DOWNTOWN — When parents found out that the YMCA’s swim team, which had more than 100 members, was abruptly canceled and its head coach, who’d been with the Y for seven years, was fired some thought it was a bad April Fools’ Day joke.
Head Coach Mohammad Khadembashi said he was told he was fired for raising funds to buy a diving block, a digital pace clock, and some other miscellaneous items.
Several parents say that they haven’t been given sufficient answers as to why the popular coach was let go.
YMCA officials will not discuss the details of the incidents that led to the firing.
The program ended in early April but for three months a group of parents have been quietly pushing the nonprofit’s Board of Directors to make changes.
A letter, signed by 31 families, asked the board to remove Tara Pomposini from her role as CEO of the Santa Monica YMCA. They gave the board a month, until June 30, to make the change, promising to publicize the incident if the board failed to act.
Last week Board President Victor Newlove told the families that the board wouldn’t take action “in response to threats, bullying, and extortion.”
“You threaten to disparage the entire YMCA because a program in which you are interested was suspended due to the termination of aquatic staff that was in serious violation of YMCA policy,” Newlove said in his letter to the group of parents.
“We do not discuss personnel issues in the press,” Newlove told the Daily Press.
When the Daily Press asked Pomposini about the firing in May she said: “That has already been dealt with.”
She declined to comment further.
Recent e-mails to Pomposini went unreturned.
Khadembashi started at the YMCA seven years ago as a lifeguard. He also volunteered as an assistant coach of the swim team.
He worked his way up to aquatics coordinator and then aquatics director. When the Y’s previous swim team coach was let go, Khadembashi said, he stepped in.
Under his leadership the team grew from 50 swimmers to 120, he said. The aquatics program grew from 110 swimmers to 220.
Khadembashi was salaried as the aquatics coordinator but neither he nor his brother were paid for their coaching.
“They were young guys and they lived at the YMCA,” said Jimena Del Pozo, whose daughter was on the team. “They were really dedicated and they really enjoyed doing what they did. They worked like 12 hours a day. They were always there.”
Khadembashi cherishes a photograph from a surprise victory at an early swim meet. The kids are celebrating. His fists are raised in the air.
Everyone, from the non-competitive kids to the super competitive kids, got something out of it, he said.
“When I started coaching at the Y, I fell in love with coaching and competitive swimming,” Khadembashi said. “It became a huge part of my life.”
Del Pozo said the competition level was perfect for her daughter, who is now 10 years old.
“She participated to the degree that was appropriate to her skill level,” Del Pozo said. “She’s not a competitive person in general so she had access to that where she wouldn’t typically. She very much enjoyed it and we would go anywhere from two to four times a week.”
For Christie Goren, the value was in the friendships.
“My daughter was only on the team for about two months and she developed friends that she had been longing for,” Goren said in an e-mail. “The diversity of the kids made it an amazing experience for our adopted (Fijian) daughter. Her school is predominately white and the YMCA had a mix of kids that made her feel welcome and happy.”
Khadembashi taught Jonathan Rho’s children (9 and 10 years old) how to swim.
“They have spent more time with Mohammad than any care provider other than my wife and I,” Rho said. “They went to daycare for five years and yet they’ve spent more time with the swim program. It’s a really emotional thing.”
In hot water
Khadembashi claims that the YMCA was not supportive of the swim team from the start.
In his budget, he asked for a digital pace clock and a diving block. He was told by his supervisor, he said, that the money wouldn’t be allocated but that he could raise it himself.
He organized a swim-a-thon to raise cash for the equipment. Parents donated. Coaches bought the gear.
In a weekend in late March, Khadembashi realized he’d lost access to his e-mail account. On Monday, he was called into Pomposini’s office.
“They told me that they knew we had an account outside the YMCA and that it was against company policy and because of that you are hereby dismissed immediately,” he said. “They gave me a dismissal paper and when I looked at it, there was no explanation on the paper. I asked: ‘This rule that I broke, can I see this?’ And my CEO started screaming and saying, ‘we’re not going to show this to you.’”
He was led out of the office. His brother was fired moments later. The program was canceled immediately.
Khadembashi maintains that he was never given written notice that the fundraising was prohibited and that nothing in the YMCA’s handbook prohibits it. All his job reviews, he said, had been positive. Booster clubs, he said, are common for swim teams.
He sent a short e-mail to the parents explaining that the program had been canceled.
“Then it just got wild with all the e-mails,” Del Pozo said, “a crazy e-mail chain with people freaking out. It was so many people that loved that team.”
Within hours Khadembashi was offered a job at Westside Aquatics.
Pomposini held a meeting about the canceled program but several parents who attended said nothing was resolved or elucidated.
“Everybody wanted to know more,” Del Pozo said. “Let’s be clear: Did they injure anyone? Were there any criminal charges? (Pomposini) said, ‘no’ but she wasn’t willing or able to say more about it. It was an hour and half. Some parents were really angry and they were rude and it was not nice. Some of the parents were generally upset. Kids were crying.”
Rho was equally unhappy.
“Nothing was answered to the satisfaction of anyone in the room, and that’s 70-some people,” he said. “What was frustrating, just like in the letter, was that they didn’t acknowledge the emotion of the situation. The response was cold and detached but this was an ax-blow for parents and kids.”
Khadembashi took the job at Westside Aquatic and, he said, and more than half of the Y’s swim members followed him there.
Another third of the Y’s swim team joined a different local team, he said. Some stopped swimming competitively altogether.
Everything is better at Westside, Khadembashi said, but he’s still upset with the way things ended at the YMCA. He wishes he could have had a chance to explain the situation and say goodbye to all the kids in person.
“We are extremely disappointed,” Goren said of the program’s cancellation. “We cannot afford to join these other programs as they are twice as much money. So now we are without a swim program.”
Del Pozo’s daughter joined a conditioning swim class at the YMCA but she said it’s not the same.
“They know how to swim but they don’t know how to teach you how to swim,” Del Pozo said of the instructors.
He daughter is one of seven or eight kids in the program, she said.
In his letter to the parents, Newlove announced that a new swim team program would be commencing on July 15 led by the newly appointed Aquatic Director Hector Barragan.
“I respectfully suggest that you direct your efforts and zeal toward assisting Hector Barragan and continuing the excellent SMYMCA Swim Program, rather than try to threaten or extort the board because you disagree with an administrative decision made by the CEO,” he said.
The swim team was one of more than 100 programs offered at the YMCA for its more than 6,000 members, Newlove told the parents.
“We are deeply saddened that you would threaten all these programs because your favorite program was suspended for a short period of time,” he said.
Del Pozo, who works at a school, wonders if there was another way to handle the situation.
“If there’s a problem you say: ‘This is the problem and this is what we’re gong to do to rectify the problem,’” she said of working at a school. “You don’t just say, ‘OK, let’s get rid of the school.’ It seems like it was a real cutthroat approach to something that could have been fixed.”