Home Feature 6 things Josh Forbes learned volunteering at the Calgary Folk Music Festival

6 things Josh Forbes learned volunteering at the Calgary Folk Music Festival


Roots Music Canada writer Josh Forbes is attending the Calgary Folk Fest in two capacities this year:  as a volunteer and as a reporter for us!  He’ll be writing here both about the music and about his experiences as a volunteer.  Josh will also be offering us insights into what it’s like to attend and volunteer for the festival as a person with a disability.  His first dispatch describes his experience volunteering on Thursday and Friday.


Three years ago, at the tender age of 38, I was medically retired due to a diagnosis of a very aggressive form of multiple sclerosis or MS.

The first year was a very tough transition, as I didn’t really accomplish much of anything that might be deemed as important or substantial. However, over the past two years I have learned to appreciate life in many ways that I hadn’t before. I have been able to focus on and enjoy my writing a lot more, and I’ve been able to volunteer and enjoy several of the city’s summer festivals and events – festivals that, in the past, I had either been too busy to attend or found too expensive to justify buying tickets to. Diapers or tickets? Groceries or tickets? Family holiday or tickets?

The lead-up

After living in Calgary for 20 years and never attending the Calgary Folk Music Festival (CFMF) I decided this would be the year to change that. This summer I would volunteer with the festival and attend as much of it as possible.

Volunteering at any festival is a great way to attend, as most festivals allow their volunteers to attend for free if you fulfill a predetermined number of volunteer hours. One of the best life hacks to accomplish this, if you are able too, is to volunteer for pre and post festival positions, such as setup and teardown crews. This way you are free to attend the entire festival without working during it.

About two months before the festival, I signed up as a new volunteer on the CFMF’s website. It was easy and very quick. I then waited. Soon I received an email telling me how excited the festival was to have me, and I was given a schedule of pre-festival orientations and meet ups. I made sure when I applied to tell them that I had a disability that caused me to use a mobility scooter and that I would need to be placed on a team where this wouldn’t be a hindrance.

Inside scoop #1:  Yup!  The festival can totally accommodate volunteers with disabilities

The CFMF has been very understanding and accommodating of my situation, and during my first orientation I met one of the coordinators for the environment crew: a very friendly woman named Jocelyn. Jocelyn told me that she thought her environment team would be perfect for me. How could I say no?

The first crew orientation was roughly a week before the festival and included a pot luck dinner. Free food gets any festival bonus points in my books. Being on the environment crew means helping educate patrons in waste and recycling initiatives the CFMF has implemented, along with the City of Calgary, to help the festival reach its goal of becoming a zero waste festival. Last year saw the festival divert 89 per cent of its waste from the landfill.

As I learned more about the festival’s environmental consciousness I became more and more excited to be a part of the environment team. I couldn’t wait to get started!

Day One

I wasn’t too sure what to expect as I arrived at Princes Island Park for my first shift. As I rode my scooter into the garbage collection area, where I was told we were to meet our coordinators, there was already a small crowd gathered. It was a mixed crowd consisting of some older individuals, who looked to me to be seasoned folk fest volunteers, along with many baby-faced young teenagers volunteering for their first or second time. I was the only person who was noticeably disabled. 

Inside scoop #2:  Volunteers are VERY well fed

Despite being a little unsure at first, I am pleased to say that volunteering on day one went smoothly. My shift was scheduled to be from 12:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. I had arrived on site at 11:30 a.m. and was treated to a hot volunteer lunch of a personal wood fired margarita pizza and a cold drink. One thing I have found out is the CFMF feeds its volunteers very well. They have a large kitchen staff on site preparing meals for all the staff, free of charge. Of course there are plenty of other options along vendor alley but it is very nice that, as a volunteer, I don’t have to shell out large amounts of money while volunteering. I’m sure all 1,800 volunteers appreciate it just as much as I have. 

Inside scoop #3:   That stuff that looks like plastic is recyclable

My position on the environment crew meant that I spent most of my time out amongst the crowd, helping to educate people about what is compostable, what is recyclable and what is garbage. The clear beer cups provided by Big Rock Breweries, along with all the utensils and food vendors’ containers were all compostable products and therefore were not put into the landfill. Many festival-goers were very impressed to find out that what they thought were plastic plates and cups were actually compostable items made primarily of plant-based products such as cornstarch.

Inside scoop #4:  It’s not just the performers that entertain the crowd!

Is there a position for professional crowd visitor? I’ll have to check on that for next year. I could spend all day just talking and laughing with the other festival-goers. In the afternoon I was posted to a garbage and recycling station not far from the main stage. While on a short break I drove my scooter in amongst the crowd of families and love birds sitting on tarps waiting for the next performers to begin. One family of four with a small baby about six months old caught my attention. I approached the parents saying, “Excuse me. I think we have an issue here.  Can I speak with you for a moment? My volunteer shirt must have aided in giving my voice an air of authority, as a very concerned mother turned to me and said, “Yes?” I said, “I’m sorry but I’m going to have to ask you to leave the festival. We have a strict no cute babies policy here.  Mom and dad both erupted in laughter and tickled their baby, who was still lying on her back on the tarp. They went on to tell me that this was there fourth CFMF, and they were looking forward to a performance by a Tribe Called Red. 

Two elderly women sitting on a white blanket with pink and rust colored flowers on it caught my eye next. I scooted over close to them suggesting that their blanket was too pink, and I would have to ask them to leave. One of the women chuckled and commented that the blanket had been a wedding gift she has had since 1979. Astounded I said, “Wow I was born in 1977, and that blanket is in much better condition than I am.”

Day Two:  

Day two began with a forecast promising very hot weather, which was concerning for somebody like me. Ask anybody who suffers with MS, and they will tell you that overheating is a debilitating symptom. When I overheat, I lose most of what little muscle strength and control I have. Even closing my fingers to grasp a glass or a mug handle becomes impossible. The first muscles I notice I have lost control of when I start to overheat are my neck muscles. Your neck muscles, normally, are always engaged and working hard to hold your head up straight. I turn into a life-sized bobble-head as I struggle to keep my head up and my body from hunching over. The possibility of falling right out of my chair becomes very real. As you can imagine, a six-foot-four, two hundred and seventy pound man falling on the ground, who cannot get up on his own, makes for a very exciting scene, as it takes a small army of men to lift me up and right that ship again. 

Inside scoop #5:   There’s a private shindig before the gates open, and the mayor is there

My shift was scheduled from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. and started with a small corporate shindig that happens before the main gates open, called the Nooner. We were again asked to man a couple of garbage and recycling stations around the stage site. Live music played while the sun beat down and I chatted with everybody who walked by. Mayor Naheed Nenshi made an appearance along with many other dignitaries and big wigs.  Then the main gates opened, and the park was flooded again with thousands of folksy festival fans. 

Inside scoop #6:   If you need help, your fellow volunteers have your back

As I had expected, the sun took a toll on me, and I was soon starting to feel my body shutting down. My fellow volunteers were very supportive and understanding when I told them I had to go get cooled down and headed for some shade and ice water.  The many water refilling stations around Princes Island Park became very handy.

Lunch on day two was beef chili with a bun and a great salad bar followed up with a cup of free gelato.  Although, I know I had picked up the gelato with lunch, and I had seen the cup of gelato sitting on the table beside me, I don’t remember eating it at all, as I inhaled the cold creamy concoction so fast. 

The rest of my shift was spent rotating from garbage station to station chatting with whoever walked by.  Four o’clock came, and my shift finished so I made my way over to the main stage, where I scooted into the accessible seating area to enjoy shows by Archie Roach and Rhye until my Access Calgary Transit Bus (formerly Handibus) showed up at 8 p.m. to take this tired folk festival volunteer home. With my first two shifts done on the Thursday and Friday and no other shifts booked until Monday, I am looking forward to a Saturday and Sunday of pure folk fest fun. 






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