Rita Townsend-Booth clearly remembers her first year as Vision Australia’s volunteer coordinator. The gates at Sidney Myer Music Bowl opened and she stood at the bottom of the hill, at the front of the stage.
“I’d been warned not to be at that spot when gates opened but I got caught up with something. Suddenly I looked up and saw 60 or 70 people charging down the hill, straight towards the stage – and me,” she recalls.
“It reminded me of a festival in Britain where they roll a huge cheese down the hill and people chase it. I felt like that cheese!”
Townsend-Booth is responsible for recruiting, training and supervising 170 Carols volunteers who sell 6,000 candles, scan entry tickets, help performers backstage and direct the 10,000-strong audience to the nearest toilets. This is her ninth year in the role. The Carols event is one of the major fundraisers for Vision Australia with all profits supporting the organisations services for visually impaired children. This year the big names will include musical theatre soprano, Marina Prior, Carols by Candlelight regular Silvie Paladino, singer-songwriter Anthony Callea, and stars of season one of The Voice, Darren Percival and Rachael Leahcar.
She begins recruiting in early September – many volunteers return year after year – and has her full team locked in by early November. Information packs are sent out and Townsend-Booth and her colleagues then train volunteers for their roles on the night. In early December volunteers receive their distinctive purple Vision Australia Carols T-shirts.
On Christmas Eve morning Townsend-Booth is on site by 10.30am and won’t leave until 3.30am Christmas morning. She goes wherever she’s needed.
“I wore a pedometer one year and walked 25km,” she says. “I always feel nauseous when I arrive in the morning but when the volunteers arrive everything falls into place. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else on Christmas Eve because Carols is a big part of Christmas for so many people. And I still love hearing Hi-5 sing the same songs – I often do the actions with them because I’m so familiar with the routines.”
When she finally arrives home in the early hours, Townsend-Booth watches the concert again. “I’m up by 11.30am though to share Christmas Day with my family. The first year I lasted through lunch and was in bed by 3pm – but I’ve got better,” she laughs.