On the final day of fall semester exams, students leaving the Central Grounds Parking Garage would find a woman in the payment booth wearing holiday-themed reindeer antlers, smiling and waving cheerfully to those handing her their white parking slips and crisp dollar bills. The woman’s name is Jada Howard, and this was one of the last times she would be doing this.
After 25 years in the booth of University parking garages, her last day as an attendant was Jan. 4. She was retiring. It wasn’t entirely her choice.
When the University decided to in the Central Grounds Garage beginning this month, there was no longer a need for attendants to staff the booth throughout the day and evening. While machines replacing humans may sound like a plot point in a science-fiction novel, this is a difficult reality for Howard and the seven other attendants who worked at the garage.
Rebecca White, director of Parking and Transportation, said in an email that employees were notified in October and November that their positions would be eliminated. She said University Human Resources met with each employee to discuss their options consistent with University policy.
“Due to age and years of service, some of the employees were eligible for retirement,” White said. “In addition to exploring other placement options at the University, UHR arranged meetings with benefits counselors to help each employee fully explore severance or retirement.”
Howard said she was offered the opportunity to work elsewhere at U.Va. She was told she could stay within Parking and Transportation and drive a bus, but she would first have to pass a test. She also said they had discussed a potential position as a cashier within University Dining Services, but it wasn’t a job she wanted to do.
“My retirement for me was my only option because I got frightened because I didn’t know where they would put me,” Howard said. “They frightened me into retirement.”
Now, she’s left with no medical insurance and a retirement that isn’t enough to pay her living expenses. She has two sons, ages 16 and 18.
“Those are things that scare me,” Howard said. “What if something happens? My retirement is not even enough money to pay my rent. It’s just me and my boys.”
Born and raised in Charlottesville, Howard didn’t plan to start working in the Central Grounds Garage. She wanted to be a writer.
“I was going to be the next Toni Morrison,” Howard laughed.
However, when she learned about the opportunity as an attendant, she applied and was offered the job. She accepted, and though she didn’t plan to stay as long as she did, once she started working in the garage, she discovered that she loved it too much to leave.
“The people I met at Central Grounds, they became my doctors, my lawyers, my psychiatrists, my friends,” Howard said. “While they may have thought my smiling face affected them, it doubled for me. They gave me a totally different outlook on life. I just wanted to tell the students, faculty and staff thank you. Thank you for making my experience the best ever.”
Howard’s youngest son has Asperger’s syndrome. She said if it had not been for the people she met in the garage who worked and studied at the Curry School of Education, she might not have even known he had it.
“I didn’t know anything about Asperger’s,” Howard said. “He wasn’t as perceptive as my other son, and I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with him. They directed me to where I needed to go to get a better understanding of my son. If these people hadn’t told me anything about that, I would’ve never known.”
Howard often expresses gratitude for what all of the years at the Central Grounds Garage have brought her. But the people she’s met have not just made an impact on her — she’s also made an impact on them. Two different people both described Howard as a “ray of sunshine.”
One of these people was Molly Foukal, a 2017 alumna of the University who currently practices clinical psychology in Cape Cod, Mass. During her third and fourth years of graduate school, Foukal lived off Grounds, so she drove to class and parked in the Central Grounds Garage. She saw Howard most mornings and afternoons, and they would talk.
“Her smiling face and energetic personality always cheered me up when I'd be leaving after a long day of graduate school,” Foukal said in an email. “I would ALWAYS notice when someone else was working, as I missed her friendly face on my way out of the garage.”
Foukal recalled the morning she was due to defend her dissertation, and the feelings of nervousness she had. As she was walking out of the garage, she said Howard smiled at her and wished her good luck.
“In that moment it felt like she was my greatest cheerleader and had so much faith in me, which helped me regain a sense of calm and confidence in myself,” Foukal said. “When I returned after a successful defense I was so excited to share the good news with her (and she was so genuinely happy for me, it warmed my heart so much!).”
This thought was shared by Millie Lindsay who, like Howard, is also retiring after 33 years with Parking and Transportation, the last four of which were spent in the Central Grounds Garage. She said she never imagined she’d be put in this position — she’ll have to find other work to receive medical insurance and to supplement the money from her retirement, which is also not enough for her to survive.
“This has been a long, bitter, bittersweet divorce,” Lindsay said. “Some of it was so bitter it ripped a part of me away.”
Through it all, she said, Howard has been there with her.
“We got to be extremely close and we leaned on each other,” Lindsay said. “Even when I was down, I could always count on Jada to do something to make me start laughing and make me forget about the bad times. That girl got me through a lot. I love her.”
White said that those in the department were appreciative of the ways in which Howard interacted with customers.
“Whether it was someone she would see repeatedly or a visitor she met only one time, visitors could connect with Jada's smile and personality,” White said.
It’s this — the loss of human interaction and personalized service — that Howard regrets most about the implementation of the parking machines. She said that for new people visiting the University, she was often the first and last person they would see. She would give them directions, advise them about places to eat and welcome them to Grounds — things that a machine will never be able to do.
“It’s just that personal interaction that won’t come from the machines,” Howard said. “They’ll never get another Jada over there.”