Volunteer corps crucial to event success | VailDaily.com

Volunteer corps crucial to event success

EAGLE COUNTY — For nearly a decade, Steve Prawdzik has braved cold, wind and snow to work on a nearly-vertical sheet of ice. And he's loved nearly every minute of it.

Prawdzik is a member of the Talon Crew, a group of volunteers who maintain the racecourses at Beaver Creek, doing everything from running shovels and rakes to watering the course — racers like their snow slick and fast — and stringing out miles of safety netting.

The Talon Crew is by far the biggest group of volunteers for the 2015 FIS Alpine World Ski Championships — about 700 people. But the Vail Valley Foundation has rounded up a small army of volunteers for the Championships — about 2,200 in all. Those volunteers are grouped into 20 teams, and handle jobs from course work to guest service to working the registration tables for media and athletes.

Serious Time Commitment

Those volunteers can't just show up from time to time. Elle Kehoe, the Vail Valley Foundation's volunteer coordinator, said people had to agree to work at least 60 hours over the two weeks of the Championships. Applicants had to pass both personal interviews and background checks. Those who volunteered to drive dignitaries and athletes around the valley also had to submit to checks of their driving records.

Again, this is all volunteer work — people working the championships receive jacket shells, pants, goggles and other gear. But the Foundation had more applicants than jobs for the Championships. Kehoe said about 3,000 people applied, and there's a waiting list of about 300 people ready to fill in if some volunteers aren't able to complete their two-week commitments.

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Those interviews allow organizers a chance to assign volunteers to the work that best suits them. After all, someone willing to strap on a pair of crampons and ice up a downhill course might not be the best person to run a registration table, and vice versa.

Some volunteers, such as Prawdzik, are retired. But others willingly take time off of work to participate. Kehoe said people from 38 states and foreign countries are in the valley for their volunteer work. Those people come, and stay, at their own expense.

Why Volunteer?

Which leads to the big question: Why?

For Jeanne Cunningham — a "spectator host" for the Championships — volunteering has been a big part of her life since moving to the valley in 1999. Cunningham has been a volunteer at the Vilar Performing Arts Center in Beaver Creek, and has worked at the annual Birds of Prey ski races and the American Ski Classic.

She said she's enjoyed every chance she's had to contribute.

"I'm 74 now, and as you get older, it's important to keep active," Cunningham said. Volunteering keeps her out in the community, she said, and has allowed her to make several new friends.

"And there are the people you meet," she said, adding that she once had the opportunity to meet former President Gerald Ford while working at a Ski Classic hospitality tent.

Prawdzik laughed when asked what draws so many people to the Talon Crew, given the often-harrowing conditions the group works in consistently.

"I think there's a common passion for the sport, the chance to give back," Prawdzik said. "And there's a certain camaraderie on the crew.

Talon Crew in the past few years has established its own website, Prawdzik said. That site has current information, as well as a host of photos and blog entries from members.

The crew also relies on text and email updates for members, a more timely way to communicate than the postcard notices used when Prawdzik worked his first Birds of Prey race nine years ago.

"Volunteers will do just about anything if they're asked," Prawdzik said. "But it's about communication more than telling. You need to be motivating and encouraging teamwork."

That teamwork and willingness to work shows itself across the volunteer corps. Kehoe said virtually all of the 800 volunteers from the 2014 Birds of Prey races have also committed to the Championships. And veteran volunteers are paired up with rookies.

It all works well, Cunningham said.

"I'm so impressed with the (Foundation's) organization," she said. "Even when we picked up our uniforms, it was so organized, so smooth. I'm sure it will be that way through the whole event."

By the numbers

2,200: Approximate number of volunteers for the FIS Alpine World Ski Championships.

700: Approximate volunteer force for the race courses.

20: Different volunteer groups.

38: Different states and countries that volunteers call home.