PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Whenever I need to clean my house, I throw a party. Nothing gets me to shine things up and roll out the red carpet like inviting people over.
This week, pretty much the entire central Aroostook County population did just that when they welcomed hundreds of athletes, coaches, staff and their families to the IBU Youth/Junior World Biathlon Championships at the Nordic Heritage Center in Presque Isle.
All week an army of 500 volunteers has made sure everything on and off the race course runs as smoothly as possible. And there is every indication they have done just that.
“This is a volunteer force unlike any other,” event director Jane Towle said Thursday. “Everyone wants to jump out and go the extra mile, everyone is willing to go above and beyond.”
Frankly, given what I know about folks from northern Maine, that comes as no surprise, nor does the fact that among those going that extra mile is my friend and bicycling buddy Penny McHatten, the self-proclaimed “Hospitality Queen” of the event.
“I even get princess parking,” she joked as she was ferrying a pot of fresh coffee up to the venue Thursday morning, where she is one of the very few who can park pretty much anywhere she wants.
Officially, Penny was volunteering as a “sweeper” with the transportation crew. Her job was to be on call for any coach or athlete who missed the scheduled transportation to and from the center or who needed a ride at a specific time.
Typical of Penny, she soon stamped the job with her own unique style.
One night, after putting in a 12-hour day volunteering, Penny said she ran into a group of girls from the Slovenian team shopping at Rite Aid.
“They were buying things and I knew they were staying at the Budget Inn, so I asked if they needed a ride back,” Penny said. Given the hotel is several miles from the Rite Aid, she said the athletes immediately accepted.
“And they started throwing more stuff into their baskets,” Penny said. “Before I talked to them they were buying gum and candy, but when they knew they had a ride, the bottles of mineral water started going in.”
On a different night, Penny’s last run of the day was to bring an official to his host family’s home outside of Presque Isle.
The only problem, she said, was he really had no idea where it was.
“We sort of drove around and around until he spotted a road that looked familiar,” she said. “We finally found it.”
Knowing Penny as I do and her passion for shopping, it makes perfect sense that she spent an evening shuttling the entire Swedish team to the Aroostook Centre Mall so they could experience shopping American Style.
But if Penny is remembered by the visiting athletes and coaches for only one thing, it very well could be her baking.
Every day she goes home and makes cookies or her special toffee bars to share the next day.
“At first the athletes did not want them,” Penny said. “I don’t know, maybe they were afraid of this crazy volunteer.”
But soon the word got out and at the end of each day’s competition there were groups of young athletes swarming around for the treats.
It even helped breach the communication barrier.
“I can’t communicate in Russian or Swedish or German,” Penny said. “But ‘cookie’ is universally understood.”
When she found out the Swiss boys were not fans of the local supermarket bread, Penny made a special run to a bakery for fresh bread for them. When the Russians remarked they would have liked more fresh fruit, off she went to buy some produce for them.
Turns out, the Polish athletes are not fans of scrambled eggs.
“They told me they like to ‘see’ their eggs,” she said. So, the next day, there was Penny with a half-dozen hard-boiled eggs for them.
“These are all kids,” Penny told me. “As a mother and grandmother, sending your kid halfway around the world, wouldn’t you want someone to bake them a cookie, give them a smile and crack a joke?”
It has all made a strong impression on the athletes.
“The welcome we have received here has been outstanding,” Lena Arnaud, French youth women’s gold medal relay team member, said. “Even though the temperatures have been cold, the reception we have received has been nothing but warm.”
On Thursday the Canadian relay silver medal team credited that finish partially to their hosts at the Budget Inn.
“The folks at the hotel stand out most to us,” Canadian skier Alex Dupuis said. “They were up at 3 a.m. and stayed up until 10 at night to feed us [and] we wouldn’t be in the top three today if they hadn’t taken care of us as well as they did.”
My favorite reaction has to be the one from Finnish bronze medal relay team member Olli Jaakkola, who, after going out for pizza with some local teenagers this week, said, “One of the things we enjoyed the most were the pretty girls. They are very attractive and fun to be around.”
Frankly, I can’t wait until the next time Aroostook County throws a party.
Julia Bayly of Fort Kent is an award-winning writer and photographer who writes part time for Bangor Daily News. Her column appears here every other Friday. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.