All the staff at the YMCA in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood knew that when cleaning up an event — such as the famous Halloween parties or summer camp sign-up events — all the balloons were to be bundled up and given to Miss Janice at the front desk.
Janice Rodman, 52, then personally handed out the balloons to every child who passed her.
“Those kids just light up when they come in the door and see her,” said Sonia Atherly, executive director of Bedford-Stuyvesant YMCA. “She just loved up on everybody.”
In mid-March, Rodman started getting sick, her daughter told BuzzFeed News. Her family and doctor believed it was bronchitis, an illness she’s had regularly, and cared for her at home, but hospital staff later told the family it was COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
“She didn’t know she was as sick as she was,” her daughter Jasmine Thornton said.
On March 30, Thornton noticed her mother's lips getting pale — a sign of a lack of oxygen — and decided to seek medical attention as her mother was struggling to walk down the stairs due to shortness of breath.
"We took her to the hospital, and they told us everything, and we found out what it was," said Thornton.
Rodman was placed on a ventilator, her lungs already damaged from years of bronchitis. At 4 a.m. the following day, Thornton received a call that her mother had undergone cardiac arrest twice but was stable. Just over an hour later, she received another call that her mother had died.
"It was the biggest punch to the stomach," said Thornton.
Rodman worked full time during the week at Sterling National Bank in Manhattan. But for the last 13 years, at least once a week she sat behind the front desk of the Bedford-Stuyvesant YMCA — greeting gymgoers (including this reporter), enrolling people in classes, and gently scolding anyone who hadn’t shown up for a while.
“This work for her was really her community service,” said Atherly, who worked with Rodman for a decade. “It’s a distinction between her job and her work.”
Thornton, 22, was so inspired by her mother’s love of the YMCA that she now works as a youth counselor at another Brooklyn location. “Seeing how hard she worked made me want to work hard; seeing her spread love and positivity made me want to spread it,” she said.
“She was so warm and loving,” Thornton told BuzzFeed News. “She really cared about each and every last person she came in contact with at the Y.”
To the kids and families she greeted at the YMCA, she was Miss Janice. To her close family in North Carolina, she was JP or Shining Star, because she was always a bright light.
As a child, Rodman moved from the south to Bed-Stuy, a historically black and close-knit neighborhood. The family still lives in a three-story brownstone together. Rodman and her daughter lived on the top floor. Her niece lives on the second floor, her parents lived on the first floor (until they relocated back to North Carolina permanently), and her sister lives in the basement apartment.
“So many memories in this house — with her friends and girlfriends, having barbecues outside, block parties,” said Thornton. “Everyone knows my mom on this block.”
Her mom loved ’90s R&B — Naughty by Nature, Carl Thomas — and would sing along to every word. Often Rodman would sing at the YMCA church services on Sundays. “My mom had such a great voice,” said Thornton.
Photos of Rodman — who grew up with three sisters and two brothers — showed her as a fun party girl in 1990s Brooklyn, her nails always immaculate. “She definitely was a bad mama jama,” said her daughter, laughing.
Every Mother’s Day, the family would return to North Carolina for days of celebrations. Just recently Rodman traveled to North Carolina for a surprise 70th birthday for her mother. “We had good food. We played music and took a million photos,” said Thornton.
Her mother wanted to be buried in North Carolina — although Thornton wants to hold a service in Brooklyn first, as there are a lot of people who want to say goodbye. It’s unclear how she'll be able to host a memorial during the pandemic when gatherings are not allowed in the city.
“Janice’s roots in the Bed-Stuy community made her a master connector of new to old neighbors,” reads the Facebook post from the YMCA. “She remembered everyone by name, kids ran through the door to greet her, and if you needed a special favor with registration, she was your go-to person.”
She would remind parents “don’t forget to register my baby,” said Atherly, who said she’d regularly get calls or texts at home from Rodman, who would beg her to help one of “my families” who had missed a cutoff date for classes and plead on their behalf: “Please, I need just one spot. I’ve been knowing him since he was a baby. We’ve got to get him; he’s good at basketball. He’ll catch up.”
In a neighborhood that’s undergone rapid gentrification in the last decade, people like Rodman help build bridges.
“She was loving and welcoming to everybody. It didn't matter who you are and where you're from,” said Atherly.
Dozens of comments on Facebook and in email threads between YMCA members talk about how friendly and kind Rodman was and how special she made their children feel.
“I can’t imagine what is going to happen when eventually things get righted again. I can’t,” said Atherly, her voice cracking. “When the kids come in the door, they’re going to ask for Miss Janice. It’s not going to be the same. I can’t imagine what we’re going to tell those kids.”