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East County Saturday, Jun. 11, 2022 2 weeks ago

Sarasota's Nathan Benderson Park seeks more volunteers

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With additional events upcoming, Nathan Benderson Park issues call for more volunteers.
by: Jay Heater Managing Editor

It can be lonely at the top.

Sarasota's John Savage was laughing as he explained his "lonely" volunteer job as the "Hawkeye," who has the responsibility of keeping an eye on the 3,500 rowers competing at the USRowing Youth National Championships at Nathan Benderson Park from Thursday through Sunday's finals.

Savage was all alone on the roof of Nathan Benderson Park's finish tower, scanning the rowers during the races with his binoculars.

"I am looking for distressed rowers," said Savage, who is 66. "You look for a boat that goes over, or a boat that is stopped dead in the water — usually that means a problem."

Savage has had several different duties at Nathan Benderson Park since the first time he volunteered at the park during the World Rowing Championships in 2017. He said he had volunteered at other events in the area, usually handling crowd control, so he thought he could lend a hand at the park as well.

"This sounded like a great time," he said of working at the park. "And I get a shirt ... that's why I do it."

Doug Jessmer, the media and communications manager for the Nathan Benderson Park Conservancy, noted that volunteers also are fed when they work events. And while Jessmer knew Savage was kidding about working for a shirt, he loves his enthusiasm and sense of humor.

"We have so many passionate volunteers," Jessmer said. "I love to say they show the Florida sunshine, and we are beyond grateful."

With about 350 volunteers working at the USRowing National Championships, Jesmer said it is a good time to tell the community that Nathan Benderson Park could use additional volunteers. He said the park has a host of loyal volunteers who have been handling the additional events as the park has grown.

The park staff is worried that some of those volunteers might get burned out, so they would like to find more. This especially is the case as the International Dragon Boat Federation Club Crew World Championships approaches July 18-24. Volunteers also are needed for Fireworks on the Lake July 3 and the USRowing Masters National Championships Aug. 11-14.

"Besides our rowing events, we use volunteers for things like fireworks, inline skating events, and even on a daily basis at the park," Jessmer said.  "Volunteers are the lifeblood of Nathan Benderson Park. We have a small staff that just could not pull off world class events without the volunteers."

Jessmer said it hasn't been a problem signing up volunteers once people know they are needed.

Bradenton's Craig Brown and East County's Joan Espinosa are both longtime volunteers at Nathan Benderson Park.

"People are tired of being cooped up (by the pandemic)," he said. "And they can get close to the action."

He said the park's volunteers come from all walks of life and they don't need any specialized knowledge to help. Jessmer said the mix of volunteers does bring a wealth of knowledge and passion along with stories that are remarkable.

"They might be clerical, or they might know how to work on boats," Jessmer said. "When these events bring people together, you can do great things. Look at this event, it is our biggest youth nationals ever."

Osprey's Tony Murphy was volunteering at the youth nationals, checking the release mechanisms in each boat to assure safety.

"I was the loud mouth parent," he said of getting involved in being a volunteer at the park. "I spent a lot of time here watching my son (Sean Murphy). Now I'm giving back."

Murphy advises people to volunteer because they can "soak up the enthusiam."

"I love the competitiveness and the excitement of these kids," he said. "I'm 70, and these kids give me energy."

Bradenton's Craig Brown, who said he has sports in his blood, had experience working with the U.S Olympic Committee so he began volunteering at Nathan Benderson Park eight years ago. He was working at a station, checking in volunteer workers during the youth championships.

Osprey's Tony Murphy is a volunteer worker who checks release mechanisms in the boats before competition.

"We always are needing new volunteers, period," he said. "We have shifts as little as 2 1/2 hours and we have spots for volunteers 16 and older, although you need to be 18 or older for some jobs. And you don't need to be a rower."

Brown, 76, said volunteer positions can be found for just about anyone. People who might have trouble standing could find plenty of sitting jobs, such as working in the hospitality tent or the finish tower.

 East County's Joan Espinosa was sitting as she worked at the volunteer check-in.

"It's just nice to be out for the day," she said. "I don't know much about rowing and this is my first time at this event. But I have volunteered at the park forever. I've done things like direct traffic. My husband, Luis, is working today as a launch boat driver."

Jessmer hopes others will feel the same way.

"This is everyone's park," he said.

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