By George Williams
Warning, this column addresses the need for more volunteers! However, I’m not talking about stuffing envelopes or other similar tasks. Don’t get me wrong, those are essential jobs and I’m grateful to those who do them. This column is for those of you who want to play a role in the direction of our sport, see areas needing improvement, or perhaps have a vision of where you want it to go in the future.
Writing for the EOSE (European Observatory of Sport Employment) in a column titled “Responding to the Needs of Sports Organizations and Their Volunteers,” Aurélien Favre said, “Everyone active in sport knows that volunteers are vital at every level, from local grassroots participation to elite international competitions. So much sport and physical activity could not happen without those who freely give their time, energy and commitment to our sector, and we know that when they are well managed, volunteers gain new skills and huge personal and social benefits from their volunteering experience.”
My mentor used to talk of the pioneers of dressage in this country. Many of these individuals had military backgrounds, no matter whether they were born here or in Europe. They laid the foundation for my generation by instilling in us a love of dressage, and opened up a world of possibilities to us. Although many were professionals, very few were able to develop their careers or businesses to specialize only in dressage in their teaching and training. Sometime during the ’60s that started to change, and by the ’70s you could feel a real interest in dressage developing around the country.
In 1973, the same year that the USDF was founded, I graduated from high school. Even before I finished school, I knew what I wanted to do with my life. I had never doubted that I would be able to make a living in dressage. So that September, using some funds that had been set aside for college, I set off for Germany to ride and train. In looking back, I realize how lucky I was, because most likely my generation was the first one in this country to actually just assume that you could make a career as a professional in dressage. Today, of course, all of that has seen a transformation.
Lately, every so often I see one of our well-known judges post a photo on Facebook of the commemorative 50-year pin they received from US Equestrian in recognition of their years as a licensed official. So much has evolved over those 50 years. It can be easy to become nostalgic, but the reality is that it has changed for the better. However, I have to say they were exciting times. Recently, I was lamenting to someone about how difficult it can be to find new, younger volunteers so that my generation can pass the torch to the next generations and ideally have a succession plan in place for our various organizations. It was pointed out to me that today there are programs and opportunities in place, but for my generation, if you had an idea or heard of something being done in Europe that you thought would help dressage develop in this country, you had to create it. Depending on the project, we worked closely with dedicated staff at the AHSA (now USEF) and/or USDF and that’s exactly what was done. As a volunteer, this was inspiring: You had a sense of purpose; you felt you could make a real difference. In essence, it was addicting.
It’s true that over the years our organizations have matured and now seem more like institutions. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t still a tremendous need for volunteers. Perhaps in some ways there is more need than ever. Like most institutions that become settled in their ways, they need innovation, revitalization and sometimes even reinvention to keep them fresh and relevant in order to meet the needs of their constituents and/or adapt to new societal norms. There are constantly new challenges, and as so often has been the case in the past, it takes the different perspectives that come from a mix of knowledgeable staff and good volunteers who can bring those fresh ideas and innovations needed to continue moving forward.
If you’re interested in getting involved, never fear—there’s still a lot of rewarding work to be done. And remember, you, too, can “gain new skills and huge personal and social benefits” from your “volunteering experience!”