'We truly cannot do this work without them' | Volunteers keep Rodeo running every year
The Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo is a huge event hosting millions of people each year and it's primarily operated by volunteers -- 35,000 of them.
On a given day during the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, at least 80,000 people pour through the gates, though there are usually many more. They come for the concerts, for the carnival, for the food, for the livestock and for the rodeo.
"Been coming out here every year of my life," visitor Melanie Loyd told KHOU 11 on opening day.
The three-week event is about more than fried Oreos and turkey legs, rides and slides, rock stars and rappers, crooners and kings. It’s about community.
"It’s fun to see everyone come back together, you know. It’s something you don’t see often," said Damian Quinonez, who celebrated his birthday on opening day. "Everybody’s reconnecting."
You see it in the crowds in NRG Center, in the Midway carnival and in the seats of NRG Stadium: every walk of life, every age, veterans and rookies.
"I’ve been to a couple small rodeos before, but not this big," said Hunter Adams.
It is a huge event hosting millions of people each year and it's primarily run by volunteers.
"Right now, we have about 35,000 volunteers on 109 different committees," shared HLSR president and CEO Chris Boleman.
You’ve seen them before whether you realized it or not. They drive trams, sell tickets, greet you at the gate, help you navigate and so much more.
"Without them, we can’t do what we do. It’s definitely a team here, no doubt about it. Through the various committees, they really take care of everything if you think about it," Boleman said. "I’m asked all the time, how do you do this? I don’t know that you could do it anywhere else. For whatever reason, it just seems to come together here. This community just has a service atmosphere to it, in my opinion. Houston just does. So there is this sense of calling and a lot of people connect with the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo."
As president and CEO, Boleman is one of a few dozen paid HLSR staffers.
"The number of volunteers compared to any paid staff members is exponentially larger," said Josh Reeves, chairman of the Graphics & Signage Committee. "Five-hundred volunteers to every one Rodeo staff member here. Chances are, it’s going to be a volunteer you’re dealing with."
It’s impossible to spotlight every one of the 35,000 volunteers on those 109 different committees, KHOU 11 is saluting those men and women who donate their time each year so the rest of us can enjoy the largest livestock and rodeo show in the world.
"We truly cannot do this work without them," stressed Boleman.
"A lot of times, people think we're employees": Committees run almost everything at Rodeo
Let’s start where Rodeo visitors usually do: in one of the parking lots around NRG Park, such as the Yellow Lot or 610 Lot. When you line up for the trams, that is your introduction to the volunteers of the Transportation Committee.
"We provide transportation to show VIPs, special guests, patrons, exhibitors around the grounds of NRG Park and also some off-site special runs," said the committee's chairman, Kathleen Wright.
Staffed with more than 1,800 people on several different teams, her group serves 24/7. The daily slate of 275 committee members mostly ferries guests when the Rodeo grounds are open, then takes fellow volunteers where they need to go in the early morning, late night and overnight hours.
"They work in all types of weather and conditions. They are boots on the ground," Wright said. "A lot of times, the first face of the rodeo that people see depending on where they park. They take a lot of pride in that."
Say you skip the parking lot. Your next chance to meet a volunteer is at one of the kiosks near Rodeo entrances. They are staffed by the Grounds Ticket committee, who can sell you tickets for the grounds, for the rodeo and concert and for cookoff.
Ticket in hand, it's time to pass through the gates. Security first, then The Gatekeepers.
"Gatekeepers scans all the tickets for guests coming in," said Justin Clark, the chairman of The Gatekeepers Committee. "Our job is we’re the first people that guests see and we’re the last people on their way out, we’re the last people to say goodbye to them the entire time they’re here."
This committee is stacked with more than 1,700 volunteers, who are staffed all over the grounds in their white shirts and tan vests.
"Every team’s doing various different things throughout the day," Clark explained. "Some are stadium. Some are perimeter. Some are support for those people at the gates."
Just like the transportation crew, they spend their days in the elements.
"If it’s 20 degrees like last year? Sideways rain? We’re out here. If it’s 85 degrees, we’re out here," said Clark. "We’re out here from 4:30 in the morning until 1:30 at night."
Now you’re inside, beyond the gates, and starting to notice all the signs and banners, most of which are created in the Graphics & Signage workroom inside NRG Center.
"Some of the large-format stuff still has to go out. We are limited in the equipment that we own. So if it gets too large, that’s not us," Reeves said. "But our goal is to do as much as we can."
Equipped with two massive printers (appropriately named Garth and Willie), the committee's 100 or so active volunteers fill requests from other committees.
"We are essentially the print shop. We’ve taken all of the sign needs for every event that happens in the Rodeo and we’ve brought those in-house," said Reeves. "Generally by the end of the year, we’ll do somewhere between 11,000 and 12,000 signs. That’s all different sizes, banners, as well as hard signs. We try to accommodate as many special requests as we can."
Maybe the most important product out of Graphics & Signage: maps that help Rodeo guests scout out their visit. Look around and you’ll always spot someone in a teal vest nearby. Those folks serve on the Directions & Assistance committee.
"We greet you right at the gates and give you visitors guides that let you know, they show you the maps of all the grounds, they tell you the schedule of what’s going on," said Sharon Garrett, chairman of the committee. "They’re the best people to tell you about all the food if you want to find your favorite foods here on the grounds."
This committee also takes in lost children. In 2022, it handled 256 kids who got separated from their adults. Of those, 45 happened in a single Saturday evening shift.
Lost items are also the responsibility of Directions & Assistance.
"Some weird ones have been dentures. We actually had a full set of luggage someone left in the parking lot," Garrett said.
As a general rule, most anything lost can be found in the Directions & Assistance office inside NRG Center.
"We find umbrellas, people lose their tickets, wallets, cell phones, lots of wallets, cell phones and keys," said Garrett.
Some of the committee’s 1,100 members also work inside the stadium.
"Their job is the same as us. They’re there to direct and assist," Garrett said.
You likely won’t need help to find the carnival. Just look for one of the Ferris wheels towering over the other rides and games. Want to ride or play? You have to get tickets from one of the kiosks with Midway Ticket Committee volunteers inside.
"A lot of time people think we’re employees and we’re not. We are 850 strong and we volunteer out here," said the committee's chairman, Sean Figaro. "Each volunteer comes out and works four shifts that are about seven or eight hours per shift."
Each day, there are about 150 shifts.
"We talk to people all day long and help them get fun passes to go out and go on the rides and play the games," Figaro said. "Our motto on our committee is 'Be Flexible and Keep Smiling.'"
By the time you’ve marked an hour on Rodeo grounds, you’ve likely already interacted with a handful of volunteers and you’ve probably passed many more wearing their trademark vests.
Medical & Safety (975 volunteers) offers medical care for guests, while Commercial Exhibits (415 volunteers) works with vendors inside and outside Rodeo venues.
Tours (445 volunteers) shows international guests, kids and other visitors around NRG Arena, NRG Center, the Carnival and The Junction, where you’ll find Special Attractions (491 volunteers) staffing Fun on the Farm.
Special Childrens’ (269 volunteers) puts on events, including Lil’ Rustlers Rodeo and Top Hands Horse Show, specifically for kids with physical or developmental challenges.
Mutton Bustin’ (434 volunteers) manages the tent where kids and sheep race across an arena and where there is almost always an enthusiastic crowd.
Calf Scramble Arena (240 volunteers) does the same for the popular primetime event with help from Calf Scramble Donors and Calf Scramble Greeters.
Many volunteers, though, work behind the scenes on committees like Facility Services, Asset Distribution, Recycling and Rodeo Operations.
"If we do our job right, you’ll never see us, you’ll never hear about us, but it’s our responsibility to make sure everything goes smoothly," said chairman Justin Chance. "We generally operate before the show, during the show and then two weeks after the show. Our responsibilities are initially to build the rodeo, then we maintain everything in the rodeo, then we tear it all down. Our members do work exceedingly hard to get everything put together and we have a master timeline that we have to stick to.
One of the first things on that schedule is outfitting the North Dock of NRG Stadium with holding pens.
"We have Steel Set, which is responsible for setting up the actual rodeo arena inside the stadium: putting up all the steel, all of the bucking chutes, the behind-the-scenes chutes where we hold all the bucking stock before and during rodeo so it can operate smoothly," Chance said.
Another ops team handles livestock conversions.
"They have to clean out the pens, they have to get everything sanitary, clean and ready for the next wave of animals to come in," said Chance.
The committee’s 378 volunteers also put up the school art and quilt displays in NRG Center. If the rodeo is a living and breathing organism, think of Rodeo Ops as being in charge of its skeleton.
"You do a lot of hard work. There’s a lot of manual labor involved," Chance said. "It’s a lot. But it’s a lot of fun."
Some of the committees organize the Rodeo’s special days, such as Black Heritage Day (195 volunteers) or Armed Services Appreciation Day (191 volunteers).
Others tackle events at the Rodeo. Horse Show (2,400 volunteers) and all its subcommittees raise money for, set up and put on weeks of competitions. Wine Garden’s (1,023 volunteers) duties are pretty clear, but it has sister committees of wine competition, wine events, wine sales and winery relations.
You can check out the results of the Agricultural Mechanics (150 volunteers) Contest the last weekend of rodeo and the committee’s also in charge of the State FFA Tractor Technician Contest.
Committees are also in charge of the pre-Rodeo events, including the Parade (546 volunteers) and the Trail Rides (103 volunteers).
"It's for the kids": Volunteers explain why they give their time
Chance hits pause on his normal job as a charge nurse to serve the committee his dad helped start.
"I started right when I was 21 years old. For the last 21 years, I have been out here," he said. "I’ve never missed a rodeo a year in my life. It’s kind of a family legacy thing."
Figaro also grew up going to the Rodeo.
"I think my first Rodeo was when I was four," he shared. "I went to Rodeo my whole life."
Now he's chairman of the Midway Ticket Committee, but his volunteer commitment doesn’t stop there.
"I’m on another committee as well," said Figaro. "I have friends who are on three and four committees."
Reeves is one of those people. He's on three committees.
"I keep volunteering for more and more stuff. I need to quit," he laughed.
Reeves got roped in the same way so many volunteers do: friends.
"You meet someone who’s on Rodeo and it’s exciting and you start hearing about it," he said. "They bring you in and show you all the fun bits of Rodeo and before long, you’re signing up yourself in some shifts and that’s how they get you."
For Wright, it was getting to experience Rodeo for the first time after she moved to the Houston area.
"I just knew I had to be a part of it," she said. "Luckily, I had a friend who knew someone and I was able to find a spot on the committee. That was 22 years ago."
They may have taken different roads to the Rodeo, but ask them why they do it and they’ll give you the same answer in two parts. First, it’s about the kids.
"They’re here solely for the mission of helping save the rodeo money so they can give more scholarships," said Chance.
Reeves added: "It costs a lot to put on a production like this every year and the more money we can save, the more money will end up in educational grants, scholarships and that type of deal."
In 2022, HLSR gifted more than $14 million in scholarships, $2.5 million in educational program grants and $460,000 graduate assistantships on top of the $5 million awarded to junior show exhibitors. That adds up to more than $22 million in a single year.
Since 1932, HLSR has provided more than $575 million to generations of Texas students, including Garrett.
"When I was in college, I won a Rodeo scholarship," she said. I also watched my family and friends volunteer their time out at rodeo, so it was really important for me to give back to the community and, of course, it’s for the kids."
That's what motivates Chance as well.
"I’m the first one in my family to graduate high school, much less go to college," he said. "For me to be able to provide that opportunity for someone who may have been in my shoes when I was younger, it’s just very rewarding and very fulfilling and I love it."
Clark added that once you really get to know what Rodeo is about, volunteering is easy.
"It’s just an amazing group to work for," he said.
"We all love what we do because of how it helps the kids of Texas, how we help HLSR in their mission," echoed Wright. "We truly become a transportation family."
Family is the other consistent driving force for volunteers.
"You meet some of the best people in your life doing the committees, all walks of life. You make the best of friends. All while supporting an amazing organization," Clark said. "It’s a different connection, different bond than friends somewhere else. It’s really special."
That connection extends beyond Rodeo, according to Figaro.
"We socialize and get together at least once a month in the off-season," he said. "So you’re seeing these folks, you’re building relationships and it’s great because you run into people from all walks of life."
"You always get back more than you give": Learn how to sign up to be an HLSR volunteer
Those relationships and the HLSR mission ignite the passion in volunteers that keeps them coming back – for decades in some cases – and inspires others to come on board.
"A lot of times, we have interviews and we talk to people who’ve been wanting to for a long time, but now their kids are out of the house or they’re on their own or they’re out of school and now they have the time," said Wright.
With 109 committees, there is almost guaranteed to be one that serves your interests, experience and availability.
"You have to find something that’s comfortable for you that fits your needs and wants. There’s a committee here that does that," Boleman said. "I always say it’s not just getting on a committee. It’s trying to find the right committee that best connects with who you are."
The HLSR website provides a breakdown of the committees. You can scroll through and learn about each one or you can always just ask one of the volunteers when you see them at the Rodeo. Most are happy to share about their committee and what keeps them coming back.
"My mind goes back to when we would go to the rodeo and we’d see the folks with the gold badges. Those were always super cool," Figaro said. "So that’s how you get a gold badge, by volunteering."
To become a volunteer, first, you have to join the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo. You can sign up on RodeoHouston.com for $50 a year or $500 for a lifetime membership. That’s also where you can request a committee. In most cases, you’ll land on a waitlist.
"See which one resonates with you and sign up," Boleman encouraged.
All the chairmen who spoke to KHOU 11 emphasized what a great opportunity the Rodeo provides to give back to the Houston community.
"It’s more rewarding than what you’re giving out," said Garrett. "Anything you do in a volunteer position, you always get more back than you give."
So the next time you go to Rodeo, whether it’s this year or next, keep an eye out for the vests and the smiles of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo’s 35,000 volunteers.
"Without the support of the greater Houston community, this would not be possible," said Chance. "This is all for scholarships to go to kids."
Just by being there, you’re giving back too.