Freeman stage offers up the arts, and volunteer opportunities

Special to the Coastal Point • Christina Weaver: Carla Briccotto and Mark Banaszak are among the volunteers at the Freeman Stage.Special to the Coastal Point • Christina Weaver: Carla Briccotto and Mark Banaszak are among the volunteers at the Freeman Stage.The Freeman Stage at Bayside has entertained Sussex County residents and visitors since the summer of 2008. Each year, the number of shows and the name recognition of the artists has increased. Indeed, last year, 50,000 people took the opportunity to experience the arts at the Stage’s unique and attractive outdoors setting, located on Route 54, halfway between Fenwick Island and Selbyville.

Each of those individuals, as well as every artist, came in contact with at least one Freeman Foundation volunteer.

“The volunteers are the backbone of our mission,” said Patti Grimes, executive director.

Homer Coates saw his first Freeman Stage show in 2010 and started volunteering the next year.

“I’ve always been a live entertainment junkie, and I’ve always volunteered at something or another,” he said. “So when I retired to the Refuge, close to Bayside, it just felt natural. I love it.”

“It’s funny — I had never been to an opera or gone to a ballet before, but now I find I really enjoy those performances. And the biggest surprise artist for me was country singer Nora Jane Struthers. I’d never heard of her, but she impressed me beyond belief.”

Coates summed up his volunteer jobs by joking, “If you’ve attended a show, I’ve probably parked you, seated you or greeted you!”

He added that, at the end of an event, everyone pitches in to make sure the last car gets out safely, the last piece of trash is removed and the last of the seats has been put away.

“That’s the impressive part for me,” said Coates. “By everyone — that includes Michelle Freeman and her family. She is a powerful woman, yet there they are schlepping along with the rest of us, getting the place cleaned up.”

Michelle Freeman is the founding president and chairman of the non-profit Joshua M. Freeman Foundation, which honors her late husband. When you come to a show you are quite likely to hear Freeman encourage members of the audience to consider becoming volunteers. She explains:

“Our vision is to build a sustainable, inclusive and model volunteering program. … Our mission is that volunteering benefits the organization, the community and you, the volunteer. Volunteering is a way to make an immediate impact on your community, and a way to generate life skills and relationships that positively impact you, the volunteer.”

Carla Briccotto said, “We were staying nearby and went to a couple of fabulous performances. Then I heard Michelle talk about the mission for the foundation, and Patti talked about volunteers being the backbone, and I was inspired. I’m already involved in the arts, so I thought, ‘I could do that.’”

That was in 2012, and Briccotto and her friend Mark Banaszak have been volunteering ever since. In fact, they recently bought a house close by so they would be close to their volunteer work after leaving their real work behind in Middletown.

“We arrive at the Stage around 5 and are usually done by 9:45, so that leaves us plenty of daytime to go to the beach or even go hear more music later if we want,” said Briccotto. “Everyone is friendly. It’s well organized. You’re recognized for what you do. And it’s just good fun. Plus, you get to watch some amazing artists.”

“My favorite show so far was the Beach Boys with John Stamos,” said Banaszak. “They created so much energy and warmth in the crowd. And this year I’m really looking forward to Heart, although they have a fantastic lineup for the whole summer.”

“Mark works the parking lot, and I help get everyone seated on the lawn. There is great teamwork and, if you have a problem, you can always ask one of the ‘blue shirts,’ like Robin, to help,” added Briccotto.

Robin is Robin Spangenberg, operations manager for the foundation and responsible for its volunteer program. He is one of the foundation’s eight full-time and 20 paid seasonal staff. For stage events, they all wear blue shirts, so they can be easily identified if help is needed.

“We need about 50 volunteers for each performance,” said Spangenberg. “This year, 140 individuals have gone through training, and we ask that each person volunteers for at least seven events, although some actually volunteer at each show. We’re always looking for more volunteers, and we’ve made it easier for people to contact us by signing up on our website.”

Spangenberg explained that there are numerous types of volunteer opportunities at the foundation. As well as working at the Stage, they include administrative behind-the-scene jobs, and helping at fundraisers, such as the annual white party and golf tournament. Volunteers also assist local artist John Donato with the Legacy Mural Project in Sussex County schools and help with other student outreach arts programs.

“We try to match the volunteer with their particular interest and capability,” said Spangenberg.

Each volunteer has to sign the same confidentiality contract as the staff. Some know, for example, the names of the performers who have been signed for the next season well before the highly anticipated list is revealed. But all are too loyal and ethical to breathe a word, even to their spouses.

Some volunteers are known as hospitality assistants and runners. They work directly with the performers and their entourages to make sure that everything works perfectly both on stage and during their stay in our area.

Spangenberg recalled that one volunteer had the pleasure of taking Sheryl Crow’s daughter crabbing. Another took Darius Rucker’s children to McDonald’s.

“Whatever we can do to make their visit to the Freeman Stage flawless, we do,” he said.

Sarah Grady is a Bayside summer resident who has volunteered for the foundation almost from the beginning.

“At the end of the first season, there was an apple pie baking contest, and I rode my bike over to see what was going on. There I met Patti and felt an instant connection. Later, I met Michelle and she struck a chord with me, how she turned such an immense personal tragedy (her husband, Josh Freeman’s untimely death in 2006) into this beautiful venue that does so much good work,” said Grady.

“It’s just amazing to have watched its humble beginning evolve to a first-class entertainment setting,” she said. “Volunteering here has been just the right fit. I’ve made friends. It’s been a ton of work but a labor of love. I’ve been appreciated, and I keep coming back.”

While working as one of the hospitality assistants, Grady met singer Pat Benatar.

“She was so impressed with everything she saw and experienced here, she said she wanted to come back. And that was before she had even performed! She hasn’t returned yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised,” said Grady.

This year, the Stage’s eighth season, is the largest to date, with more than 50 shows of all musical genres, including 16 national recording artists, as well kids’ programs, “Locals under the Lights” and theatrical performances.

Volunteering is a great way to see shows between doing one’s assigned duties. It may be why most volunteers initially sign up. But when asked why they come back, they answer simply, “It’s fun!”

To find out more about the Freeman Foundation and Stage, the volunteer program and the summer 2015 schedule, go to