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  • The Festival Volunteer Experience: Insights from Newcomers and Veterans

    A woman smiles, sitting behind a counter with brochures, maps, and menus.

    Jane Davenport is the lead volunteer for the Festival Information Booths.

    Photo by Sonya Pencheva, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    In 2023, over 300 volunteers helped in several areas of Smithsonian Folklife Festival events: gardens, sustainability, accessibility, foodways, documentation, program, visitor services, and more. Many of our volunteers were new to the Festival, but we also welcomed back several members of the “Festival family” who have been with us for twenty-plus years.

    The Smithsonian relies on and values volunteers in all its museums and events, and it is no surprise when people like Jane Davenport, lead volunteer for the Festival’s Information Booths, keep coming back for the experience and culture. Jane is one of our dedicated volunteers whose love of the Festival started with the 2002 Silk Road program. She remembers the large structures built on-site and the excitement of seeing camels on the National Mall.

    “That’s when I thought, this will be really cool to get involved with this,” she reflected. Jane loves to travel, and the fact that she doesn’t need to go far to learn, grow, and immerse herself in other cultures makes the Festival a perfect fit.

    Ninth-grader Rhea Ganta learned about the Festival through the Smithsonian newsletter and wanted to get volunteer credit hours for school. After the first day, she was hooked. She made friends with other volunteers and embraced new experiences. Although Rhea moved around different areas of the Festival, her favorite department was Accessibility: “One of the best parts I got to experience was a sighted-guide tour and even got to assist with that,” she reported.

    A person wearing a pale blue Festival Volunteer T-shirt holds a basket of dried herbs for a small crowd of visitors.
    On a visual description tour during the 2023 Festival, volunteers led visitors who are blind or low-vision through program displays and demonstrations. (Rhea is hidden here, in the pink hat.)
    Photo by Josh Weilepp, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives
    Two elder men joyfully shake hands on the National Mall, with the Washington Monument in the background.
    Veteran volunteer Glenn Ihrig greets Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie Bunch at the 2023 Festival.
    Photo by Sonya Pencheva, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    Glenn Ihrig, a twenty-seven-year volunteer, shared an amazing experience from behind the scenes of the 2003 Festival, when he was asked to assist an Appalachian banjo player: “He would go out on the hallway of the hotel and play his banjo with a Malian man who didn’t speak a word of English. And they would jam together!” When music brings cultures together, it is an incredible experience—and it’s one of many that volunteers get to encounter. 

    In 2009, when the Festival featured Wales, Barbara Exstrum, a veteran volunteer of twenty-six years, was assisting a participant with a display of medicinal leeches and found herself the savior in a life-or-death situation.

    “One day, we had to change their water, and the person who was demonstrating them thought that probably the water out of the tap was fine,” Barbara recalled. “And then he noticed that the leeches started looking really lethargic. And he said, ‘Oh no! The leeches are dying!’ So, I ran out and grabbed a couple of bottles of water. And they seemed to sort of recover.”

    It was funny and chaotic for everyone, but instances like those are what bring her back to the Festival every year. Now she knows leeches need filtered water!

    Ni Ya Costley, a six-year volunteer, fondly remembers the 2014 Festival, when the Kenya program featured artisans from the organization Ocean Sole. “A lot of the flip-flops were washing up on their coasts, and they used them to make sculptures. My favorite one they made was a giraffe!” Ni Ya continues to volunteer at the Festival because she loves meeting new people and using her skills as a teacher during Morning on the Mall, an event for individuals with autism and sensory sensitivities to experience the Festival in a more relaxed and supported way. “I enjoy being able to help others learn and see new things.”

    For Ralph Nelson, as a retiree, volunteering at the Festival is a way he can give back to his community. His first year was 2017, when the circus came to the National Mall. He had an amazing experience with the acrobatic performers and started telling his friends about the Festival. “I advertise it to a lot of my friends. I say, ‘If you don’t bring your kids to this, you’re silly!’”

    A man wearing a green tie-dye shirt and wide-brimmed hat takes notes in a clipboard among a crowd of people.
    Documentation volunteer Paul Motsuk is a seasoned audio logger: taking notes about participant names, song titles, instruments, and topics discussed in each Festival session.
    Photo by Sonya Pencheva, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives
    A young woman in a pale blue Festival volunteer T-shirt oversees two people sitting, working on a purple quilt.
    Paul’s daughter (center) now volunteers at the Festival too!
    Photo by Stanley Turk, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    In fact, documentation lead volunteer Paul Motsuk, after twenty-six years at the Festival, recruited his daughter to volunteer as well. Generational volunteering has become a tradition for his family, as Paul grew up volunteering at the Festival with his parents. He now comes back every year for the camaraderie. “I’ve met some really great people. It is nice to see returning faces.”

    The Festival brings so much joy and education to the National Mall, and volunteers are an integral part of the event. If you are interested in learning something new every day, meeting participants and visitors from around the world, and making new friends, then volunteering at the Folklife Festival might be for you.

    Thank you to all past, present, and future volunteers for your hard work and dedication to the Festival!

    Renee Hernandez was a visitor and volunteer services intern for the 2023 Folklife Festival. She is a Mexican American undergraduate student at Arizona State University majoring in history with a minor in religious studies.

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