The people behind Harris Hill

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BRATTLEBORO —In 1922 Fred Harris wanted to build the finest ski jump in New England.

"He achieved it almost immediately," Sally Seymore, media coordinator for the Harris Hill Ski Jump said. She added that it didn't take long for Harris' ski jump to gain a national reputation.

Every February for the past 95 years Harris Hill transforms from an inconspicuous field to the second largest ski jump event in the nation, according to Dana Sprague the competition's historian.

The event features food vendors, a beer tent, T-shirts, and cowbells (a winter sport spectator essential) and even a mascot, Jumper the Cow, sponsored by Brattleboro Savings and Loan.

"We try to make it a festive atmosphere for people," Seymore said.

To put on such a large event, 200 volunteers from Brattleboro and surrounding areas gather to put on the annual Harris Hill Ski Jump competition, according to Sprague. It is an entirely volunteer effort, according to Seymour, the group's media coordinator.

Seymour has been working for the Harris Hill Ski Jump for five years. She holds a lifelong passion for skiing. When she was little, her father built her her own ski jump, though she never pursued the sport competitively.

Seymour joined the Harris Hill team after retiring from her career in the film industry.

"I had the time and it's something I love," she said.

Once she joined, her friends joked that being a Harris Hill volunteer is "a lifelong commitment." Seymour agrees.

Some volunteers have been working for the event for as many as 35 years. Sprague himself has been volunteering for the past 20 years.

Volunteers are broken up into to two groups. The first group is made up of the the selection committee, which has about about 10 to 18 members, according to Sprague. These members meet year round to plan the event, fundraise, promote, recruit competitors, archive, and organize vendors.

The second group is made up of volunteers who work on the event days. These volunteers direct parking, sell tickets, maintain the hill, mark the jumps, address competitor needs, manage transportation and hospitality, and work media relations and communications.

Volunteers usually come out to support their community, according to Sprague, and, occasionally, to get front row seats to the event.

"[You get the] best seats in the house," said Dave Blocher, who has been volunteering with Harris Hill since around 1982. He started working in muddy parking lots directing traffic. Now he works with Sprague as a hill marker.

Blocher is one of many Vermonters who is enthusiastic about winter sports. He described himself as being fascinated with skiing.

"[I enjoy] the awe and drama of seeing people fly off the hill," Blocher said.

Other volunteers share similar sentiments.

"The best part is getting a great view of the jumps," said John Clements, who has been volunteering for the past 20 years. Clements joined because his son ski jumped. He started off as a hillmarker and now provides the event with a display window at Zephyr Designs. The display lasts for six weeks and is set up by Sprague. It depicts the history of the event and photos Sprague shoots of the competition and set up. Sprague says it helps generate excitement.

Still, the tasks are taxing. Sprague recruits the hill marker volunteers. They stand in the cold waiting and judging jumper distance.

"Sometimes to stand there in the cold, or the drizzle for an hour and a half or so," Blocher paused, "you don't get to move, you just have to shiver."

Clements said the cold wasn't the only difficult part about volunteering. His biggest obstacle is finding the time while running his business and devoting himself to his other commitments.

Sprague says he puts about 100 hours a year into the event, recording data, managing volunteers and photographing.

"It's important to be organized and to let the volunteers know they're appreciated," Sprague said.

When asked what the toughest part of his job was, he didn't think there was any one thing. "We get our jobs done as a group," Sprague said. "The biggest thing we can't determine is the weather so that's our biggest obstacle."

The weather for this weekends event is looking just right, at 30 to 40 degrees. Even when the weather is less than ideal, volunteers work around mother nature. In the last 30 years the event has only been canceled once, according to Sprague.

Sprague says they could always use more volunteers. He'd like to see more local high school students, who often need community service hours to graduate, to show up and volunteer. Though young blood isn't a problem, Sprague says he gets volunteers from 16 to 75 years old.

Most volunteers have a high retention rate, according to Sprague, who says new ones tend to show up the next year, and that some volunteers will even reach out to him.

To become a Harris Hill volunteer you may reach out to Dana Sprague at 802-254-9590 or Naomi Pollica at 603-465-1428.

Gates will at 10 a.m., with trial rounds at 11 a.m., opening ceremonies at noon and competition at 12:45 p.m. The family event will offer food and beverage vendors, a bonfire, music, tailgating and appearances by Jumper the cow mascot.

Tickets are $20 for adults, $15 for students ages 6 to 12, and free for children 5 and younger and can be purchased at the gate or online at www.brownpapertickets.com.

Advance discount admission of $15 for adults and $12 for students ages 6 to 12 are available at the Avenue Grocery, Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce, Brattleboro Savings and Loan, Burrows Specialized Sports, Galanes Vermont Shop, Grafton Village Cheese and Zephyr Designs, with more information at www.harrishillskijump.com.

Harmony Birch is a page designer at The Berkshire Eagle. She can be contacted at hbirch@berkshireeagle.com.

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