Volunteers for Literacy of Habersham County and three lucky locals walked away winners from this year’s VFL Duck Race on the Soque. The 10th annual fundraiser brought in nearly $20,000 and won the top three ticket holders their share of $1,750 in cash prizes.
“We couldn’t be more pleased with this year’s results. We had more sponsors than ever before and sold far more tickets than in the past,” says VFL Executive Director Phylecia Wilson. Coming off a pandemic year when most of the tickets that were sold were those bought by board members, this year’s communitywide enthusiasm and participation was a welcome relief.
“This year, people seemed more eager to give,” says Wilson. “Although we have raised $20,000 two times before, it was when we had matching funds of $10,000.” VFL board members brought in 15 new race sponsors this year.
Sherri Purcell of Clarkesville won the $1,000 grand prize. She’s purchased tickets for the race every year since it started in 2011. This is the first time she’s won.
“I was surprised and excited,” she says.
Michael Buelow of Clarkesville won $500 on his duck’s second-place finish, and Shirley Pritchett of Dahlonega collected $250 for third place.
VFL President Don Gnecco presented checks to the winners on Friday. On May 15, he captured video of the race, which has become an annual Mountain Laurel tradition.
Volunteer muscle…and heart
A record 2,200 rubber ducks raced this year along the quarter-mile course on the Soque River in Clarkesville. The course stretches from the Judge Homer Sutton Bridge on Ga. 197 North to the park’s western edge.
It takes a lot of volunteer muscle — and heart — from start to finish to pull off this annual event.
“It is something businesses and nonprofit groups can partner on to better the community,” says VFL President Johnny Bailey. “Volunteer support ranges from school groups, scouts, kayakers, other United Way agencies, and local businesses who see the value in our literacy programs. The event would not be possible without all of the volunteers.”
Each year, Georgia Power provides a crew to safely hoist the duck ‘trap’ over the bridge as VFL’s Volunteer of the Year releases the ducks into the river. This year’s honorary race starter was Beth Carter, recognized for her contributions supporting literacy in Habersham County.
As the rubber ducks ‘race’ downstream, kayakers from the Soque River Watershed Association monitor them, freeing up strays stranded along the river’s edge. At the end of the course, multiple volunteers from VFL and, this year, the Boy Scouts, record the first three ducks to float across the finish line. They then go about collecting the 2,000 plus yellow rubber ducks remaining in the river.
And that’s just on race day!
Before the race even starts, hundreds of volunteer hours are devoted to cleaning and sorting the little yellow rubber ducks, selling tickets and sponsorships, ordering supplies and Duck Patrol t-shirts, coordinating the ancillary DecADuck contest, and building a float for the Mountain Laurel Parade.
“Over the course of ten years, some things have gotten almost routine, although many hours of work go into the event,” Bailey says. “We have been blessed with dedicated volunteers. We also depend on more than a dozen in-kind sponsors who help with promotions, ticket sales, transport, and other needs.”
A race to help people
Even with all of the coordination and hard work that goes into the VFL duck race each year, Mother Nature gets the final word on if and when it happens.
“Our biggest worry is rain as the Soque River rises rapidly, making it dangerous for river volunteers,” explains Bailey. Fortunately, VFL has only had to postpone its duck race once due to weather. In 2020, they held a raffle instead of the race because of COVID-19.
The nonprofit thrives on sweat equity from its army of volunteers to retain donated funds to pay for literacy programs that help residents of all ages. From handing out free dictionaries to 3rd graders, providing free childcare and transportation for ELA students, funding GED scholarships, and installing Little Free Libraries in public spaces throughout the county, VFL works daily to improve the lives and livelihoods of Habersham Countians.
“Communities have a vested interest in the literacy rate of their citizens,” explains Bailey. “Having a higher literacy rate is good for jobs and individual earnings. An educated workforce draws new businesses to the area.”
That’s why ‘adopting’ a duck and entering the race is not only fun but impactful. For every dollar spent on adult literacy, $33 comes back to the community.
“We see this in our English Language Acquisition program frequently,” says Wilson. She shares the story of one former ELA student, Marie Lourdes Jeronimo, who wanted to be able to converse with her daughter’s 2nd-grade teacher because she was having problems in school. Jeronimo learned English with the support of VFL services and today is teaching English to others. Her daughter, who was failing 2nd grade, just graduated from North Georgia Technical College as a pharmacy technician.
Purcell says she’s going to enter the duck race again next year. VFL board members hope many others will join her so they can continue to fund their agency’s life-changing mission.
To learn more about Volunteers for Literacy of Habersham County, its programs, and volunteer opportunities, visit them online at vflhabersham.com.