as great as it used to be. I suppose it’s because of everybody’s busy schedules. Maybe, they are busier than we were back 35 years ago. I don’t know.”
She said her daughter spends a great deal of time on fundraisers and joked that somehow she still gets roped into helping.
“I’m real proud of her for being involved in the community that much. I think it’s great,” she said. “Missi’s devoted to keeping it open. That’s for sure.”
When she’s not at the pool, she’s working her full-time job as a hair stylist at Shear Perfection or attending her children’s activities. She and her husband, Rick, have three children: Steven, 24; Noah, 16; and Garett, 13. She said her children have grown up around the pool just as she did. Noah is looking forward to being a lifeguard this summer if Pfeifer can raise the money to keep the pool going through the summer.
Her dream would be for someone to give a big donation that could be invested, so the pool would remain open for years to come. Heck, she would love to rename the pool for that donor.
“Listen, I’ve got lots of things I could do with my time, but none that quite have the payoff that this does at the end of the summer,” she said.
HOW TO HELP
The County Fair Swim Club pool in east Lawrence typically opens Memorial Day and closes Labor Day. It’s open from 1 p.m. to 8 p.m. daily and costs $2 for a day’s pass.
Missi Pfeifer, club president, estimates it costs about $14,000 annually to operate the pool.
Donations can be sent to: County Fair Swim Club, P.O. Box 976, Lawrence, KS 66044 or they can be made online at countyfairswimclub.org.
If you would like to volunteer or learn more about the pool, contact Missi Pfeifer at firstname.lastname@example.org.