By ASHLEY POWERS
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
Bre Democko rarely is agitated by her job's little nuisances, such as rolling silverware in napkins or carrying stacks of dirty dishes. The customers sometimes are another story, however.
"I'll wanna take a plate off the side of the table with nothing in it," explains the 13-year-old, who busses tables once a week at The Boathouse Restaurant in Boardman. "I'll ask, 'Are you done?' and they look at me kinda weird."
Most of the patrons are nice, she says. "But some of them are really rude."
Welcome, Bre, to the working world, where the customer is always right.
It's an initiation that's not always easy for the 10- to 14-year-olds who want to jump the gap between hide-and-go-seek and hourly wages.
There are more children taking their first steps into the work force long before they can legally ask, "Would you like fries with that?"
The National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997, the most recent of its kind, reported that 57 percent of the 9,000 children interviewed had a job at 14, and some had worked at even younger ages.
Finding ways: Despite federal laws barring those 13 and younger from most employment, legal methods to earn cash are still plentiful: putting in hours at a family restaurant or a parent's office, mowing lawns, delivering newspapers, selling concessions or baby-sitting.
"They're hungry for money and looking for ways to get it," says Canfield psychologist Dr. James Esperon.
Most children interviewed cited money as their main motivation, many using their $2 to $4 hourly wages -- almost always paid in cash -- for inexpensive, spur-of-the moment purchases. The remainder often goes into a bank account that is usually the child's first attempt at money management.
On any given Saturday, 14-year-old Patrick Diefenderfer of Austintown is trying to earn money for a car -- he'll take "anything cheap" -- by submerging baskets of fries into cooking grease at concession stands for $4.75 an hour.
A former competitive gymnast, 14-year-old Lauren Hood of Austintown is concocting lemon shakes in the grandstand at Canfield Fairgrounds or mowing lawns. She started working to save for a new gym bag. The jobs eventually helped finance the redecoration of her bedroom in a tiger motif.
And while most of the Valley slumbers, Cory Coffey of Hubbard awakens at 6:30 a.m. to deliver about 100 Vindicators to his neighbors.
Driving dreams: Coffey dreams of someday peeling into the parking lot of Ursuline High School in a new Corvette.
Most of his wages are deposited for the car and Ursuline tuition, though he's spent a bit during trips to amusement parks such as Cedar Point in Sandusky.
"You could tell he was watching his spending," says his mother, Betsy. "He knows it's his money."
It doesn't matter to Cory that he's only 10. His older brother, Ryan, now 16, goes to Ursuline, and Ryan delivered papers when he was Cory's age.
In fact, Betsy says the littlest Coffey, 8-year-old Sean, is clamoring for his turn. He's tagged along with his big brothers and their parents, one of whom always escorts their sons on their route.
"It's not just his route," Betsy says. "It's the family's route."
Counselors and social workers stress the need for family involvement and balance. A child with a little pocket cash but no social or academic stimuli is less well off than his or her peers, they say, especially when children have to handle fixed hours, co-workers or potential crises.
"They don't realize all the responsibilities," says Kathy Miskovch, a Red Cross instructor who teaches baby-sitting classes to about 80 kids a year. "They want to hug and cuddle the babies, but you gotta change them, too."
Incentives: The rewards of handling such responsibilities can be plentiful, though: Parents, children and experts ticked off managing money, expanding social skills and gaining maturity as potential dividends.
Bre, despite encountering the occasional rude customer, raves about her job. She has enough money to purchase 'N Sync concert tickets and a little left over to shop at Aeropostale, her favorite store.
Her five- or six-hour shifts have also changed her perspective on bussing tables, a job her older brother Paul once did.
Her previous thinking: "My brother did it, so anybody can do it."
Now when she dines out and spots a busser, it's more like: "Can I help you with that?"