Volunteers the backbone of Little League organization

WARNER ROBINS -- With an organization that employs only 120 people worldwide, the one million-plus volunteers for Little League aren’t only the backbone of the organization, but also its lifeblood.

Jen Colvin, the Little League Southeastern Region director, said there’s no way the organization could host seasons and tournaments properly for the 2.7 million children who play baseball and softball without the volunteers.

“We have to rely on our volunteers,” she said. “We cannot do it without them. We appreciate what they do for us.”

Still, finding volunteers isn’t that difficult a prospect, she said. Once people start volunteering, they never seem to stop.

“People get hooked on it,” she said. “Little League is a like a disease that no one wants to go to the doctor for.”

For the softball regional this past week, Colvin said there are about 65 to 80 volunteers, mostly from the Middle Georgia area. She said that number will likely swell to about 200 volunteers for the baseball Southeastern Regional Tournament regional that begins Friday, especially with Warner Robins representing Georgia once again.

Colvin said having Warner Robins in the tournament could be a double-edged sword, however: While having local kids play attracts more volunteers, it’s often hard to schedule volunteer shifts for them because they want to see those kids in action.

“When we have a Warner Robins team, they draw the largest crowds, but we have the smallest number of volunteers,” she said. “It’s sometimes frustrating for people waiting in line for concessions.”

The volunteers from Houston County who work the tournament range from first-timers to people who have worked the tournament ever since it moved to Warner Robins three years ago.

Kendal McDonald, 16, a student at Houston County High School, decided to volunteer in the gift shop because her cousins play Little League.

“Every year, I come to (the tournament),” she said. “This year, I wanted to finally help.”

Ashley Adkins, who serves at Robins Air Force Base along with her husband, didn’t realize how big Little League is in the area, because they were stationed in Italy before coming here four months ago.

“I saw a flier at the base and decided to volunteer,” she said. “I didn’t think softball and baseball were as big a deal as they are until I came here.”

Buddy Miles and his wife, Judy, have both served as volunteers since the regionals moved to the midstate from St. Petersburg, Fla. Miles said he played Little League baseball himself in the mid-1950s and has had a lifelong connection to the sport.

“I’m retired, so I can come out here and work,” Miles said.

Miles said he’s had a broad range of duties while serving as a volunteer. After driving a golf cart the first year, he then worked as an usher and helped pick up garbage last year. This year, he and his wife work in the gift shop, and he has the extra job of running the 50-50 raffle.

“It doesn’t matter to me; I’ll go out and do anything,” he said.

Not all of the volunteers are from the midstate. In addition to some volunteers from Florida, Tom Shiel and his wife, Alice, have come down from their home in Warwick, R.I., to work the Southeastern regionals. Tom Shiel said he’s done so because of his long association with Colvin, having met her while working as an umpire during the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa.

The Shiels said that while working with the kids is rewarding, they’ve gotten the added benefit of making lifelong friends among other volunteers. They reminisced along with fellow volunteer Gary Kay of Florida when they met many years ago.

“It gets in your blood,” said Kay, affectionately known among the volunteers as Papa Smurf. “Little League is just a big family.”

“It is a big family,” Alice Shiel said in agreement. “You meet people from everywhere.”

Her husband said it’s important for he and his family to give something back to Little League.

“I tell my kids, ‘Remember what Little League has done for me,’ ” he said.

McDonald said she’s getting that sense of family, not just among the volunteers, but from the families who travel from out of state for the tournament.

“You get to meet them and hear their stories,” she said.

Colvin said volunteers go through a background check before they can begin because they work closely with children. Once approved, the volunteers usually can request what they want to do and are quick to switch to something else -- going from being an usher to working in the concession stand, for example -- if the need arises.

She said the organization works to accommodate volunteers’ schedules, even if a volunteer can only work a couple of hours.

“We have some people (working on the field) who get there at 7 a.m. and don’t leave until 11:30 at night,” Colvin said. “Then they come right back the next morning. It’s nice to be able to establish a corps of volunteers. You might not see them for 50 weeks, but you know they’ll be here next year.”

To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.