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An army of charming volunteers

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The same logo you see above the red bucket at Christmastime, when bell ringers charm the change out of your pockets, will be offering you water with a smile at Olympic venues.

Instead of asking you to fill their pot, members of the Salvation Army's corps of volunteers will be quenching your thirst, giving directions, offering an Olympic pin and warming your heart, if not your fingers and toes. It's one of their many missions for the next few weeks, as they and variety of other Christian volunteers pull every kind of duty from housing athletes' families to picking up garbage downtown late at night.

Oh, and they'll be praying for you, too.

They're members of the Utah Games Network, a group of local evangelical leaders and special events personnel organized about a year after Salt Lake City received the bid to host the Games. Rather than simply handing out religious literature to Games visitors, they've been working for five years to put on an orchestrated volunteer effort for the Games. Its complexity may surprise some who have tried to get faith groups together for anything more than a simple concert or worship service.

David Willson, hired by the Salvation Army to work for the Salt Lake Organizing Committee, started recruiting host homes last February to house the families of athletes participating in the Games. The faith-based recruitment for housing was first organized during the Atlanta Games in 1996.

Atlanta organizers liked the idea so much, Willson said, that AT&T ended up being sponsor for the program. The corporate giant had previously helped with housing for American athlete families, but the faith-based network wanted to expand it to include families from every nation. It proved so successful that Willson has worked with every Olympic committee since to house athlete families. This year, Samsung is sponsoring the program.

"We started recruiting homes in February or March last year, and ended up with 1,100 that we recruited from community in Salt Lake City." Though he hasn't run the figures through a database yet, he estimates that 75 percent of more of those came from Utah's religious community — "all the Christian churches, Jews, Muslims, and those of no faith. They had the opportunity, and they came through."

People were so willing, the program ended up with twice as many volunteers as it needed, Willson said. "We'll probably only need to use 450 to 500." There are no plans at this point to ask volunteer families to house volunteers — religious or otherwise — who are coming for the Games, he said.

Willson has also worked within the Utah Games Network to help arrange housing at area churches for "mission teams" that will be coming to volunteer specifically with the Network. Many of those teams will actually sleep and eat at host churches. Local parishioners will feed and help provide transportation for the visiting volunteers — some 1,500 of them to date.

Dan Williams, who heads Olympic outreach for the Salvation Army, said the housing program is just one of the many ways his denomination will join other Utah Games Network volunteers to serve Olympic visitors.

He's just finished relocating the entrance to the Salvation Army dining room, across from Pioneer Park on 400 West, to the other side of the block, not only shielding the kitchen's clients from potential harassment, but opening a space three times as large as the normal dining room for the potential crowds of homeless predicted to arrive at Games time.

The talk around town has been that there will be a large influx of people needing food and shelter, Williams said. His job is not to get into the politics of whether that will or won't happen. It's simply to be prepared to serve those in need if it does.

"We don't want our clients to feel trod upon; Pioneer Park is going to be Grand Central Station" during the Games, he said. "And we don't want the public feeling uncomfortable either."

The move to provide a larger dining room — the new space can hold up to 1,000 people simultaneously indoors — grew not only out of concern for clients, but out of a decision that was made independent of the Olympics, to move the Salvation Army's warehouse and thrift store out of the downtown area.

Now the warehouse space is available for serving meals, freeing up the space near 400 South that has been the dining room next to the Park to serve as a gathering place for Olympic visitors. Big screen TVs and a small Internet cafe and coffee bar will offer warmth and comfort to those gathered in the park partying and waiting for transportation, Williams said. Outside, a large staging area complete with lights and sound system will play host to musicians and other entertainers, adding to the festive atmosphere downtown.

Ministry organizers including the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Youth With a Mission, the Southern Baptists' Global Outreach and other subdivisions of the Utah Games Network, have also set up offices inside the Salvation Army building. An international Christian radio network will occupy part of the building as well, broadcasting news and commentary on the Games worldwide.

The volunteers themselves will hand out water at every Olympic venue except the E Center and the Ogden Ice Sheet, Williams said. At several venues, they're also coordinating with SLOC to hand out box lunches and beverages for SLOC volunteers and bus drivers.

It's all a part of "sharing the Good News" in a way that's focused on action, rather than intrusion, Williams said. While volunteers will have free literature produced especially for the Games — including gospel music CDs, sports magazines, interactive Games guides, and 10,000 hand-size Bibles with an enticing cover featuring a downhill ski racer and labeled "The Supreme Hope" — they won't be pushing it on people, he said.

Actions speak louder than words, and Williams figures when conversations come up between volunteers and visitors, there will be a chance to share their reasons for volunteering.

For that, the most effective tool may be the Olympic pins they'll share — 75,000 of them — which Williams says have the potential to open conversation. The "More Than Gold 2002" pin is in the shape of a star, and attached to a card that gives a gospel explanation for the colors, "sharing the store of personal salvation in Jesus Christ through the colors" and the legacy behind the international "More Than Gold" movement. It's the umbrella organization that organizes Christian evangelicals during the Olympic Games and lends support to local organizing committees like the Utah Games Network. "People love these pins. The only reason the 'Green Jell-O' pin is so popular is the story behind it. This has its own story, and it's a way we can engage people in a positive way."


E-MAIL: carrie@desnews.com