Volunteers, Maha Music Festival’s Beating Heart | Feature Story

Moments before Passion Pit took the main stage for its closing performance of Maha Music Festival 2016, in what has become tradition, maybe 20 of the 350 Maha volunteers assembled on the adjacent stage to be recognized. Executive Director Lauren Schomburg — the nonprofit’s first full-time employee — took the microphone with three things to say.

First, she thanked the sponsors — “the greatest community partners you could ask for” — without whom big name acts like Grimes and Vince Staples are likely not possible. Second, she thanked the volunteers — the rest were still scattered about Stinson Park.

Maha didn’t happen without any of those people,” she shouted. “So hell yes to all of those people.”

Throughout the day-long music fest, clad in bright yellow T-shirts, they had taken tickets, ushered fans, sold Maha Money, charged phones, coordinated other volunteers and sold what must have been thousands of gallons of beers. They directly impact every facet, from stage set-up to artist and volunteer check-in to VIP hospitality to day-of operations to tear down and clean up.

The Omaha festival has steadily progressed since its founding in 2008, becoming regionally known for its community vibe and quality music curation. It moved to Midtown’s Aksarben Village (one of the city’s cultural centers) due to flood in 2011, a move that has since accommodated its growing attendance, ever-popular lineups and the addition of comedy, poetry and the nonprofit Community Village. Though turnout dipped slightly this year, 7,600 made for its second-largest crowd ever.

Maha relies in no small part on its volunteers to help create the positive atmosphere on which the nonprofit organization prides itself. The common refrain is how crucial each individual participant is to the festival as a whole.

Maha Music Festival Volunteer Coordinator Margarita Lepe | photo by Will Stott

Perhaps no volunteer is more central to Maha’s success than its first-year volunteer coordinator Margarita Lepe, whom I meet at roughly 10:20 a.m. at the check-in tent located about 100 feet north of the main gate. Short and unshakeable, fighting through soggy low-top Chuck Taylors made wet by the storm-drenched grounds, Lepe is already full speed ahead, penciling in last-minute replacements and preparing for the first wave of check-ins at 11 a.m. She has been at the park for more than two hours already, setting up the station through which 350-plus staff will check in for roughly 45 different jobs.

Lepe first volunteered for Maha in its second year in 2010, when the festival was still small enough to call Lewis & Clark Landing its home. Her impetus for joining echoed many who sign up to work the event: free tickets. “Do you wanna see The Faint for free?” her sister asked, explaining that a four-hour shift earned her entry to the festival and a free T-shirt. They both came away with more than that.

“It was such a great experience that we decided that we’re gonna do it every single year, regardless of who comes,” Lepe says via telephone earlier in the week. “It was great to see a home-grown festival put on strictly by volunteers. It was my first volunteer experience.”

Now, she’s at the front of it all, with seven years under her fanny pack and a microphone attached to her shoulder. While CJ Mills soundchecks in the distance, we head to a 15-minute safety meeting with a few of the volunteer leads (in blue), medical staff and security. There are color codes, procedures and protocols to remember. It’s where we first learn of the main-stage sound issue, and that the scheduled 11:30 a.m. gate would would be delayed a half-hour.

Maha volunteer staff participate in an early-morning safety meeting | photo by Will Stott

We return to the volunteer tent, where a stiff, tent-shaking breeze and first handful of volunteers have made things a little hectic. Margarita takes a few staff members through the gates to their respective jobs, so I hang back to chat with Robert Specht, a third-year volunteer who is the first point of contact this morning. Like many volunteers will do throughout the day, he compliments the festival on its community focus, one of the main reasons he’s here.

“You can feel the impact that every individual person makes to this festival, and so I like being able to be part of that experience,” Specht says. “There’s a lot of stress, but I think everybody knows that they’re helping something that’s really special happen, and I think that’s a big motivator for it.”

Maha volunteer Robert Specht checks in the morning’s first wave of staff | photo by Will Stott

* * *

The Center of the World

“What time is it?” Lepe asks suddenly. “Oh my God, it’s almost time.”

It’s 11:30 a.m. when the sun finally makes its first break through the clouds, and Lepe is energized and ready. We tail her and her latest troupe of “floating” volunteers to the Globe tent, satellite beverage stand and ferris wheel. The scheduled concierge dropped out last minute, so Lepe asks which of the group wants to take over. After being met with only nervous laughter, she picks one and heads to the main beer tent.

While the two stages hold concertgoers’ focus throughout the day, to festival staff, the beer tent is “The Center of the World.” After the stagefront and main gate, the roughly 40 by 40 square just north of the action is Maha’s most active hub, staffed accordingly by 20 volunteers — four times as many as could be seen at any other station.

Team leads Josh Jameson and Jen Marhenke guide preparations as the tent buzzes with excitement. Both are repeat volunteers and will spend the majority of their 21 hour-days under the big top. They share one main concern: maintaining “the Maha Experience,” a tough task with so much potential for things to get off-track.

“We don’t want the lines to be long,” Marhenke says. “We want our volunteers to be friendly. We want the beer to be cold. We want them to get what they want when they order it.”

Team leader Jen Marhenke (center) laughs with a staff member at the main beverage tent, Maha’s “Center of the World” | photo by Will Stott

Jameson is working his fourth Maha, and is an unabashed beer savant. He runs down the list of beer on tap (all Boulevard) and talks Minneapolis’ Surly Brewing Co. He’s mainly concerned for the inevitable 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. rushes, when the festival population is at its most dense.

“We got quite a few people here ready to serve beer and keep the party going,” Jameson says.

Marhenke is a Maha lifer, operating in her current role for the last three years and having covered everything from setup and teardown to the Boulevard beer backpack. She works full-time doing marketing and development for a fitness company, teaching kickboxing and volunteering. Having worked the Chicago Marathon and the city’s Shamrock Shuffle, she notes her fondness for this festival’s more-intimate atmosphere.

“You get to know people, you see the same people come back every year,” Marhenke says. “Since they’ve brought in community village, volunteers can see that it’s not just a concert. It’s a community effort. A lot of people connect because of that.”

* * *

The Essential Floater

Volunteer coordinator Margarita Lepe addresses a group of volunteers near the festival gate. She would lead more than 350 throughout the event, filling in wherever necessary. | photo by Will Stott

We pick back up with Lepe, who tells us that in all of her years at Maha, only one person has been removed from the festival by staff. She confirms how chaotic it has been all day, usually tackling five tasks at once.

It starts to become clear how many people are relying on Lepe for various things. In just a short walk back to the volunteer tent, three people light up at the sight of her and she quickly and cleanly fields their requests, usually some piece of information or the whereabouts of a wandering staff member. It appears one could see everything this way, hustling back and forth to the parking garage or to the south port-a-potty station.

“I hope I don’t forget anyone,” she says.

It seems unlikely, given her level of passion and preparation. During a recent phone conversation with Hear Nebraska, she confessed her love for planning and logistics, just as she’s lamenting how cluttered with Maha stuff her apartment had become.

But it’s tough to plan for everything, she says. As volunteers continue to work their way into their respective jobs, certain areas of need becomes more clear: almost always, the bar. So she walks from station to station literally all day to address concerns. This is all indicative of the way Lepe operates, preferring to find things out in person rather than over the microphone.

“I need to get one of those things with the horns so I can yell at people,” she says suddenly.

A megaphone? “Yeah. I don’t think I’m very loud, so people could hear me.”

She suggests she might have to be a parking attendant at some point, in relief of even the simplest tasks. In this way, Lepe is the ultimate floater, eager to fill whatever staffing gaps may appear.

“Bartending, I think it would be fun,” she says. “I’ve never done it. I’ll jump in wherever they need me.”

* * *

Upholding a Reputation

A Maha team lead organizes a group of parking attendants | photo by Will Stott

At some point, I inevitably lose Lepe, but find Schomburg near Maha’s outer rim. We pace the grounds as the Jay Farrar Trio plays in the background, her break to speak with me interrupted occasionally by an important client here or an old friend there.

Schomburg was hired as Maha’s first executive director and full-time employee at the end of 2015 to help sustain its success and foster new community partnerships. For how smoothly things seem to be running thus far, and despite small issues here and there, she credits her staff’s personal investment.

“If something doesn’t go quite like they were expecting, [volunteers] care so much that they’re not gonna let it drop,” Schomburg says. “They’re gonna step up where they need to because they know someone’s experience is on the line or the reputation of Maha is on the line. It’s really incredible, at the end of the day, the family and community aspect that comes out of it.”

Throwing an entire festival means constant adjustments, even eight years later. We talk specifically about the production crew, which spent the days leading up to Saturday setting up the stage and sound and, that morning, spreading sand on the ground to prevent it from becoming a mudpit.

“We could have three more weeks and I still wouldn’t [have felt ready,]” she says. “You’re always trying to refine and provide a good experience.”

The reason it works, to her, is having a mix of dedicated repeat volunteers and enthusiastic, fresh new staff.

“It’s kinda nice to have a really good mix because then the veterans can take people under their wings and make them feel like they have that responsibility and ownership,” she says. “Things like that are really key to the event.”

* * *

Know Your Volunteers

“Thirst quenchers” Hannah Henry (right) and Taylor Tokos sell non-alcoholic beverages next to the beer tent. | photo by Will Stott

There is no one type of person that comes to Maha. The festival knows it, and tries to accommodate via mixed lineups, its Community Village and, two years ago, the addition of OK Party Comedy and Louder Than A Bomb Poetry.

Likewise, you meet all sorts of different volunteers making the festival rounds. Their motivations range from free tickets to the volunteer spirit.

You might meet “thirst quenchers” Hannah Henry and Taylor Tokos, who work a small non-alcoholic beverage booth next to the beer tent. Both have volunteered in the past for their respective vacation bible schools. Hannah needed National Honor Society hours. Taylor wanted to get in for free. Both are pretty excited about it.

“It’s been really easy,” Henry says. “Just sit here and give drinks.”

Or just inside the front gate, find Mike Hartman, who’s wearing a nametag that says “Suh Doo” and passing out maps of the festival grounds. He knew some friends who had volunteered in the past and, having attended Maha himself in prior years, wanted to “see how the other side lives.”

“I’ve been volunteering for like an hour and a half right now and I’ve decided I wanna do stuff like this more,” Hartman says. “This is great, I love talking to people. Everybody is hyped at a festival. It’s good to help out.”

* * *

Bittersweet Cacophony

A volunteer exchanges beer for Maha Money at the main beverage tent. As many as 20 volunteers at a time work what staff calls “The Center of the World” | photo by Will Stott

Before we finish our Thursday phone conversation, Lepe recalls 2012, the year Garbage and Desaparecidos headlined. As she stood in one far corner of the park, it suddenly struck her how noticeably big the festival had become.

“I wondered if there’s ever gonna be a day when they’re gonna have to move because they can’t fit everybody in the park,” Lepe says.

One can indeed find a reflection of Maha’s growth within the burgeoning population of its volunteer staff. When Lepe worked the front gate her first year, there were three other people staffing just a couple lanes. This year, roughly 40 people worked the front gate, split into VIP, will-call, General Admission and exit lanes.

Thanks to Maha’s positive atmosphere and its recurring participants, volunteer staff has been able to keep up. Lepe says there is rarely a shortage of recruits, with more than half the jobs filled by veterans and the rest within a week of opening public signup. Lepe thinks the volunteer system works so well because of the audience.

“The attendees know that this is a volunteer-run festival, so they are encouraging, they thank you, say please and high five,” Lepe says. “They’re just so grateful, I think, that these people are taking the time out of their day to help put this on, and so the attendees are in such a good mood.”

A Maha volunteer takes a quick break before teardown begins. For many volunteers, Maha Music Festival is a long, difficult but rewarding day. | photo by Will Stott

The fans’ encouragement must work wonders, because as the night wears on — as darkness falls and Matthew Sweet, Grimes and Passion Pit bring it home — logistics start to get a little messy. I lose Lepe for good around 10 p.m., as volunteers scatter about to begin cleaning and tear down. Around 11 p.m., Jameson and crew still have the beer tent fully staffed to endure the final wave sent from Schomburg’s third on-stage announcement (“two beers for 10 dollars!”).

Lepe wouldn’t leave that evening until 2 a.m., after the park was cleared for the Sunday morning farmers’ market and the last hugs had been given. Bittersweet, she says, because another Maha has come and gone, leaving only the memories and the feeling of camaraderie.

“You’re surrounded by friends and great music and great food and drink,” she says. “It’s really not a place for someone to be in a bad mood, and I think that catches on to people.”

Andrew Stellmon is Hear Nebraska's managing editor. Reach him with news tips and story ideas at news@hearnebraska.org.