First Night Chatham Plans ‘More Normal’ Celebration, But Nonprofit Badly Needs New Volunteers

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: First Night

First Night Chatham will reactivate its headquarters this year, part of a return to more pre-pandemic activities. FILE PHOTO

CHATHAM — With the pandemic waning – at least in terms of severe illnesses – plans are underway for the town’s family-friendly New Year’s Eve celebration.

First Night Chatham once again plans to include performances at indoor venues, with more activities later in the evening. But it’s a lack of volunteers, not the pandemic, that’s keeping late-night activities off the schedule again this year.

“Our intention is to try and create something as significantly close to where we were pre-COVID as possible,” First Night spokesman John Reed said last week. Canceled in 2020 because of the pandemic, First Night returned last year in the form of a “street festival” with only outdoor activities and performances, culminating with the early fireworks at 5:30 p.m., rather than the traditional midnight fireworks display at Oyster Pond.

Barring any new COVID upswings, this year’s event will see the return of indoor performances, Reed said.

“Most of the inside venues that we have used before will be available,” he said. “And yes, the circus is back.” Cirque du Jour, held at Monomoy Regional Middle School, always draws large crowds. With the return of indoor performances, First Night will once again be requiring buttons for admission to inside shows and activities, and as New Year’s Eve approaches, First Night headquarters will once again be open for button sales.

With a growing slate of musical and artistic performances, and with various food trucks expected to be on station, activities are likely to continue through about 9:30 p.m. this year, Reed said. For now, late-night events and the midnight fireworks are not in the plan.

“Since we’ve had the earlier fireworks, there’s been an erosion of people who go to the midnight display,” Reed said. The late-night activities tended not to draw families with young children and older people who prefer to get to bed earlier, so the early fireworks have proven popular, he said. But the real reason First Night won’t be burning the midnight oil is staffing.

“We need 300-plus volunteers the night of First Night to handle all the venues and logistics that are required,” Reed said. Over the last two years, the nonprofit organization has lost a number of longstanding volunteers. And since most First Night volunteers are recruited by friends who already volunteer, “we’re going to lose that universe also,” Reed said.

“And finally, we’ve always had resistance finding volunteers for events after 9 p.m. to begin with,” he added.

A cadre of around 400 volunteers put together the massive event each year without the benefit of paid staff. Like many other nonprofit groups, First Night traditionally leans heavily on a core group of 10 or 20 leadership volunteers, some of whom have been involved for many years

“The same people have been doing their jobs for seven years or more. And a significant number of them have expressed the need to be replaced in the future, and that includes me,” he said. “We need volunteers for that night and we also need new leadership volunteers for our membership committee that works throughout the year to make First Night Chatham work.”

The organization has posted job descriptions for volunteer positions on its website and has sought to recruit younger people to help out.

“Over the last two or three years, we have been putting a great emphasis on trying to get new blood into First Night Chatham,” Reed said. And since many of the core volunteers are well past retirement age, a push for “young” volunteers means recruiting people who are in their 50s and 60s, he quipped. Many First Night volunteers also serve on other groups like the Newcomers Club or the Chatham Marconi Maritime Center, which also struggle to find younger members.

“It’s been a challenge for a number of organizations for a number of years now,” Reed said.

To find out about volunteer opportunities, or to see the preparations being made for the 2022-2023 New Year’s celebration, visit www.FirstNightChatham.com.