More than 22,000 people who have volunteered at parkrun have never passed through the finish funnel, which represents eight percent of volunteers. As well as making a significant contribution to their local community, the impact of volunteering on the health, wellbeing and life prospects of individuals can be profound.
Over in South Africa, regular volunteer Ita Janse van Rensburg wrote this remarkable letter explaining brilliantly how much volunteers do for parkrun, and what parkrun does for volunteers.
The positive contribution and benefits of parkrun are well-known – especially for those who can participate in the event by running or walking. I am sure there are people (including you) who have also witnessed the benefits it can and does have for disabled people and people with a certain condition or impairment who become part of the parkrun community through volunteering. However, the benefits for these parkrunners are not always as obvious.
When I became Volunteer Coordinator for my local parkrun nearly two years ago, it was never the idea at the time that I would attend parkrun, and that suited me perfectly. For the first two weeks or so I did the rosters from home, but very soon I was not satisfied that the people on the roster remained faceless and just names on paper. I realised that sitting behind my computer was not sufficient, because I was not able to build relationships with the volunteers who we rely on to make parkrun happen every week. My husband at that stage did parkrun every other week, but after the first time I accompanied him we very seldom missed one.
At first I made myself handy with scanning duties but found it difficult because I am hearing impaired – I can’t hear the scanner beep and therefore I am never sure whether the barcode and token has scanned or not. The same goes for the stopwatches. However, I enjoyed talking to the volunteers in the funnel before the first runners came in as well as the volunteers I have previously met. I started to move around and encouraged people to sign up to volunteer as they finished their run. I also help with the pre-event setup every Saturday and close down afterward. I love welcoming first timers and visitors and talking to them afterwards – I recognise them a mile off because I know most of our regulars. I am also an enthusiastic cheerleader who loves to encourage our parkrunners along the route. I might be one of the loudest but all our volunteers do the same. We often get complimentary comments about our friendly and encouraging volunteers and our parkrun’s ‘vibe’ from visitors and tourists.
For some time I was the only non-runner/walker who attended parkrun on a regular basis with the exception of the odd person who would accompany their partner or friends as spectators. Then I noticed an elderly couple who would park their vehicle every Saturday morning (they came early so that they could get a “good spot with a view”) and watch the proceedings. One day I walked over and introduced myself and then found out that the gentleman used to do parkrun but he had to stop because of an acute and persistent ankle injury which did not want to heal. It was not hard to convince them to sign up as volunteers and rather be marshals than sitting in the car.
What I did not know at first was that Buddy was also suffering from Alzheimer’s. That did not make him a less able marshal, although I had to place him and his wife together later on because he started to wander off sometimes. They would clap and encourage the parkrunners as they passed and people really appreciated that. Unfortunately they had to give up their volunteering as his Alzheimer’s progressed to such a stage that he could not drive anymore and his wife didn’t drive. I still think of Buddy who in the end had sometimes a slightly vacant (but smiling) look in his eyes when I talked to him and I know at times he could not remember who I was. His wife told me that Buddy could not wait for Saturday mornings so that he could come to parkrun to volunteer. I phoned them the other day and according to his wife Buddy’s condition has deteriorated to such an extent that he now seldom remembers things. However, he would sometimes, when he has a clear moment, ask when it is Saturday so that they can volunteer.
Up to this stage, all of our volunteers (with the exception of myself) were current or former walkers and runners at parkrun. That changed one day when a regular parkrunner came to me and asked whether her husband could volunteer while she ran. He had never attended parkrun before, but she realised that parkrun could be something they can enjoy together, although in different capacities. That is how Matt became one of our stalwarts and volunteered most Saturdays as a marshal at a point where his wife passed him twice and he could encourage her. He could give me dates up-front when he will likely not be able to volunteer due to his chemotherapy sessions. They relocated some time ago but I am sure, if circumstances allow, they will still enjoy parkrun together.
As time went on, more parkrunners brought their partners to sign up for volunteering duties and others were brought along by friends. These new volunteers were all disabled people and people with certain conditions or impairments, and some of them volunteered on a weekly basis and others less frequently. As I got to know these volunteers and build relationships with them, I began to understand what I could do to ensure they had the best possible volunteering experience. This list of volunteers continued to grow although some were, sadly, also leaving due to various reasons.
There was Des, for example, who experienced renal failure and received dialysis three times a week, but reported for Finish Token duty most Saturdays – except when his condition took a turn for the worse and he was admitted to hospital. Sometimes he would ask to be a Marshal for a change and we would ensure there was a chair at his point so that he could sit down for a while if necessary. He just loved to dress up for our themed runs. Sadly he passed on recently. At his funeral his wife told me that the outings on Saturday morning became very important to him and for a short while he could “forget about everything” and just be part of the fun of being a volunteer and mingle with the parkrun community and his other friends who are parkrunners. We do have lots of fun between ourselves. Most volunteers come earlier than the appointed time and we hug each other, make jokes and share stories amongst ourselves before and after the volunteers’ briefing session.
Then there is Ethel who had a stroke and cannot perform any of the duties in the funnel (one side of her body was affected by the stroke) but she is an excellent marshal who cheers her husband and everyone else on. She just loves it when we call her “Ethel the Cheerleader”. Sadly Ethel can’t volunteer during the colder months because she has severe asthma.
There was also Anna who is a wheelchair user and loved to do the writing at the scanning table – friends of hers were regular parkrunners who introduced her to us and provided transport. Anna has since relocated to be closer to her children and grandchildren.
Reinetta’s husband has also been a wheelchair user for a long time. The duties of lifting and even carrying him took its toll and resulted in her having problems with her knees, hips and back and as such she could not participate in parkrun as a runner or walker – although she used to be a member of “Run/Walk for Life” for many years. Every Saturday, parkrun provided her with “me time” before she went back home to get her husband dressed and ready for the day. Rain or shine, Reinetta seldom missed her cherished “me time” as a marshal and this was only on days when her husband’s condition prevented her from coming to parkrun. Her circumstances have changed and she has had to withdraw from her volunteering duties for the time being, but she can’t wait for our photos to be published on Facebook every Saturday so that she can still “stay in touch”.
And then there is Gerhardus who has Down’s Syndrome. His parents brought him when they first attended our parkrun. He walked for a short distance and as he did not want to continue, they brought him to the finish and let him wait there while they finished the course. I suggested that he sign up as a volunteer, and the pride on his face the first time he put on a volunteer’s vest and every time thereafter is humbling. He has never missed a Saturday since and has now volunteered on 12 occasions. So far I have placed him with another marshal, but he is fast approaching the time when he will be ready to marshal on his own, at his normal spot, which is close to the finish so that we can still assist in case of an injury or emergency. His parents also can’t leave until he has helped until the very end with the post-event close down duties. As you can see from the photo above, Gerhardus does not allow anybody to help him carry the cones to the store room!
What about little Tihan, who has speech apraxia that affects his ability to speak properly. He also tends to lose concentration and this causes him to trip easily. His mother has always been an enthusiastic and regular parkrunner while his dad would stand somewhere along the route with Tihan and watch her running. I asked them to join as volunteers while they watch, and they both signed up and got their barcodes within an hour of me encouraging them to register. There we had another pair of regular marshals but that was only the beginning of their parkrun journey. Tihan’s confidence grew every week and before long he wanted to participate as well. He has now completed 45 runs and he has only turned eight very recently – he may soon be the youngest participant at our parkrun to reach his 50 milestone. I must also mention that he reached his ’50 falls milestone’ some time ago, but every time he gets up and finishes the course. His father is still one of our regular Run Directors and has now completed 34 runs.
Over the past two years, we have had the honour and joy of welcoming into our volunteer family nearly 30 volunteers who are not able to participate as walkers or runners. Some of these people used to participate in this capacity, while others came along for the first time as volunteers.
An parkrun, each of us has found a place of comfort and pleasure. A place where we feel NEEDED, a place where we feel appreciated, a place where we KNOW we make a difference. For most of us, Saturday mornings are the highlight of our week, where we can be part of the broader community and mingle and socialise with all walks of life. Some of these precious volunteers are not with us anymore, but each and every one of them did make a difference. And I, for one, will always treasure them in my heart and memory.
All of the above is just to say that parkrun does not only contribute towards the well-being of non-disabled people. Its contribution is going so much further. It has made, and can make, such a significant difference in the lives of some who are not able to participate as walkers or runners. There is no weight loss or toned muscles to testify towards this less obvious contribution – rather it is observed in smiles, pride, and improved self-confidence and self-esteem.
I can’t begin to tell you the difference parkrun has made to my life. It is something that my husband and I can enjoy together. From pre-event setup and close-down, to him participating in the parkrun whilst I cheer him on. He achieved his 100th milestone some time late last year while I achieved my 100th volunteer milestone recently.
When I was hesitant to become involved in parkrun (especially to attend it in person) because of my inability to participate as a runner or walker, I was told “Tannie Ita, parkrun is for EVERYBODY”. I can now testify that it is indeed the truth.
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