Holding strong

Kate’s strengths have always drawn her towards service, not the spotlight. But with a story like hers, she shines a light all her own.

Portrait of Kate, smiling as she looks off camera, arms folded, standing in front of a maintenance shop rack of colorful 55-gallon drums.

Kate Rybarczyk came to the Sewer District knowing nothing about wastewater treatment. “I don’t know who does before they come here, really,” she said.

Like many young adults coming out of high school, Rybarczyk didn’t have a clear career direction. “I went to college for a semester, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and tuition was going up,” she said.

She decided to enlist in the Army Guard, and eventually completed basic training for Military Police. After four years of service, her interest in physical fitness (she earned her personal-trainer certification while in high school) led her to a job selling home gyms at Dick’s Sporting Goods.

“One of my co-workers was also an employee at the Sewer District,” she said. “He had a part-time job in the Hunting & Fishing section at Dick’s, mainly for the employee discount and for beer money.” When he found out Rybarczyk was MP, the co-worker mentioned an opening in Security at the District. “I didn’t get that job, but Westerly needed a custodian, and that’s how I got my foot in the door.”

Although she had no background in wastewater treatment, Rybarczyk found the mechanical side of plant work interesting and moved into a maintenance worker position at the Southerly plant.

Rybarczyk soon began coursework towards earning her wastewater operator licenses. The Ohio EPA’s Wastewater Plant Operator Class I, II, and III certifications are based around three-hour, multiple-choice exams that cover wastewater-treatment theory and applied math. “To become an Operator, you need your Class II,” Rybarczyk said. “Assistant Superintendent requires you to get your Class III.” Those milestones lay the groundwork for a Class IV certification, which requires a written thesis demonstrating advanced understanding of the facility where the candidate works. “The Class IV covers plant design and operational data, detention times, permit allowances — basically how to run the plant,” said Rybarczyk.

She pulled one of her old study guides from a shelf and leafed through its heavily-highlighted and underlined pages. “The book learning helped me understand what happens here: how the wastewater moves from preliminary to primary treatment, into secondary treatment and disinfection, and what happens at each stage,” she said.

Kate smiles for the camera in an up-close portrait.

“It’s our job to make sure everything stays up and running for the plant operators. It’s neat to walk through here and see things I worked on still holding strong.”

Through the District’s Maintenance Training Program, Rybarczyk broadened her knowledge, learning welding, blueprint reading, and hydraulics and pneumatics. “You learn to troubleshoot the equipment, understand the different pumps and what they’re good for, and make modifications to improve the process,” she said. To complete the program trainees demonstrate competency in 18 different skillsets. “You get out of it what you put into it.”

Rybarczyk started utilizing the District’s Tuition Assistance Program in 2009, and is still doing so today, finishing up a bachelor’s degree from Baldwin Wallace University in Organizational Leadership with a double minor in Management and Human Resources.

Rybarczyk was promoted to Plant Maintenance Manager in 2016. “I have a crew of maintenance workers, mechanics, a custodian,” she said. “It’s our job to make sure everything stays up and running for the plant operators.” Her role as a supervisor is more hands-off and computer-based, assigning preventive maintenance tasks to her team and making sure they have what they need.

“I don’t regret not being a Plant Utility Maintenance Person anymore, but sometimes I miss it,” Rybarczyk said. “Taking equipment back to the shop for rebuilds, playing music and doing your thing. It’s neat to walk through here and see things I worked on still holding strong.”

One of those projects was the installation of a new induction mixer for chemicals used during the plant’s disinfection season (May through October, also known as the “recreation season,” when extra measures are taken to kill any remaining bacteria before the treated wastewater is returned to Lake Erie). “We set up the scaffolding in the chlorine contact tank and welded the brackets and bracing for all of that,” she said. “It was fun.”

Less enjoyable tasks? Emergency repairs.

“Wastewater is not kind to machinery and piping,” Rybarczyk explained. “The sand and grit coming into the headworks is like liquid sandpaper, and if you don’t get it all out, it makes its way into the process.”

In one case, a worn-out bearing provided an unwelcome morning surprise. “The bearing supported an auger, or screw. When the bearing failed, the screw began scraping the housing. We came in one day and there was a hole [in the housing] and a bunch of sludge cake on the floor. We had to go up there and patch it, change the bearings, and get it all set up again. It was a dirty job.”

Westerly Wastewater Treatment Plant in front of the Cleveland skyline. Credit Joe Michnicki.

Reflecting on the Sewer District’s fiftieth anniversary and the changes she’s seen in her decade and a half here, Kate says that the development of the Maintenance Training Program into a state-certified apprenticeship program has been a huge milestone for the organization.

“When I went through, it was all done on evenings and weekends. I had to find the classes on my own,” she said. “Now the Training Center and trainers are right at Southerly, and the things you learn in class you can instantly apply. That’s a big improvement.”

Rybarczyk pointed to wider cultural advances that have impacted the workplace. “When I was hired, sexual orientation was not a protected category, and there were no partner benefits,” she said. “To see how much that has changed is good. We’ve come a long way.”

Some changes are driven by employees finding areas to improve and becoming involved. “There are always people who gripe about things that need improvement,” Rybarczyk said. “You can’t just sit back and hope it works out. You have to make it happen.”

Although she doesn’t necessarily enjoy being in the spotlight, she does like playing a part in fixing problems. “Ideally, you move up into a position of influence where you can affect positive change. This role I’m in now, it’s because I want to make change. Maybe one day I can sit at a different table, at a higher level, and discuss how to make the District even better. We’ll see.”

Story by Senior Communications Specialist Michael Uva. Portraits by Thomas Dang. Find your future on our team: neorsd.org/careers



Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District

Official Medium channel of the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District in Cleveland, OH