If volunteers are the lifeblood of Winnipeg’s summer festivals, then many of those organizations are in need of a transfusion.
The Winnipeg Folk Festival, which takes place July 7-10, is short a few hundred volunteers to reach its goal of 2,300 people to direct traffic, help ensure safe campgrounds, sell raffle tickets and work the gate, among myriad other tasks audience members take for granted.
“It’s definitely slower than past years and it’s leading us to be expecting a volunteer shortage this year,” says Karla Ferguson, who is the manager of volunteer resources at the folk fest. “I was crunching some numbers the other day and we’re about 70 per cent capacity and normally at this time of year we’re beyond 85 per cent.”
Ferguson says the pandemic is the main reason for the pre-festival shortfall, whether it’s folks concerned about health and safety issues or others who would rather enjoy the festival without volunteering.
“Without volunteers we really can’t run the festival,” Ferguson says. “(The staff) literally hands things off to our volunteers. We’ve let volunteers get involved in every single aspect of the festival, be it driving performers to the site, doing the sound, feeding volunteers, directing traffic… Soup to nuts, anything we need done, we have it done by volunteers.”
Folk festival volunteers, like staff, board members, media and musicians, will need to provide proof of vaccination for COVID-19 to take part in the 2022 event.
The Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, which runs the Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival July 13-24, also is on the lookout for people who want to help out.
The Winnipeg International Jazz Festival begins just over three weeks from today — June 14-19 — and Jazz Winnipeg is holding a final push for volunteers this weekend prior to its deadline on Monday.
The festival is seeking photographers, as well as people who can work the bar or sell raffle tickets at shows, says Ash Laing, the volunteer co-ordinator, who has volunteered at several other Winnipeg events and organizations, including the Winnipeg Jazz Orchestra.
“Volunteering has always been so valuable for me and has been such a great experience,” Laing says.
A jazz fest volunteer will get a pass to access concerts at the West End Cultural Centre, Royal Albert Arms and the King’s Head Pub, as well as a volunteer wrap-up party, with a 20-hour commitment over the six days of the event.
Folk fest volunteers are asked to work between 16 and 20 hours spread out over the four days of the festival.
One volunteer the folk fest won’t have to worry about pitching in this year is Denise Munn. The former Winnipegger, who now lives in Bedford, N.S., can’t wait to make the 3,500-kilometre trek across the country in her Hyundai Tucson to scratch her volunteering itch.
She’s waited three years to mark her 20th year of giving her time to festival, which has been on hold since 2019 owing to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’m going to get to the festival grounds and I’m going to kiss the ground, I’ll be so happy to be there,” says Munn, 69, a former Winnipeg Transit driver and City of Winnipeg office worker.
“It is one of the best experiences for very little money that I can suggest anybody to do… You can see world-class entertainment you’re not going see anywhere else. When you’re not working you can go to the daytime stages, there’s the artisans’ village you can go see, you can hang out with your friends, you can chill out.”
She’s worked on almost every crew during her time at the event — Munn started by hauling records from the folk fest’s store to the festival site at Birds Hill Provincial Park — but most recently she’s been helping out in the festival campground, where she parks for the weekend and keeps a watchful eye out for younger partygoers.
They call her Camp Mom for being prepared for seemingly every problem, be it a spare bandanna to ward off the sun or over-the counter medication for aches and pains.
She recommends volunteers and attendees come prepared for all weather possibilities — downpours and blazing sun — and while she won’t give someone the shirt off her back, she’ll lend someone in need tomorrow’s shirt out of her backpack.
“We just help people out on that crew that I’m on. People come out without everything that they need, especially hats or a bandanna to put on their heads,” Munn says.
Folk fest volunteers have full access to the festival, including campground passes and the backstage area, where there’s a large kitchen and eating area behind the mainstage. Once in a while they can brush shoulders with some of the performers.
Munn remembers meeting folk-music great Bruce Cockburn at a hotel party and finding out he’s just as personable as her volunteering friends.
“We had a blast, just an absolute blast,” she remembers. “He’s a very funny man.”
Alan Small has been a journalist at the Free Press for more than 22 years in a variety of roles, the latest being a reporter in the Arts and Life section.