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Secrets to their success: Former teens talk summer jobs

After my column ran about how important it is for teens to experience summer jobs, I received more than 100 emails, tweets, Facebook comments and even a letter, from readers who wholeheartedly agreed. They shared poignant, smart and often humorous stories about how summer jobs had shaped their lives for the better.

And let me tell you, it was good reading.

I've narrowed down a few to share here. Nearly every response was fit to print, and I would share many more if I had enough space.

Make sure you read until the end, because I've saved the best for last.

From fishmonger to top cancer surgeon. Michelle Marcotte in Lewiston emailed about her daughter, Clare Reade, who worked two high school summers at the busiest fish market in Ottawa, Ont. Reade got so good at boning fish that customers would line up and wait for her to fillet their expensive, whole salmons.

"It was hard and smelly work, but boy did her knife skills ever improve," Marcotte wrote.

Later, when applying to medical schools, her experience as a fishmonger stood out, and generated discussion during medical school interviews. Reade ended up being accepted everywhere she applied, and is now putting those skills to use as a top cancer surgeon.

"She can still fillet a fish beautifully," Marcotte wrote.

Some hated their time at McDonald's, other were "lovin' it." Working at the fast-food chain made Bernadette Hoffman "attentive and quick," she wrote on the Discount Diva Facebook page. It gave Adrienne Boudreau a thicker skin when people are rude. It made Kathleen Young feel empowered, because she did the same tasks as the male employees, which was unusual at the time.

But McDonald's made Tom Virtuoso, who went on to design video games and 3D graphics in Orlando, Fla., absolutely miserable.

"I think everyone should be required to work a minimum of three years in customer service to understand the crap that those people have to put up with," he wrote on Facebook.

A natural. Christopher Byrd, editor of Broadway Fillmore Alive, sold programs at the former War Memorial Stadium during Buffalo Bisons games the year "The Natural" was filmed there. He made an extra 10 cents for each one he sold, so he "really had to hawk them," he said.

"It taught me how to get really creative with selling, a skill I still use," Byrd said.

Another perk: he got to the stadium early to scrounge baseballs from the outfield stands and gathered more than 100 that summer, which lasted him and the neighborhood kids for years.

Money motivates. Jacob Kedzierski did piecework for Father Sam's Bakery for three years, starting at age 13. He made 4 cents per box and got so fast he was soon finishing as many as 250 per hour. Minimum wage was about $3.35, yet he was making about $10 per hour. Kedzierski, who eventually became a photographer, got a taste of what it's like to shape your own destiny (and paycheck).

Lessons at Tops Markets put him at the top of his career. Paul Kowalski, a principal in the Lockport City School District, got his start at age 15 corralling carts at Tops. It led to a management position at the supermarket, which prepared him for his second act as a school administrator.

"It taught me invaluable lessons and people skills that I never learned in a college classroom," Kowalski tweeted.

A lesson in bad behavior. Summer jobs taught teenagers how not to treat people. Jaclyn Levesque of Kenmore learned at B Kwik that people are people, no matter their job, and that we "should treat one another better." She was verbally abused by customers, even churchgoers who had just left service.

"You would think that people would have been kinder just having left church, but they weren't," she wrote on Facebook. "It's amazing how people compartmentalize behavior."

Rachel Smith said she learned how to work well with others and provide good customer service at Wegmans, which prepared her for her current career as a land development coordinator in Arizona. But the job showed her the worst of people, too.

"I learned the public is brutal, even to kids," she wrote.

Deep-cleaning classrooms and cutting up credit cards. Amy Rybczynski spent two tough summers laboring as a school and church cleaner, which she said proved "I was tougher than I thought." Next, she worked in a tiny law office that also employed her mom. That's where she got to cut up a giant stack of credit cards belonging to someone who had just gone through bankruptcy.

"Perfect lesson about being responsible with my credit card!" she wrote on Facebook.

Kitchen philosopher. Roy Bakos's 30-year career in hospitality began at age 16 in the kitchen of a pizzeria. Now, he teaches at SUNY Buffalo State and is the director of hospitality at Buffalo Distilling Co.

"The way that I manage the floor of the distillery and the way that I manage the classroom aren't that different," Bakos said. "I also learned that being hospitable to everyone is the best way to go through life."

Early awakening. Working retail at places such as the Main Place Mall, Thruway Mall and L. L. Berger gave Amy Jo Lauber an inside look at how strange, angry and fearful people can behave when it comes to money. She's now a financial planner and wrote a book about how people can improve their emotional relationships with their finances.

Finding her love of nursing. At age 16, Melanie Keleher of North Tonawanda transported patients to physical therapy at DeGraff Hospital and found she "really liked being there and working with people." She began the licensed practical nursing program at BOCES the same year.

Finding his "why." Joey Cicatello's first job at 17 was at the YWCA of the Niagara Frontier, mentoring kids in the day camp. He's now the program director and is studying toward a master's degree in social work to become a school social worker.

It was that first summer job that showed him how much he loved to work with kids and their families, and planted the seed for his budding career. His experience with students, teachers and the school system has put him miles ahead of his classmates.

Pride in work done well. At age 13, Michael Bork of North Tonawanda got work as a school custodian's assistant through a Niagara County job program for teens from low-income families.

"I learned right away how valuable the janitor is," Bork wrote on Facebook. "He went to great lengths to teach us how important our job was that summer."

He and "Mr. Frank" Wasielewski scrubbed Gilmore Elementary school from top to bottom, but not to impress the teachers or the principal.

"It was about how much wow factor those kids felt on their first day of school," Bork wrote.

Sure, the money helped Bork pay for cable television at home and buy his friends lunch at Burger King on payday. But the lessons he learned lasted a lifetime.

"That $3.75 an hour amounted to way more than they could have ever imagined," Bork wrote.

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