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Pan Am Games: Volunteers do it their way

Pan Am Games: Volunteers do it their way

Posted by Bruce McDougall on June 09, 2014

It will cost more than $2 billion to hold the PanAm Games next year in Toronto. The money will pay for planning, design, infrastructure and construction, administered by a coven of well-paid senior managers. But when the last penny changes hands next July, the Games may succeed or fail on the performance of 20,000 people working for nothing.

In recent months, the pooh-bahs at TO2015, the organization responsible for putting the Games into action, have intensified their search for volunteers. With the Ontario government, they’ve offered to defer repayments on educational loans to university and community college students who volunteer for the games. Other volunteers will receive training in customer service and web-based skills.

Along with Cisco Canada, a corporate sponsor of the games, TO2015 awarded a $10,000 prize to a group of students at Sheridan College for developing a web-based application that connects non-English-speaking visitors to the games with local volunteers who speak their language. Presumably, Spanish, French, German and Portuguese-speaking visitors can use the app to inquire about restaurants, pubs and other places in the city and receive suggestions, in their own language, from volunteers.

At Seneca College, another community college in Toronto, students in the event-marketing program have become involved in a TO2015 initiative called Ignite. In return for course credits, the students participate in planning meetings to encourage local organizations to become involved with the games.

In return for developing activities and programs that reflect the spirit of the games, TO2015 will extend its stamp of approval to non-profit organizations and allow them to use the Ignite logo on their promotional materials.

"We wanted a means for people to get involved, understanding that we had our own concerns about budget and resources,” says Zenia Wadhwani, director of community outreach for TO2015. “So we developed the idea of Ignite [so] that organizations or individuals could create their own Pan Am program under our banner, in their own way."

TO2015 organizers are trying in particular  to weave the games into the fabric of the Greater Toronto Area, and especially the Latin American communities around the city. With the Mexican-influenced singer Amanda Martinez as an honorary co-chair, Ignite has been embraced by groups like the Toronto Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the Canadian Hispanic Congress and a Jamaican-Canadian contingent, led by Jamaica’s consul general to Toronto, Seth George Ramocan, as a way to gain some visibility in Toronto’s astonishingly diverse cultural fabric while drumming up some volunteers for the games.

Beyond the Latin American population, Ignite has caught the attention of the Métis Nation of Ontario, the city of Markham and the town of Milton, site of the Pan Am Games velodrome, who are brandishing the Ignite logo as they scour their ranks for PanAm volunteers.

In Kitchener, west of Toronto, a graduate of Seneca’s event-marketing program named Mark Pettigrew has co-ordinated a campaign to get about 250 seventh and eighth grade students at Westheights Public School to “stop wasting time inside watching TV, playing video games and spending endless hours on the computer” and get involved instead in table tennis, bowling, and volleyball games while learning more about the PanAm Games.

A Pan Am-themed summer camp at the University of Toronto and an Americas-themed multi-media performance at the Art Gallery of York University have met the requirements of the Ignite program, as well.

So far, more than 50 organizations have qualified for Ignite’s logo, while TO2015 organizers say they have attracted more than 16,000 volunteers.

"When we say the 'people's games,' what we really want to do is create real sense of ownership," says Wadhwani. "These are the games that are coming to my region and I have a stake in them. So what the [Ignite] program does is allow individuals to say, 'It's my idea, I'm going to manage it, I'm going to create it, I'm still going to be able to attach to the games and I'm going to do it in my own way."

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