Dedicated few perform herculean task during tourneys
Slightly more than a dozen volunteers are anticipating their annual duty as Palatka prepares to welcome over 400 anglers for the Wolfson Children’s Hospital Bass Tournament, the second-largest single-day bass tournament in the country.
Volunteers from the Kiwanis Club of the Azalea City organize parking for countless fishing tournaments and charity events at the Palatka riverfront each year, but Saturday’s Wolfson tournament is the group’s largest parking endeavor.
“We have kind of become known as the parking crew,” laughed club member Taylor Douglas, who leads the parking missions. “A lot of these folks are coming in from out of town, and they just don’t have a clue at that hour of the morning where to park that is legal or illegal.”
Volunteers get to the riverfront as early as 3 a.m. to park the hundreds of rigs and trailers for the Wolfson tournament. Once volunteers fill up spots at the riverfront docks, they park their way through the rest of downtown Palatka until about 7:30 a.m.
“We will take up every available parking space in downtown Palatka,” club President Mike Perry said. “We will go sprint over to another parking lot because they have to go somewhere, and we have to get them down there.”
Attempting to park hundreds of anglers is a community effort, club member Corey Booth said. Volunteers get assistance from the Putnam County Sheriff’s Office and the city of Palatka, both of which direct traffic and block streets Saturday until boats fill the St. Johns River.
“It is pretty impressive,” Booth said. “If you go down there to the dock and riverfront as they are waiting to leave, it is just full and they all have their lights on. It looks like stars on the water with all of their boat lights.”
While waking up at 3 a.m. to direct parking for over 400 anglers may seem daunting, Perry said it is important to the club because of who the tournament impacts. Proceeds from the tournament benefit Wolfson Children’s Hospital at Baptist Medical Center in Jacksonville. The tournament has raised $4 million since its inception 30 years ago.
“Our Kiwanis mission is serving the children of the world, and, of course, where we start is here in Putnam County,” Perry said. “So there is a natural tie-in for our club, and that is why we show up.”
The efforts of volunteers who arrive at the riverfront hours before the sun rises are largely due to their love for the community, Douglas said. And while he leads the parking efforts, Douglas said it would be an impossible venture without a strong team.
“I think folks are just proud of Putnam and Palatka, and we want to show all the visitors we are a family-friendly community,” he said. “It is more than just me. It couldn’t be done with just me. I just try to make sure they get out of bed and get there at 3 o’clock.”
Brian Bergen, the Putnam County Chamber of Commerce’s vice president of economic development, said by parking anglers, volunteers are doing something for the entire community since the tournament directly impacts the area’s economy.
“There are so many people in this community that are just so dedicated to the community and the events that happen here,” he said. “We certainly could not do it without volunteers. It just wouldn’t happen.”