Last year at the Traverse City Film Festival, I volunteered at the State Theater. My shift, which consisted of taking tickets and counting occupants, had me working alongside a couple who were summering in the area.
We talked casually as the crowd herded through the doors, our conversation evolving from movies we’d like to see and how long we’ve been volunteering (it was my first) to where we were from and what we do. When I told them my last name, the gentleman—an older man—said, “I had a college roommate whose last name was Crowell. He was an artist.”
“Was his first name Bob?” I asked. “Yes, actually.” “That’s my dad.” “Well I’ll be damned,” he laughed, adding, “I haven’t seen him in 20-some years!” And so begins my volunteer story, one of many when it comes to not only the impact the festival has on the local community, but the impact it has on the individuals who keep it running: the volunteers.
A GROWING (UP) FESTIVAL
Happening July 31- August 5 in downtown Traverse City, The Film Festival needs about a thousand volunteers to keep the gears going, said Nancy Baker, volunteer coordinator.
“Probably 10% of those people are actual paid positions. The rest are wonderful people from the area, as well as from around the state—and even the country—who give up a week to volunteer,” she said.
Some are families who make it a volunteer vacation, having attended the festival in years past but want to be a part of it in a different way; others volunteer their vacation time entirely.
“It’s every bit of an 80-hour week. My donation to the festival is a week’s vacation,” said Sid Van Slyke, festival manager at the City Opera House who puts his actual job working in trust and investment advising at Northwestern Bank on hold during the festival.
Van Slyke started with the festival as its volunteer banker -- the person in charge of handling the incoming money -- when it was still in its infancy.
“The first year we had an unbelievable amount of success. We weren’t prepared,” he said, recounting the night he took home to deposit the next day what he thought to be $11,000; instead, one of the volunteers (a woman who had worked as a cashier) miscounted and there was actually $21,000 Van Slyke was carrying that night.
“I told the festival manager at the time, ‘What if it’d been $10,000 short instead of extra? I could just see the headline, ‘Local banker gets away with $10,000 in cash,’” he recalled, laughing.
The incident shook up Van Slyke, but it didn’t keep him away from volunteering. This will be his seventh year as the Opera House venue manager.
And as far as the money handling goes? “It’s a very precise and well-oiled machine,” he assured.
SPREADING THE V-BUG
Other volunteers have held multiple positions. Mary Fisher, who found her home collecting food donations for the festival, has been everywhere from concessions and ticket collection to box office and greeting duties.
“What I’ve found in all aspects of volunteering is, one: we can’t do it alone and two: this is probably the most generous place I’ve lived. It’s just an incredible community of people donating their time, money and talent,” said Fisher, a native of Washington.
When it comes to donating food, the response from area restaurants and vendors is overwhelming, she said.
“I hardly ever get turned down,” she said of approaching business owners. “There are some that want to, but just can’t because of economic reasons, but it’s amazing how much people want to give something.”
Such food donations, from places like Little Bohemia, Folgarellis, Oryana, Euro Stop, Zakeys and more, are served at the festival’s vital fundraising parties, including the opening and closing parties.
“Every (business) brings 500 appetizers. If everyone does that, you can feed a thousand people easily,” she said.
Fisher pauses momentarily, adding, “Can you imagine the festival having to pay for all that food? It’d be impossible,” she notes of the way local businesses volunteer in their own way.
By donating food, local restaurants and businesses are able to showcase what they offer, a win-win situation for everyone.
“It’s a way of saying, ‘Hello! We’re making great stuff here!’” said Fisher. “We’re creating our own economy.”
Fisher also believes volunteering gives one something in return.
“I’ve been involved with many charities, but I do this for myself. You give your time, but in the end—with all the friends you make—you look at it and realize you’ve gotten something in return.”
For Matt Dayton, volunteering for the festival is a way to become immersed in the film world.
“I went to school for film, and so when the festival first started, there was this renewal and energy for film coming to Michigan. I like just being part of the excitement and it’s something I look forward to every summer,” said Dayton, who was 17 when he first started volunteering with the rest of his family. Today, he and his father, Tom, help manage the Lars Hockstad venue.
INTERESTED? SIGN UP!
Since the Film Festival is in its eighth year, there tends to be an assumption when it comes to volunteering, said Baker.
“I don’t want people to think, ‘well, by this point they’ve got it down.’ We always need more help.”
Besides forming new friendships and being part of the film festival atmosphere, volunteers are treated to a list of incentives for their work, including a festival t-shirt, a free movie showing as picked by festival co-founder and filmmaker, Michael Moore, swag coupons for festival merchandise and a volunteer party following the festival.
“It’s probably the coolest party of the whole festival,” said Baker. “It’s held on the lakefront and has some of the best food and beverage.”
While only about a quarter of volunteer shifts have been filled (as of press time), Baker said more will be filled as movie tickets open to the public.
“People will buy their tickets and think, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve got to sign up for my volunteer shifts,” she said. “I encourage anyone who has enjoyed a film at the festival to take it to the next level and get involved by volunteering. You’re going to meet a lot of fun and friendly folks.”
The 8th Annual Traverse City Film Festival is happening July 31-Aug 5. For information on volunteering, visit www.traversecityfilmfest.org and click on the ‘volunteer’ tab where you can choose from multiple shifts at various venues throughout the week.