They work while you play at Chattanooga's Riverbend Festival

They work while you play at Chattanooga's Riverbend Festival

June 15th, 2013 by Casey Phillips in Local Regional News

Patti Meadows, volunteer coordinator for Friends of the Festival, walks past the main stage after delivering a volunteer shirt and brochures to the VIP tent during the second to last day of the downtown Chattanooga music festival Friday afternoon.

Photo by Dan Henry/Times Free Press.

WHAT VOLUNTEERS DO

• Pin/token sales

• Admission/bag check at gates

• Crowd safety

• Token cleaning and valuation

• Stage/waterfront security

• Volunteer hospitality

• VIP area supervision

• Credential check for Club Riverbend

• The Green Team (Riverbend's award-winning recycling program)

• On- and off-site musician transport

They're doctors and lawyers, students and teachers, retirees and recent graduates.

For nine days a year, however, more than a thousand people lay down their other titles to join Riverbend's force of volunteers, without whom the festival could neither function nor remain nearly as affordable.

In their brightly hued shirts, volunteers are a highly visible presence on the festival grounds, but many attendees probably don't realize the crucial roles they serve, festival executive director Chip Baker said.

"We couldn't do the festival without them," he said. "The volunteers are the backbone of the festival, in every aspect."

Volunteers' responsibilities range from washing and weighing vendor tokens each morning to refilling ice chests and, occasionally, digging through trash cans to recover recyclable drink containers.

Occasionally, the tasks can be a little more ... exotic.

When country singer Martina McBride headlined the Coke Stage in 2003, she didn't want to take the customary boat trip from the North Shore to the barge, so about 100 volunteers linked arms and cleared a path for her to walk across Riverfront Parkway to the stage.

For his closing night performance in 2009, Little Richard didn't want attendees to see that he was using a wheelchair. To conceal that from the crowd, volunteers drove him to the stage, formed a line to serve as a human privacy fence and then carried him in his chair up 25 steps to the stage and the waiting piano bench.

In exchange for committing to working two five-hour shifts during the festival, volunteers receive one of the aforementioned shirts, a badge that gives them festival access -- including on their off days -- snacks and water during their shifts and, every August, a thank-you cruise aboard the Southern Belle riverboat.

It may not seem like much compensation for difficult and occasionally tedious labor, but many volunteers work far more than the two-shift minimum. The retention rate is about 70 percent, according to volunteer coordinator Patti Meadows, and some veterans take a weeklong vacation during Riverbend so they can pull shifts every night.

"It's restored my faith in humanity," Meadows said, laughing, a wide-brimmed hat on her head speckled with decades worth of Riverbend pins. "They will do anything and everything we ask them to."

FESTIVAL FAMILY

In an air-conditioned trailer on the west side of the Olgiati Bridge, Meadows and her stalwart assistant Gina Ortiz manage a nightly staff of 400 to 500 volunteers and 40 supervisors. Both of their husbands also volunteer at the festival.

This is Meadows' 11th year as volunteer coordinator. She oversees 1,200 to 1,500 volunteers each year, and she says their dedication and hard work are as inspirational as the work is thankless.

"I feel like every one of these people are my family, I really do," she said.

Many shared Meadows' comparison, naming her the volunteers' undisputed matriarch and Baker their patriarch.

Throughout its 30-year history, Riverbend's volunteers have aged and some have died. Like any family, even one as big as Riverbend's, those losses can be painful. When perennial festival personality Benjie Riggs died May 27, just days after attending a festival supervisors meeting, Baker visited the funeral home to give him an apropos farewell.

"At the meeting, I said 'hi' to him, but we didn't stop and have a long conversation. That hurt me, personally," Baker said. "I took his sister a Riverbend pin [at the funeral] so she could pin it on him."

FINDING A SPOT

With so many roles to fill, volunteers sometimes migrate through many positions before finding their niche.

Cara Welsh has been the passionate supervisor of Riverbend's "Green Team" recycling program since its inception in 2008, but originally she and her husband, Dave, volunteered at the festival in an attempt to pinch pennies. When her family moved to Chattanooga in August 1998, Welsh said their entertainment budget was slim, and volunteering offered a way to get into the festival for free in exchange for a few hours of work.

For her first year, Welsh was assigned to the Coke Stage, where she was so dogged in her duties as a pin checker that she refused admittance to the festival's future director.

"I wouldn't let Chip Baker on the stage," she said, laughing. "He didn't have his all-access pass."

Since then, Welsh has held many positions, including overseeing one of the festival grounds' five divisional "sectors" before taking on her current role. When the volunteers are at their most useful, she said, patrons aren't even aware of them.

"That's what makes it work really well," she said. "The volunteers are invisible; they're not in the way."

Retired TVA employee Tony Arnold joined the festival's volunteer fold in the late 1980s. As one of Riverbend's hospitality supervisors, he is responsible for making sure his fellow volunteers are hydrated and fed, a role he said he fell into naturally.

Attendees may not acknowledge the many roles volunteers play at the festival, he said, but that's not the point.

"We do it because we like each other and want to see them [patrons] have a good time," Arnold said. "We don't do it for a pat on the back. We do it because we love it."

Contact staff writer Casey Phillips at 423-757-6205 or cphillips@timesfreepress.com.