University Park

Local community serves as ambassadors for Dragon Boat Festival at Sarasota park

UNIVERSITY PARK -- When Karen Carpenter was battling breast cancer, people helped the Manatee County School Board member. Now as a breast cancer survivor, she wants to help others.

"It's part of the sisterhood or brotherhood," she said. "It's just about helping other people. We are doing this as a statement of prevention, health and good spirit."

Carpenter is one of about 100 ambassadors for the International Breast Cancer Paddlers' Commission Dragon Boat Festival, which is being held this weekend at Nathan Benderson Park. Each ambassador is assigned a team and provides the team with a binder with information about the event and the Sarasota/Bradenton area, including restaurants, transportation and attractions.

Carpenter will greet her team, the Survivors Thrivers, from Ottawa, Canada, at Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport on Wednesday afternoon. So far, Carpenter said she's communicated with the dragon boat team through email.

"They are very excited," she said.

In addition to being an ambassador, Carpenter has recruited nine other people to volunteer at the festival.

"Karen Carpenter has been awesome with the volunteers so far," said John Krotec, volunteer coordinator for Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Associates, the nonprofit that runs Benderson Park.

The ambassadors who will work during the three-day event come from all walks of life, Krotec said, including both men and women, breast cancer survivors, school teachers and retired CEOs.

"It is truly representative of who we are, the community at large," he said. "Our goal is to create this army of ambassadors who can represent the community in a positive way."

While SANCA runs the ambassador program, they don't want to micromanage the ambassadors, Krotec said.

"We also want the ambassadors to have a great time, too," he said. "We tell them to use their personalities to make things happen. ... You are basically adopting a team and the ambassador is the first local contact."

As the Dragon Boat Festival is the park's first international event, Krotec said SANCA is hoping to expand the ambassador program in the future. This is the first year the festival will be held in the United States.

"It's basically an inaugural program," Krotec said. "We've developed these manuals, these handbooks and we want all of our volunteers, especially the ambassadors, to be truly representative of the community.And it's a program that we are going to work very closely together along with Sarasota and Manatee counties to make sure that as we get closer to the world championships that we have a crew of ambassadors that can represent the community, who can be enthusiastic and show the world why the area is so special."

For the past six years, SANCA has been working to develop the program, which it hopes is the best in the world, Krotec said.

"Our hope is to provide event holders and people that come to our area, spectators and visitors, a truly rewarding experience by having the best trained ambassadors and volunteers anywhere in the world," he said. "We are a world class facility and we have to have world class volunteers and ambassadors. That way it will keep the program where we want it, reflective of the community."

With the World Rowing Championships coming to the park in 2017, Krotec said they hope to find ambassadors who are "language speakers."

"It's amazing how many people who are here who are bilingual," he said.

Beginning Friday, breast cancer survivors from around the world will gather at Benderson Park to celebrate life, Krotec said. He added that they are expecting more than 3,000 people.

"Dragon Boat Festival is about remembering those who we've lost to breast cancer. Friends, families, loved ones," he said. "Truly celebrate life and come together as a community and show these women how much we're concerned for them but to also educate others about breast cancer."

Claire Aronson, University Parkway/Sarasota reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7024 or at caronson@bradenton.com. Follow her on Twitter@Claire_Aronson.

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