Jeff Hammer: Volunteering (again) is its own reward

Guest Column:

It seems like I have been cross country skiing (often called Nordic skiing for obvious reasons) nearly all of my adult life, that is, except for the five years during which my wife and I lived in Nevada. I bought my first set of skis in my early twenties. I really don’t remember using them all that much, and how they left my possession, I can’t recall.  I’m sure they were sold at a bargain to someone who wanted them more than me.

When my family and I moved back to Wyoming from Nevada in 1994, we again acquired ski gear, but it wasn’t until the late 1990s, when my older daughter joined the Nordic ski team at Starrett Junior High School, that we became much more involved in the local community of hardy winter enthusiasts who “slap on the slats” for an hour or two of vigorous cardio exercise. 

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The stimulus for that increased involvement was a desire to support our daughter’s participation in her chosen activity. Even though she skied during the week as part of her team, we also drove up to Beaver Creek on the weekends so she (and we) could ski then as well. By then, she was a much better skier than me, and she remains so to this day.

When Erin was a high school freshman, Gayla and I became volunteers with parents and other local Nordic enthusiasts who organized and implemented our local high school Nordic ski races. That experience was unexpectedly more gratifying than I envisioned due largely to the appreciation shown by the athletes themselves and the parents of the racers from throughout the state, not just those from Lander. Thus began a practice that continued for many years in no large part because of the value that others placed on my time.

I would have volunteered anyway, but having complete strangers making a concerted effort to genuinely say “thank you” is pretty sweet.

In addition to being held at our local golf course, some races were held west of Highway 28 as it crosses Beaver Creek on the way to Farson. For reasons I can’t remember (I think there were land ownership issues), a decision was made to develop ski trails east of the highway, and with cooperation from the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, a plan was implemented that accomplished just that.

About the same time as when my wife and I became involved in the planning and helping out with competitions, Lloyd Larsen, whose children also wore the green and black colors of the LVHS ski team, was a huge driving force behind developing those trails. As an owner of an oil field construction firm, he knew how to get things done. His generous donation of time and equipment made a huge impact in how the trails were developed. The effects of his efforts nearly two decades ago are still being enjoyed by skiers today, many of whom may only know him as a representative from House District 54 in Fremont County; but his vision and those of other leaders in the local ski community are why we enjoy “The Beav” as we know it today.

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Ski meets are unlike any high school athletic competition in the state, except perhaps track meets, in that the successful execution of both of those competitions requires an army of volunteers. Someone has to be in charge of all those people, someone with highly refined organizational skills who can keep track of all the moving parts. John Metcalfe, an administrator at Fremont County School District 1 at the time, assumed that role for a few years and did a truly admiral job. We put on many many successful ski meets under his leadership. 

Eventually, my wife acquired that responsibility. I can’t say for sure how many years she guided that ship, but no doubt her leadership lasted for more than a decade, long after our younger daughter, Paige, competed for the Tigers throughout the state.

Year after year, the same volunteers would meet many weeks before the scheduled races to hammer (these puns come easy sometimes) out a plan, given the local snow conditions, to put on a couple of races, not only for the competitors but also for the parents of all the racers. Not only did we want all competitors to perform at their best, we wanted their parents to feel welcomed and appreciated for making the long drives to see their children compete.

 Organizing and executing a successful weekend of ski races became a source of pride among all of us who volunteered, but eventually, my wife’s and my ever increasing teaching responsibilities began encroaching even more on our nights and weekends, making volunteering more of a time constraint than we would have liked. At some point, and I can’t say for sure exactly when, we felt the time had come for other parents, parents of current athletes, to assume the roles that we had for many years, and so about six or seven years ago we stopped volunteering.

And the truth for me, at least, is that I didn’t miss it. I still had contact with kids at Lander Middle School, teaching mathematics, and I interacted with my adult colleagues every day, which provided socialization at a professional level… and then came the pandemic and retirement, and that socialization suddenly ended, one result of which is that I started writing these columns.

While my wife continued to teach online during the school year 2020-2021, I kept busy writing, learning Spanish, hunting during open seasons, and walking and bike riding with her. I generally kept busy, but I wasn’t interacting with other people much.

In late spring of 2021, my wife fulfilled her online teaching contract, and we were both suddenly unencumbered with any day-to-day responsibilities; so we replaced those responsibilities with traveling by car or pickup around the West, camping, hiking, bike riding and traveling to visit our daughters. In truth, we were generally trying to survive in a pandemic environment by staying away from other people, as neither one of us wanted to contract Covid, jeopardizing our individual health and that of each other.

We continued that practice until the end of 2021, always with the hope and expectation that soon it would be safe again to mingle with other folks in a manner similar to our experience before March of 2020.

In January of this year, we began to receive emails through the Lander Nordic Skiing Association asking for volunteers to work both the LVHS Nordic Ski Meet and the Lander Middle School sponsored state ski meet, both of which were to be held at “The Beav” on consecutive weekends in February.

Both of us felt the time had come where we needed to volunteer again as a way of doing something positive for our community and its young people, but also as a way of beginning the process of socializing again with friends we’ve known for many years in a safe outdoor environment. 

So it was on Friday, February 4th that I found myself parking cars up at Beaver Creek with former middle school social worker Bill Lee and Fred Hurlock, a former Bureau of Land Management law enforcement officer. Both gentlemen are long time members of the many volunteers who willingly and cheerfully donate their time to ensure the successful implementation of local Nordic ski competitions.

As the new old guy, I watched how Bill met the drivers as they entered the parking lot and exchanged a few pleasantries, smiles all around. It seemed as if he knew them all from previous years.

Fred then “worked” the drivers and their cars into specific spots. I asked a few questions until I felt comfortable emulating his actions. One might expect that directing independent Wyoming drivers into a specific spot might ruffle a few feathers, but everyone was pleasant and cooperative in large part because of Bill’s pleasant initial greeting. 

When I mentioned to Fred that Bill spent a lot of time gabbing, he said with a wry smile, “Yep, Bill’s the mayor of Beaver Creek.”

Although some workers received small compensation, other long-time volunteers, who once cheered on their own children, are still working the meets. Bruce Campbell has been the race starter for as long as I can remember. John Metcalfe and John Gans still cover the race course as race marshalls. And of course, my wife volunteered in the stadium area, but I think she feels her real purpose there is to make all racers feel welcome and good about themselves. Truthfully, there are just too many others to mention. To me, it felt like coming home, not only because we reunited with our fellow volunteers from many years ago, but also because we were able to socialize in a way we hadn’t for many months. Refreshing might be the most descriptive word when I think of those few days.

I should also mention that the experience of interacting with the racers themselves again was a delight, great kids all; and after all, they are the reason for volunteering in the first place. I should really thank them for providing an opportunity for a truly gratifying experience.

I can say without a doubt that next winter, I will be cheerfully volunteering again.

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