The final Frontier

On last day, employees celebrate and present gift to Make a Wish youth

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SHAWN GUST/Press Todd Harkins interacts with his son Elijah, 6, who suffers from global brain damage, following a presentation of a special bicycle from staff members of Frontier Communications on their last day of business in Coeur d'Alene. The company and its more than 100 employees raised $6,600 for local charities before closing its doors.

COEUR d'ALENE - On the final day at the Frontier Communications Corp. call center, you might expect anger, sadness or despair from the more than 100 employees whose jobs ended Tuesday.

Not so.

There were tears, for sure, but there were even more hugs and handshakes, laughs and smiles, and yep, applause, too.

"I'm really proud of everybody here I worked with," said Jennifer Root, a 13-year offline associate. "I think we accomplished great things. I think our team will be missed by Frontier."

Those great things went beyond internal communications support for the company. They extended into the community and to Sandpoint, too, and the family of Todd and Julie Harkins.

On Thursday, Frontier employees, through the Make a Wish Foundation, presented the Harkins' 6-year-old son, Elijah, with a special wheelchair attached to a bike. It will allow Elijah and his family to spend more time together outside.

"We can now go on family bike rides," Julie said. "He can be part of family life, outdoor life in North Idaho, instead of being stuck in a wheelchair all the time."

Elijah was born with a brain injury due to complications during birth. He can't talk or walk, his mom said, "but he really loves being outside. He loves people."

Todd Harkins said when Elijah was younger and smaller, it was easy to pack him places. Today, though, he weighs 65 pounds.

"It's hard to do that," Todd Harkins said.

The wheelchair/bike tandem will be a big benefit to the family.

"Sometimes when he gets a little fussy, we take him outside and he turns into a happy boy," he said.

Linda Jordan, Frontier Communications Call Center manager, said employees agreed early this year to raise $6,600 for Elijah's wheelchair and bike after learning of his needs through the Make a Wish Foundation.

Even after being told of plans to close the center, and facing their own financial challenges and worries, they remained committed to Elijah.

Employees held garage sales, auctions, and asked for donations to reach their goal. Elijah, they said, kept them going.

"They were adamant," Jordan said. "We've always supported the community."

"Not only did they want to do Elijah's wish, they wanted to raise more to give to the charities we normally give to."

Which they did.

Checks for $978 were presented to the Kootenai Humane Society, the Community Action Partnership food bank, and the women's shelter.

Outside, during the presentation, 13-year employee Ali McCarrel praised her colleagues for their perseverance and creativity to raise the money.

"Everybody pulled together," she said. "What a great way to end our career.

"It makes you proud to say we're the Coeur d'Alene offline."

In May, the Stamford, Conn.-based telecommunications company announced plans to open a call center in Myrtle Beach, S.C., and hire more than 100 people. In turn, the Coeur d'Alene Center was marked to be closed, eliminating 102 hourly workers and six in management.

At the Coeur d'Alene center, the pay ranges from $15 to $21 per hour. The average age of workers is 55.

The call center, at 7400 Mineral Drive, was operated by GTE Corp. and Verizon prior to Frontier's control. Frontier has leased the space.

Jordan, who started as an associate 14 years ago and advanced to manager, called it an "amazing journey."

"This center has come through many ups and downs," she said.

There were company changes, new systems, added responsibilities and stretches of required overtime. Employees completed a conversion from a Verizon Wireless operating system to a Frontier system and saved the company $84 million.

"This team stepped up," Jordan said. "No matter what the challenge, the system, they made it happen."

Their role was basically to "go in and clean up everything make it seamless to the external customer.

"A lot of the work we took in, there was no training for it, so we had to figure it out," Jordan said.

The closure, she said, hasn't been easy. She said some have found jobs, others are still looking, and more are trying to decide their next step.

"People are tired. Many of them are looking to relax a little bit, regroup, then start over again," she said.

Job Service has been helpful, she said, and Jordan sent a resume outlining center employee skills to Jobs Plus in Coeur d'Alene that could be used to attract a company to relocate here.

From front line folks to management, Jordan said they've got what any firm could need.

"I'm hopeful there's going to be somebody out there that comes here," the Careywood woman said. "I've got a whole crew for them."

Susan Pharis, who had a 15-year center career, said the 4:30 p.m. final closing time was one of mixed emotions. It was rewarding, challenging work.

"We always rose to the occasion, did everything we were asked to do," she said.

But more important was the cohesiveness of staff, she said. Employees watched their children grow up, and celebrated their successes, and helped each other battle back from failures.

"We were like family," she said.

Root, of Post Falls, is moving to Tucson, Ariz., and is hitting the road today. Her husband transferred there, and she said she has some opportunities as well.

But she will miss her co-workers at the Frontier call center

"We really have grown up together here. It definitely is a family," she said.

Pharis, who recently turned 60, doesn't know yet what she'll do, perhaps work in the medical field.

"I feel confident I will get another job," she said.

McCarrel endured a similar shutdown in 1998 when Montgomery Ward closed in Coeur d'Alene. She had worked there 12 years.

"I know, actually, life does go on. You do fine," she said. "It takes a little time, you go through a grieving process."

And that process, naturally, included a gathering of staff after work Tuesday to laugh, to cry, and raise a glass or two.

"It's been a long run," McCarrel said.

A good run, too, Jordan added.

"I always said we were the best of the west. Well, we ended up being the best of the best."

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