A RnB tell-all: inside volunteering at the fest

Hundreds of volunteers work together every year to create this incredible event that the whole city can enjoy.

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Roots N Blues N BBQ brings great food, awesome music and super cool people together every year. How, you ask? From the hard work and dedication of hundreds of volunteers. The festival usually coordinates 500 or more helpers to make sure the event is a success.

From helping set up art installations and lighting to working security and driving golf carts, volunteers do a little bit of everything. The festival uses 70 volunteers on the Saturday morning race alone. Volunteers are what make it all come together; they’re the beauty behind the madness. And the coolest part is, they love to do it.

Volunteer coordinator Tom Smith filled MOVE in on what makes volunteering for the festival such a special experience, despite getting somewhat of a slow start in preparations this year.

“This year, I was a little less enthused than in previous years, but as soon as I started communicating with the volunteers, who are a very enthusiastic bunch, they really helped whip my enthusiasm back into place and just reminded me what a good crew we have and how much folks really enjoy the festival,” Smith says. “Really their enthusiasm buoyed me up, but at this point, I’m really looking forward to it.”

Smith is responsible for finding out what vendors need from volunteers, putting together applications, finding some helping hands, making schedules and plenty of other important communication and troubleshooting tasks.

Although most of the work from volunteers doesn’t start until the week of the festival, Smith starts looking for applicants around May of each year. Recruitment typically involves reaching out to people through social media, contacting corporate partners and hanging up some posters around town.

Other than the age requirement of 18, pretty much anyone can get involved with the festival at any point in the process. Smith says the volunteer group is a decent mix of students and other CoMo residence.

“We’ve got a lot of everything,” Smith says. “I’ve got 70-year-old seniors. I’ve got doctors, nurses, corporate types … we get a lot of everything. It’s just fun to be there.”

Joel Kaplan, a third-year volunteer at Roots N Blues, gets to work in “artist hospitality.” Kaplan is responsible for facilitating a nice environment where the musicians can relax, and is available to artists to make sure they have everything they need.

Working so closely with performers has even led to some minor star-struck moments.

“A lot of the bigger bands tend to stay on their own bus,” Kaplan says over the phone. “Last year Jason Isbell was looking for something to drink, and my wife was like, ‘We’ve got something, let me make you an iced coffee.’ So one of her brushes with fame was making iced coffee with Jason Isbell. I talked to Robert Randolph last year … Sometimes I have to geek out for a little bit.”

Although the fest goers don’t get the chance to enjoy refreshments with the musicians, the volunteers sometimes miss out on seeing the performances. Not all volunteers do their job during the actual event, and according to their website, all receive a free three-day pass to the festival.

“I think every day there’s something to be excited about musically,” Kaplan says. “I’m a big music fan, so while I’m helping behind the scenes and so forth, you can’t be out front dancing to the music. So that’s one of the hardest things at least from my standpoint: It’s what you have to give up to be part of it. But I think you can’t be part of something special without putting in some effort.”

Despite spending the festival working, those involved consider their efforts well worth it.

“It’s something I believe in,” Kaplan says. “It’s a rewarding experience. You get to see a whole lot of people smiling based upon the work that you did, and for me that’s really satisfying.”

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