Whenever you are purchasing a hot dog, hamburger, soft drink or your favorite beverage at West Virginia University athletic events, chances are that smiling face serving you is a volunteer working for a local non-profit group.
In fact, just about everywhere you go to watch sporting events these days - whether it’s college or pro, regardless of venue - you are most likely encountering a volunteer food server.
At Milan Puskar Stadium and the WVU Coliseum, each non-profit organization working a specific serving area is prominently posted on the food menu board.
The organizations working West Virginia University athletic events run the gamut: dance groups, cheerleaders, sports teams, bands, student organizations, clubs, booster groups, church organizations, 4H groups, you name it.
The amount of money Sodexo - Sports & Leisure, contracted to oversee West Virginia University’s athletic concession services, is paying out to these local groups and charities is staggering, typically exceeding six figures during any given year.
In 2016, for instance, the Cheer Empire, a dance group from Cumberland, Maryland, worked enough West Virginia University athletic events to generate more than $41,000 for its organization.
Laurel Point 4H, located here in Monongalia County, made more than $21,000 last year staffing Mountaineer sporting events.
A substantial portion of the $20,000 the Connellsville Falcons band group raised from selling concessions at WVU sporting events last year paid to send some of its members to a national competition in Florida.
The Penn State-Fayette campus student government has donated a portion of the funds it generates from the volunteer work it does at West Virginia sporting events to Thon, a student-run philanthropy committed to enhancing the lives of children and families impacted by childhood cancer.
This is a truly wonderful volunteer service benefitting all walks of life, and, according to Lara Bealko, West Virginia University’s general manager of Sodexo, it’s a common practice throughout the country.
Bealko said Sodexo is actively seeking local groups willing to staff West Virginia University athletic events. However, it’s not as simple as just showing up with clean hands and a willingness to work weekends.
Participating volunteer groups must pass a food-handlers examination in order to be certified, and now that West Virginia University also serves alcoholic beverages at its home athletic events, each volunteer must undergo additional certification and training to serve alcohol.
All volunteer groups are required to purchase liability insurance as well.
“The local health department administers the test and each volunteer has to pass the test to receive their special food handler’s card, which is only good for our facility,” Bealko said.
Once a volunteer group is certified, Bealko said any group can work as many events as it likes. Sodexo has even established incentive programs that pay more money to groups when entire season commitments are met and all of Sodexo’s policies and procedures are followed.
“If they refer another group, and that group works the entire six or seven game home football season, they can get extra money for that,” she said.
Bealko noted that full-time Sodexo employees are interspersed among the volunteers to provide a supervisory role. The Sodexo staff handles such essential things as overseeing the proper temperature readings during food preparation, and the coordination of appropriate documentation for each event.
But the people fetching your soft drinks, bringing you those tasty soft pretzels, candy bars, cotton candy, popcorn, nachos or your favorite craft beer, is very likely someone such as Jill Barnhart, a Waynesburg school teacher who oversees the Waynesburg Raiders, a booster group raising money for the Waynesburg High and Waynesburg Middle School bands.
“The last year and a half, we made over $18,000,” Barnhart said. “We give a portion of it to the general fund for the band, but most of it goes to the kids’ accounts to pay for events.”
Some of the money Barnhart’s group raised working for Sodexo at WVU football and men’s basketball games helped fund the band team’s trip to Virginia.
“(Recently), the high school band went to the Virginia International Music Festival in Norfolk, Virginia. And we won!” she said.
Concourse improvements will continue to enhance the dining experience for Mountaineer fans on the west side of Milan Puskar Stadium in 2017. Submitted photo.
Bealko said she frequently hears uplifting stories of how volunteering for West Virginia University athletic events has made a major difference with many of these frequently cash-strapped organizations.
Because the vast number of local organizations are made up of Mountaineer football and basketball fans, Bealko admitted most of the groups working WVU home events travel from outside the immediate area.
“We hear a lot of local organizations don’t partake in this because a lot of folks come to watch the games, so many of the groups we get come from Pennsylvania and Maryland,” she said.
Sometimes, traveling significant distances can cause issues, particularly during basketball season when the weather is not always cooperative.
When that happens?
“We’re in trouble,” she laughed nervously. “It’s happened.”
The recent renovations to the stadium and Coliseum, along with alcohol sales, has also impacted the volunteer pool.
“The amount of folks we need has increased with the (stadium) renovations,” she said. “The year we had our work cut out for us was the first year we began selling beer at the stadium because it changed the whole age group for those capable of working. They had to be 18 and older, so therefore, a lot of the church groups backed out, and scouting and youth groups also could no longer participate."
However, Bealko admitted her biggest concern is making sure Mountaineer fans understand that the people serving them are most likely volunteers.
“These people are here working for an organization,” she said. “They don’t do this for a living. They sometimes have to hear people who are upset wanting to be served more alcohol past the cutoff time. It’s a huge commitment for these individuals to raise money for their organizations.”
Groups interested in working concessions for Mountaineer home football and men’s basketball games can contact Sodexo’s non-profit organizer Peggy Barnett by calling (304) 293-6241
, or by email Peggy.Barnett@sodexo.com