Gathering volunteers together on the Saanich Peninsula

39th Elders Gathering this summer will require hundreds of people to greet thousands of First Nations elders.

Elder Dolly Desjarlais says she’s volunteering with the Elders Gathering in July on the Saanich Peninsula because she enjoys helping people. Organizers say they will need as many as 600 volunteers for the three-day event.

Dolly Desjarlais says she’s going to volunteer at this summer’s Elders Gathering on the Saanich Peninsula because she loves helping people.

She is going to be one of between 400 and 600 people that organizers say they will need to be volunteers at the 39th Elders Gathering — an event that will see an estimated 2,000 First Nations elders from across the province, Alberta and Washington State, descend upon Vancouver Island for three days in July. Many will bring family and caregivers with them, which pushes the estimate of just how many people will be at the Gathering to around 5,000.

Catering to their needs at the conference will be up to organizers and the many volunteers they hope to attract.

Desjarlais is already on board. She’s a caregiver for elderly people in her community, working Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, meeting with at least two people and helping with their shopping, medical appointments and simply just being there to support them.

“I have always wanted to be involved, to help people do things,” she says. “That’s why I decided to volunteer at the Elders Gathering. It’ll get me out and working with other people.”

That, and she’s considered an elder as well.

As a volunteer at the Gathering, Desjarlais says she’ll be stuffing gift bags and more — she says she’ll go wherever she’s needed. She says the Elders Gathering itself it a time for people to be together. She adds she has been to them before, including last year’s Gathering in Penticton, so she knows what the many visitors to Greater Victoria will be looking for.

“There are going to be different tours here. And while I’ve grown up here and seen them all, I can help our visitors get to know us.”

Organizer Perry LaFortune says getting enough volunteers to help over those three days of the event — July 7 to 9 — is a top priority. However, putting on  such a large event for so many people has its challenges. Right know, he says he’s worrying the most over the Grand Entry ceremony.

LaFortune is pulling together music and performance groups from all over and having them meet a common goal.

“Our focus is on music that comes from this area. There will be drum groups from Cowichan, the Fraser Valley and more and we are hoping they will be able to play a single, main song together.”

It’s logistical details like this that keeps LaFortune busy. Already, he’s been able to attract 25 people to a local drum group. He says because of the good response so far, the job is getting easier.

That’s not to say, of course, that the stress is gone. LaFortune says that probably won’t happen until well after the Gathering ends.

Building up to the event, LaFortune says organizers gathered from the four First Nations on the Peninsula — Tsawout. Tsartlip, Pauquachan and Tseyout — are reaching out to the community in general. With an expected group of people in the thousands, LaFortune says they will need places to stay, eat, shop and visit.

“We want to do our best to entertain everybody. This really is a social event.”

It’s also an opportunity to create links between First Nations and the rest of the region, he says.

“We are creating partnerships that will last. Lines were drawn up a long time ago. Now, we’re starting to re-draw them.”

Mavis Underwood, another member of the organizing committee, says her big push is for volunteers. The Elders Gathering Facebook page has had an estimated 750 people express interest in helping, but she says, they need to register as volunteers.

“We will need around 250 volunteers each day,” she says. “We need greeters, messengers, mobility assistants, servers and a lot more.”

One of the volunteer co-ordinators, Mua Va’a, says there’s a form people have to fill out on the Elders Gathering website (bcelders2015.ca). He says they are looking for people who can put in three to four hours a day — but will be happy to take any help people wish to offer.

The deadline to register as a volunteer — and qualify for lunches and other perks — is June 26 at 4 p.m.

Va’a adds there will be training sessions provided to help ensure people are ready and have the skills needed to work at the Elders Gathering.

To learn more about how to volunteer, email Jessie Jim at jjim@tsawout.ca or call 250-652-9101. People can also call Va’a at 250-652-3988.

The 39th Elders Gathering will take place at Panorama Recreation Centre July 7 to 9. Watch the News Review for more details and stories leading up to the celebration.