Fuquay-Varina, N.C. — Mixed in with the thousands of guests who packed Fleming Loop Park this weekend for the WRAL Freedom Balloon Fest were a few hundred people with matching T-shirts and the very important job of making each day run smoothly.
The event, which is in its second year, is entirely run and organized by volunteers, and the 2016 festival saw nearly 500 people sign up for the job. That number increases to about 700 when volunteers with specialty jobs, like nurses, are included.
“It was much better than we anticipated, by a lot,” said lead festival organizer Brian Hoyle. “I’m humbled by it.”
Volunteers of all ages did everything from helping crews with balloon set-ups to assisting lost children or cleaning up the grounds. Hoyle said that no matter what job they were doing, each volunteer was happy to help make the event special.
“There are a lot of jobs that aren’t the sexiest in the world,” Hoyle said. “They’re out in the rain picking up trash.”
While the volunteers helped the guests and vendors, they also received a helping hand of their own. One group from a local church decided they would donate their time and efforts to create a tent to provide shade, baked goods and water to fellow volunteers, Hoyle said.
It’s not all work and no play for the people who sacrificed their Memorial Day weekend to work the event, though. Many volunteers get to experience the highlights of the festival, including participating in balloon rides.
“We give them a chance to enjoy the festival as well as work the festival,” Hoyle said.
Anna Campbell, a first time volunteer, said her experience at the festival has been nothing short of fabulous.
A Fuquay-Varina resident, Campbell was excited to have the event in her community and wanted to be a part of it. She said helping out during Saturday night’s balloon glow was “magical” but one of the most memorable moments was meeting people who stopped to pay their respects at the Field of Flags.
“It helped bring back the meaning of what Memorial Day is all about,” Campbell said.
Hoyle said that part of the reason for using volunteers is to help preserve the spirit of Memorial Day by serving others. In addition, hiring a full staff would likely mean that organizers would need to charge admission.
“I think what would happen then is you would lose the focus of the mission of the event,” he said.
The festival wraps up Monday afternoon, but organizers are already thinking ahead to 2017.
Lead volunteer coordinator Patricia Roberts said that, in the year to come, she hopes to see a more long-term plan for recruitment including people reaching out to local schools. She would also like to offer additional training in specific areas that would give volunteers the opportunity to have more hands-on experiences with the balloons.
Campbell said she, as well as many others in her volunteer group, are already planning to be a part of next year’s festival.
Registration to become a volunteer at the 2017 WRAL Freedom Balloon Fest is already open, and Campbell said those who want to participate should keep an open mind and be willing to try something new because with just a little training, volunteers can have some once-in-a-lifetime experiences.
“Be open to doing something you haven’t done before,” she said. “Being part of a balloon crew is something you may never do again and it is such an amazing opportunity.”