Thousands Volunteer at Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo

Dakota Greer recently escorted a group of steers and heifers through the exhibition hall -- partly to be hospitable, but also to prevent the small likelihood that an animal would get loose and wreak havoc on NRG Center.

The Houston Chronicle reports just yards away, Cortney Chastain stood watch at the Feed Store, ready to sell hay and grain to competitors. Upstairs, Angie Cedillo was on lunch break before leaving to set up rows of jewelry in a merchandise tent.

The three volunteers are among more than 34,000 people who help out at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo each year. Spread across 108 committees, they make up a complex web of people from different places and professions. Without them, the weekslong marathon of contests, concerts, the trail ride and carnival would be impossible, rodeo Chairman Jim Winne said.

"Every person matters," he said. "If you're out there in the rain, in a rain coat and a flashlight putting people in parking slots out there at midnight, checking in horses over here at 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning, what you do matters."

The volunteers are almost everywhere you look: passing out guides, giving tours and setting up calf scrambles during the expo that runs through March 17.

Together, they contribute more than 2.1 million hours to the event, according to rodeo estimates. But to many of them, it's not work -- it's a source of pride. Indeed, people are lining up to perform even the most menial tasks.

"We have a wait list," said Brett Sarver, chairman of the International Committee. "There's doctors and lawyers serving food right now."

Sarver started with the committee 21 years ago, sweeping popcorn. He's now chairman of a group that has 34 subcommittees and 640 members who greet the rodeo's thousands of international guests, he said.

Candece Beverly started her first day of volunteering with the Directions and Assistance Committee. She could tell she'd keep at it for years to come.

"It's kind of addicting," she said, grinning while passing out visitor's guides to guests.

Stephanie Oaks waited for years to be part of the effort. Now she's a "gateleader" for the Gatekeeper Committee, which greets people as they walk onto the grounds.

She was attracted by the camaraderie she'd seen friends enjoy through the event. She's since been exposed to the sheer amount of planning and work that goes into what looks, to many, to be seamless. Each volunteer works for about 67.7 hours, on average, over the rodeo's three-week run, officials said.

"It's actually eye-opening. You don't realize how much goes into the rodeo from A to Z in all aspects," Oaks said. "When you're actually on one of the committees, you see the plethora of planning and organization."

Greer is one of 860 people on the Livestock Committee, which organizes the herdsman's awards. He's in his fifth year with the group. It can sometimes be hectic, he said, but the organizers mostly have everything down to a science.

"It's huge," he said. "It's amazing seeing so many people get together and make one basic goal happen."

Cedillo is also on her fifth rodeo, but this is her first with the Rodeo Merchandise Committee. She never realized how individualized the process would be, she said.

"It's an experience to get to see everything that goes on in the back," Cedillo said. "Little things, you never wonder who does all of that."

The rodeo is largely volunteer-driven; the full-time staff is about 120 people. Each committee has a different culture, and people can direct their talents toward a committee that fits them best, Winne said.

And since the rodeo has been around since 1932, each year gets better, he said.

"It's an amazing operation," Winne said. "Everybody has a job. All of those committees have a responsibility, and they execute them very well."

Many volunteers, who hail from all of Harris County's ZIP codes and even some outlying areas, join because of the social benefits. But they all stick around, year after year, because they see the greater purpose of the rodeo, Winne said.

Chastain, who lives in Fairchilds in Fort Bend County, has volunteered since 2013. She cited children's participation in the livestock show as one of her biggest motivators.

"As the world gets more progressive and we start to lose more and more of our agricultural heritage, it's events like this that give kids that are more urban the opportunity to see where their food comes from and what it means to be part of the agricultural community," she said.

Beverly, a native Houstonian, said her involvement stems from a deep appreciation of the rodeo and what it means to the city.

"I've always seen the volunteers out here, and they've always been very helpful to me," she said. "Houston is my home. When visitors come to the rodeo, I want to be able to welcome them to my home."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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