The stars of the 2024 Ontario 55+ Winter Games are the athletes, but without the volunteers, the stars would never have the chance to shine, officials say.
Over the past three days, 150 individuals from the local area have donned their colourful T-shirts and lanyards and volunteered in a myriad of ways in support of the Winter Games. The three main divisions of volunteers include game ambassadors, medical staff, and sports techs.
Jenna French, the chair of the Ontario Winter Games organizing committee, says the three-day event that has attracted more than 850 athletes to the area, would "absolutely not" be possible without volunteers.
She said there is a lot of work to organize not only the sports — hockey, curling, alpine skiing, badminton, volleyball, duplicate bridge, table tennis and prediction skating — but food, accommodation, transportation and many other issues that are key to ensuring the event's success.
"Volunteers really carry this," she said. "This has been a phenomenal Winter Games and a lot of that can be attributed to volunteers."
French says most volunteers have said they are giving their time because they are proud to be from the Orillia area.
"They know a lot about their home community," she said. "They think they can give the best experience to the people who are coming in."
French says volunteers have helped to give the Winter Games a "real sense" of community.
"The chance to interact with this many people in a short period of time is really rewarding," she said. "It's a lot of fun."
Some volunteers have worked full-time hours over the past month to prepare for the games, French says.
"I'm really thankful to have such a strong team," she said. "It's helped to pull this off beautifully."
Maureen Hurren, 71, has been volunteering for the Winter Games at the Chippewas of Rama First Nation’s Mnjikaning Arena Sports Ki (MASK) this week. Her job has been to make sure everything is set up and ready to go for ice hockey and badminton players.
"I find it very rewarding," she explained. "A lot of these athletes are younger than me but I figured I'd love to volunteer."
Hurren, an Orillia resident, says knowing you are helping people 55 and older pursue their passions is fulfilling.
"This showcases that people who are 55 and older are not at the bygone age," she said. "They still have a lot to give and a lot to offer to not just the young people but also each other."
Hurren says volunteering with the Winter Games can be an easy job if you have the right attitude.
"You have to know when to kid and when to be serious," she said. "You have to work well together with the other volunteers to make everything run smoothly."
While the Winter Games end this evening, Hurren encourages others to follow her lead and get involved in the community.
"Volunteering is giving a piece of yourself that can't be bought," she said. "Volunteering is a vital aspect of being a part of the community."
Andrew Westelaken, 48, has been volunteering for the Winter Games at Orillia's Rotary Place this week. He is coordinating the table tennis tournament.
"It's good to give back to the community," he said. "I love volunteering, sports, and the Winter Games."
Westelaken brought four friends — Dan Parnell, Paul Pitblado, Neil Moreau and Scott Anthony — with him to the Winter Games to also volunteer with the table tennis tournament.
"I was able to seek the awesome volunteering of these fellow companions of mine and they have been amazing," he said. "I asked them if they would help out and they were more than happy to oblige."
Westelaken chose to work table tennis at the Winter Games because he thought it would be easy.
"It didn't really turn out that way," he said with a laugh. "It's quite competitive and the rules can actually be quite intricate."
Despite the challenges that come with officiating table tennis, Westelaken says running the tournament has been a lot of fun.
"Everybody has had an awesome time," he said. "We've had some of the competitors compliment us on how well it's been organized and how smoothly everything has run with really no complications."
Westelaken says he's enjoyed seeing people from other communities enjoy Orillia this week.
"It's good for our economy, tourism, and culture," he said. "It's great to be able to showcase our city."
Watching athletes compete in the Winter Games this week has been inspiring, he said.
"I'm a chiropractor, so I have a vested interest in health in sport," he explained. "When I see people at this age keeping their vitality and activity, it's wonderful and great to see."
Westelaken thanks the games organizing committee and all his fellow volunteers who "put in the extra work."
"They deserve a lot of credit for putting this together," he said.