This column in Attraction, by Amelia Blades Steward, visits the faces of those who have benefited from the generous and tireless work of the nonprofits on the Mid Shore or are one of the organizations giving back in unique ways to better our world. She has been a freelance writer in our community for over 20 years and offers a glimpse into the lives of residents on the Mid Shore whom she has met along the way.
Every year, the second weekend in November, Easton experiences the tradition of the Waterfowl Festival. This year, from November 10 through 12, 2023, a cadre of volunteers come together to welcome between 18,000 and 20,000 visitors to discover the best of local wildlife, nature, art, heritage, food, and fun. For newcomers to Talbot County, becoming a Waterfowl Festival volunteer is a great way to meet new friends and discover the warm hospitality so characteristic of the area.
The festival requires about 1,400 volunteers year-round to stage the show, most coming back to lend their talents and time year after year. Several Festival volunteers who volunteered as youth are now stepping into leadership positions as chairman of Waterfowl Festival Committees. Colin Perry, whose grandfather helped found the Festival, started as a Ducksitter – the youth volunteers who assist artists with whatever they need during the Festival weekend. Colin is now serving as Ducksitter Chairman, recruiting youth to do what she did years ago. E.J. Milhollan has volunteered since he was in 6th grade and even brought his college friends to help volunteer at the Festival. Now at age 21, Eric is the Beer Wetlands Chairman.
“Seeing this next generation step up in our leadership to continue their involvement in a greater way means so much as we see the transition of some of our more senior volunteers stepping down,” comments Victoria Milhollan, Community Outreach Director for the Waterfowl Festival. “We are also approaching local businesses like M&T Bank, Willow Construction, PNC Bank, and Easton Utilities, to name a few, to have their employees take a volunteer role.”
The Festival is also trying to match volunteer interests with their volunteer jobs to keep volunteers engaged and interested in what they are doing and coming back year after year.
Colin Perry, Waterfowl Festival Ducksitter Chairman, is with Victoria Milhollan, Community Outreach Director for the Waterfowl Festival, at Easton Middle School, where the pair got over 50 forms for both adult and youth volunteers for this year’s Festival.
“Colin and I recently reached out to parents and students at Easton Middle School and got over 50 forms for both adult and youth volunteers. Volunteering allows our youth to earn service learning hours for school, so we also focus their volunteer efforts around learning about the Festival’s purpose and what environmental stewardship means,” Victoria adds.
Anyone who volunteers three or more hours for the festival receives a volunteer badge, which gets them into all of the Festival venues during Waterfowl weekend. This perk, in addition to the annual volunteer party, attracts many volunteers to get involved.
“Being the Ducksitter Chairman and a member of the William A. Perry Scholarship Fund Committee, I have come full circle with my involvement. Because I was a Ducksitter myself when I was young and a scholarship recipient, I can relate to the students who are volunteering now and those who receive scholarships from the William A. Perry Scholarship Fund. It’s rewarding to see their commitment to the Festival. I didn’t know my grandfather well, but he was one person with an idea, who through connection and conversation with others, has made our town shine and come alive during the Festival weekend,” adds Colin.
Longtime volunteers Bruce Perry (52 years of service) and Louise Perry (45 years of service), who are also Colin’s parents; Ann White (48 years of service); Martha Horner (45 years), and Judy Knight (29 years) have all served in a variety of Festival roles, mainly surrounding waterfowl art. All of these volunteers have also served on the Waterfowl Festival board.
“I love how festive the community is, that there are people in the streets, and there’s music and the best food you will ever eat,” comments Louise Perry. Her husband Bruce adds, “I got involved initially through selling Festival tickets through the Easton Jaycees, then through my construction business got involved building backdrops for the Festival’s art exhibits with the encouragement of my father who started the Festival.”
The couple’s involvement extends beyond their volunteerism with their siblings, children, and grandchildren all serving in significant volunteer roles with the Waterfowl Festival over the years.
For Judy Knight, Ann White, and Martha Horner, who were once new residents to the area, volunteering right away with the Waterfowl Festival after moving to town helped them make friends in the community and contribute in some way.
“I think what’s been rewarding are the friends I have made through the Festival. If I hadn’t volunteered, I wouldn’t have half the friends in this community, nor the artists and friends outside of the community. It opened up my life so much more,” echoes Ann White, who for nine years served as the Festival’s first paid coordinator.
“I got involved as soon as I moved to town by donating magnolias from my magnolia trees for the Festival decorations. My first volunteering was with the Decorating Committee, and I have spent a lot of happy volunteer hours in the basement of the Armory. It was a great way to meet longtime friends,” adds Martha Horner.
For Judy Knight who has been Co-Chairman of the Armory exhibit, getting to know the exhibitors and developing relationships with them has been the most appealing aspect of her volunteering. Although the planning for the Festival is a year-round effort, Judy adds, “I also love that this is a volunteer job that takes place once a year every fall. It allows me to focus my volunteer hours around a specific period.”
This year, the Festival staff is busy focusing on getting more local involvement with the three-day event as a way to recruit a new generation of volunteers. Victoria states, “We want to be on the lips of every local citizen and to build our volunteer base, so we are developing closer relationships with the Town of Easton, the schools and daycares, and local businesses.”
Victoria has been reaching out to libraries, 4-H, daycares, and schools to grow the next generation of Waterfowl Festival volunteers and to plant the seed of environmental stewardship, which is the Festival’s overall mission. In 52 years, the Waterfowl Festival has raised over $5 million for wildlife and habitat conservation, education, and research. One of the Festival’s new outreach projects involves providing local youth organizations with diorama boxes that include a taxidermy duck. The youth then create the habitat for the duck inside the box. Completed boxes will be on display at the VFW during the Waterfowl Festival and the public will have the opportunity to vote for the best boxes.