Standing out from the crowd, decked in their new bright blue T-shirts, Shaw Guild members mingled with visitors along the streets of the Old Town this past weekend in their new role as volunteer ambassadors.
Saturday marked the first day of the pilot program, which tasks volunteers with greeting tourists and others. The ambassadors are to welcome people, reinforce the guidelines about physical distancing and wearing masks, and answer any questions that might arise.
Shaw Guild communications chair Cheryl Morris says there are currently 29 members who have offered their time to the cause. With the coronavirus pandemic putting an end to summer performances at the Shaw Festival, the dedicated volunteers were elated to finally get back into the community to contribute in this new way.
Council representatives Gary Burroughs and Wendy Cheropita were happy to don their own blue shirts as they met with the first group Saturday before heading to the streets.
“The Town has been great,” says Morris. “They provided the T-shirts. It was actually the idea of Gary and Wendy, so they (the Town) also supplied the masks, the tote bags, gift cards for valu-mart, parking passes for the volunteers and use of the Market Room (at the Courthouse).”
Speaking to The Local Sunday night, Cheropita, who spent a few hours participating Saturday, said the first weekend was a chance to learn exactly how the program would work. “They (the ambassadors) found that most people had a mask on, or had it in their pockets. They were pleasantly surprised, and everyone was open to having a discussion. Some people chatted for a while, and asked where the washrooms were. We got the frequently asked questions (FAQs) down pat.”
Cheropita herself approached a few people Saturday. “Wearing a mask, it’s important that they see in your eyes that you’re smiling. I found it easy to approach the groups. I think it’s important to put yourself in the situation of the ambassadors so you know what it’s like being in their shoes.”
Volunteers Lois Chapman and Kim Mustill were the first to hit the street at noon. They made sure to stay off Queen Street for the most part, because as Morris says, it’s difficult to hold a physically distanced conversation on such a busy thoroughfare.
With beaming smiles that rivaled their new T-shirts for brightness, the two women approached a group gathered around a picnic table on Regent Street. They introduced themselves as volunteer ambassadors, welcomed the visitors to town, and asked if they had any questions. The tourists seemed happy to have a short conversation with Mustill and Chapman, who in a friendly manner shared some of their favourite local businesses.
Across the street was a group of three near their car. Mustill and Chapman walked up and began an informal conversation with the visitors from the Toronto area. In NOTL for the weekend, they were beaming with radiant smiles of their own as they raved about the local restaurants with which they were already thoroughly impressed. The volunteers spent almost five minutes with the tourists, chatting as if they were old friends.
Cheropita had a chance to meet with a number of the volunteers when it was time for a shift change mid-afternoon. Having just come back from a visit to Sentineal Carriages on Byron Street, it was suggested the ambassadors could direct curious visitors to the new weekend location of the carriages as an answer to one of those FAQs.
On that topic, though there was no disruption this weekend from the protesters, there is a protocol in place for the ambassadors if any conflict arises.
“If they encounter anyone who is confrontational,” Cheropita explains, “we ask them to say ‘I hope you have a nice day,’ and walk away. With the protesters, we say don’t make eye contact, don’t engage in conversation, and if you feel uncomfortable, we ask that they text Laurie (Harley, Shaw Guild president) and Cheryl, as they’re in the Market Room. If anything serious is to happen, they would call the police, and not our by-law officers.”
Morris explains that this weekend marked the beginning of a two-week pilot program that will be assessed after it wraps up Sept. 13. “We’re going to evaluate,” she says. “We’re going to send all the volunteers a survey, to get their opinions on what they liked, what they didn’t like, any suggestions for improvement, and then the Town will evaluate what they want to do next.”
After consulting with Morris and Harley, Cheropita was pleased that the ambassadors were a big success on their first weekend. But there is always room for adaptation in a pilot program.
“One thing we did learn,” she says, “is that our T-shirts had our Shaw Guild logo on the front and the Ambassador Program printed on the back. As you’re approaching them (visitors), they don’t know who you are. Shaw Guild makes no sense to them.”
So when the ambassadors next hit the Old Town streets, don’t be surprised if they are wearing their bright blue T-shirts backwards.