BRATTLEBORO >> When thousands of people and dozens of cows fill the streets for the annual Strolling of the Heifers, there are numerous individuals behind the scenes that make it possible.
About 120 volunteers will dedicate their time to the event this year even if it means scooping poop behind the heifers or sorting trash, recycling and compostable items on site. While there is the "dirty" work, there are also opportunities to stay busy selling Strolling of The Heifers merchandise or handing out food samples. Regardless of the job, the volunteers are committed to the Stroll's mission of "connecting people with healthy local food, encouraging and facilitating innovation and entrepreneurship in the farm/food sector, and supporting the development of stronger local food systems and healthy, sharing, connected and resilient communities," according to the Stroll's website.
The Stroll's volunteer coordinator, Vicki Friedman, has been in her role since 2011 and while the Stroll is a three-day celebration during the first weekend in June, the planning begins in September. Despite just the three-month break for planning, Friedman and handfuls of other volunteers return each year.
"To me, it's like sending out Christmas cards — you only hear from people once a year, so it's nice to catch up with that group of people and have that connection," said Friedman.
The event was inspired by a 2001 conversation between Orly Munzing, the founder and executive director at Strolling of the Heifers, and her neighbor at the time Dwight Miller Jr., who died in a farming accident in 2008. Miller had told Munzing that farmers were slowly going out of business, people were unaware of where their food was coming from and there would be more farmer support if others knew how hard they worked. Munzing then visited Pamplona, Spain, the site of the famous Running of the Bulls, and Miller's words came to mind. She envisioned a slower and friendlier version of the Running of the Bulls — the Strolling of the Heifers — as a way to support local farmers.
Since the beginning Munzing has rallied people to make this event possible and year after year she has seen the importance of its volunteers.
"The value of volunteers is insurmountable. I could not have a price tag on the dedication and care that we get from volunteers," Munzing said. "Without volunteers, we would not have a Strolling of the Heifers. It is a true example of how a town comes together and endlessly gives back."
Friedman is in charge of assigning people to different volunteer jobs based on their availability and preference (on a first come, first served basis). In her opinion, the merchandise table is the most "exciting" because it is a job that is constantly busy with customers and sales. For the past three years, Friedman has assigned one of the merchandise tables to Chuck and Mary Jeanne Perlmutter, a married couple from Hinsdale, N.H.
"We had just moved from New York state and we were looking for a new way to meet people and get involved with the community," said Mary Jeanne Perlmutter. "We saw the Strolling of the Heifers was looking for volunteers and thought it was an interesting opportunity."
Perlmutter added that she and her husband were particularly drawn to the various volunteer options such as selling merchandise or cheese and sorting through the recycling, trash and compost items on site. She notes, the first year they participated, they volunteered for four days with the Slow Living Summit on Thursday, cutting cheese on Friday, selling merchandise on Saturday and at the Tour de Heifer bike ride on Sunday.
Friedman mentioned other essential volunteer roles for the event include a "human fence," which consists of about people spread out through the streets to direct people toward the Brattleboro Common and the Retreat Campus where vendors and entertainment are set up and open to the public after the parade.
She noted there are also eight chefs from southern Vermont and Massachusetts that will demonstrate some of their recipes at the Meat & Cheese Demos at the Expo. Volunteers will hand out free samples to attendees at the Stroll.
If the stomachs of Stroll fans cannot wait until Saturday for free food, volunteers will be cutting some fresh and local bread, prepared by local chefs for a competition; on Friday evening attendees can vote for their favorite bread, which will win a "People's Choice Award" according to Friedman.
In addition, "royalty" will be present at the event, as Miss Vermont 2016, Rylee Field, and Miss Vermont's Outstanding Teen, Alexandra Diehl, will volunteer at the Goat Olympics during this year's event. Field and Diehl were crowned last month.
Another important person in terms of organizing volunteers for the event is Richard Chapin, who is the parade director. His volunteers are the marshals in the parade who set up all the units and make sure they are all in order.
"It's a lot of fun, you get to know a lot of all the participants," said Chapin. "It's good to get organized, it's a good cause helping the farmers and it is year round work that the Strolling does to promote local food and farmers."
According to Chapin, there are four "divisions" or sections of the parade. The first division consists of 28 units, which are all farmers. Then the second, third and fourth are about 12 to 13 units. Chapin held a meeting Tuesday with the volunteers to make sure everyone understood their jobs and the lineup.
Chapin has been volunteering since the event's inception in 2002 and feels that others like him come back for similar reasons.
"It's the community spirit. It's the value of what you want to do. If someone has a passion of being part of the community, then people will volunteer, plus they all get free Ben and Jerry's ice cream."
Munzing notes her gratitude for the volunteers and community that have supported this event year after year.
"It takes a village to transform Brattleboro to 'Cattleboro' the Strolling of the Heifers," said Munzing. "We are lucky to live in such a wonderful giving community."
Maddi Shaw can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext 275.