Barbara Baker is what you might call a serial volunteer.
The retired schoolteacher from Phoenix, Arizona, has almost made a second career out of volunteering at large sporting events.
She’s volunteered at three Super Bowls and has travelled to three recent Winter Olympics: Salt Lake City 2002, Turin 2006 and Sochi 2014. Now, she’s in Toronto, where she just finished up a stint volunteering at the Pan Am Games and is gearing up for the Parapan Am Games.
Some might say she’s foolish for working on vacation, but Baker says it’s the perfect way to combine her love of travel with her penchant for volunteer work.
“I’m giving back to the community,” she said. “It may not be the community I live in, but it’s a part of the world that I live in.”
Baker’s six-week stay in Toronto includes working on the opening and closing ceremonies for the Pan Am and Parapan Am Games. The gig is practical for Baker, who has her eyes set on Rio 2016.
“When I heard about the Pan Am Games, I thought ‘well, maybe I should do a summer games before I do the Olympics,’” she said, although her volunteer spot in Brazil has yet to be confirmed.
Back home in Phoenix, she’s also an avid volunteer, co-leading a Girl Scout troop and working with students in a Grade 2 classroom.
Baker is quick to donate her time, despite a tough life. In 1970, while in college, she was diagnosed with lupus. Several years later, she went into renal failure and had to undergo a kidney transplant.
Luckily, the transplant was successful. On July 24, she celebrated the 30th anniversary of the surgery by doing an EdgeWalk at the CN Tower.
“I couldn’t be home to celebrate with my family, so I thought ‘well, I have to do something big while I’m here,” she said.
Her health struggles continue, however, as the anti-rejection medication she takes for her kidney has led to a rare type of skin cancer called spindle cell carcinoma. Over the last 15 years, she’s had more than 100 surgeries and over a dozen skin grafts to remove cancerous cells from her body. When she returns to Phoenix in mid-August, she’ll undergo another skin graft.
She also lost her main volunteering companion in 2010, when her husband, only 56, died from cancer. The pair had been confirmed as volunteers for the Vancouver Winter Olympics but chose to cancel when he took a turn for the worst.
“I haven’t found anyone I’m compatible travelling with like I was with my husband,” she says.
Despite his death, she’s continued on. In addition to her application for Rio, she’s also interested in volunteering at two other sporting events in Europe next summer.
“I’m not afraid to travel by myself,” she said. She tends to go sightseeing alone, but often makes friends with her fellow volunteers. She recently went on a day trip to Niagara Falls with a group from the Pan Am Games.
“I always have one thing in common with everybody: we’re there for the [games], and we’re all volunteers,” she says. “You can always start a conversation that way.”