So Many Ways to Volunteer

It’s common knowledge that the Iditarod doesn’t happen without an army of volunteers. There are volunteers who have been coming for many years, every year, year after year. There are volunteers I have met in our hotel, at the banquet, and at the Iditarod Headquarters, and there are volunteers that few if any people see. The ways to volunteer are limitless.

The first volunteer I met was in the elevator, shortly after I arrived in Anchorage. I was wearing my new Iditarod hoodie, and the woman asked me if I was here for the Iditarod. Then she nudged her husband and said, “he has been on the Iditarod.” The husband did a half snort/half chuckle, and said, “yeah, but now I don’t run the race. I make pancakes in Unalakleet.” As I recall, the pancakes in Unalakleet are famous. He is one of those volunteers that are invisible to us (he won’t be walking around with an arm band or red apron or yellow vest), but will be much appreciated by mushers. I didn’t catch his name, but I expect he is well known to mushers and volunteers who make it to the Bering Coast. I wish I’d had more time to ask how he came to flip pancakes in Unalakleet.

To be honest, the first 2019 Iditarod volunteers I met were virtual volunteers. I met them in the Twitterverse, thanks to Blair Braverman. She posted a thread that I had to share with my students. They were driving a truck loaded with drop bags, looking for the Iditarod drop-off location. After having some trouble finding the location, they finally backed up to a warehouse loading ramp, where they were greeted by an army of volunteers. In the thread, she posts a video of smiling, helpful volunteers taking the bags from truck to drop location. It made the process instantly clear. Then, she described how they weigh the drop bags. These yellow-vested volunteers are critical to the success of each musher.


At Iditarod headquarters, I saw some of the many veterinarians that donate their time to guarantee the health and safety of the Iditarod dogs. Stu Nelson, head vet for the Iditarod, was there. But so was another army of volunteers. Inside the headquarters, I met Jennifer Hennessy, a veterinarian from Houston, Texas. Alaska is a long way from Texas, but she made the trip to help care for the dogs of the Iditarod. Her Houston practice sounded quite different from Iditarod, including some exotic animals and celebrity. Here, it’s all about the dogs.

The volunteer that I learned the most about is Lisa Matthews, a rookie volunteer for 2019. She is a commercial pilot. Last year, she happened to visit Anchorage during the Iditarod. She had spent time with a couple women who were veteran IditaVolunteers with tons of experience. They convinced Lisa that she HAD to come back to Alaska in 2019 and volunteer for the race. She signed up to provide VIP assistance during the ceremonial start, she hopped a plane to Anchorage, and she ended up at the Lakefront Hotel. We got to know her because she needed a ride to the Marriott, where she would join our group for the Headquarters/Failor field trip. She was delightful, and we found ourselves sharing dinner with her that evening at Gwenny’s, a “must try” restaurant that she suggested. At the end of the evening, we exchanged phone and email, and hoped to run into each other again (despite busy schedules).

We ran into her at the meet and greet, where she was sporting a red volunteer apron. She came to the Dena’ina center for the banquet, and ended up volunteering with the auction. They asked, “Do you have an iPad?” She did, and was put right to work. We reconnected with her during the banquet, and rode back to the Lakefront together. Lisa is sweet, enthusiastic, playful, and ready to adventure. On Saturday, while we are handling dog teams, she will be guiding VIP spectators at the ceremonial start. Why?


Volunteers come in many flavors, for many purposes. Iditarod draws together people with a huge array of skills and passions, to fill the huge array of needs. It has been said (in one form or another, by various people) that Service is the rent we pay for the air we breathe. Yet service also brings joy. Look at the faces of the army lugging drop bags, the veterinarians palpating dog limbs, the jet pilots and assorted and sundry people jumping into whatever needs to be done. I see smiles. Service is about fulfilling needs, and service also is about joy. I will be bringing these folks home with me as I work with my students to discover the joy of service.

*Teachers: Explore service learning with your students.  What projects can they do to help others?  What are the classroom jobs that students perform to help the class community? Could you rename classroom jobs with Iditarod and dog-theme titles (air force, handlers, comms, logistics, lead dog, wheel dog….)?

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