Volunteer Stories

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Liz Colton

How did you get involved with FIRST®
I was introduced to FIRST by my school’s principal, Dr. Hoffman. He suggested we try FIRST in our school, and because I am a Science Lab teacher for K-6, he thought it would be a perfect fit. Dr. Hoffman asked me to start a team at our school. I jumped in with both feet, not knowing anything about FIRST but excited to learn about the program. There were only 8-10 teams in our city, so there were not very many people to ask. I soon learned about the community of FIRST and the amazing family-like feeling we had in our small rural city of Yuma.  

When did you start volunteering?  
I first started volunteering with FIRST ten years ago. It has been the most rewarding and challenging fun I have ever had. It is the best decision I ever made.  

Why did you start volunteering?
I started volunteering as a FIRST® LEGO® League coach because I really liked the program and wanted to see how it might benefit students. When I learned about everything that went into our rural city tournament, I volunteered to help with the event. I have been serving on the tournament committee ever since. I volunteer because I believe in the mission of FIRST. I know it can change students’ lives and help them grow and develop a passion for STEM. I love seeing kids at the tournament emulate the core values of Gracious Professionalism® and Coopertition® and have fun! FIRST is an amazing program that changes schools, communities, families, and students. I know that FIRST relies on volunteers and they are vital to FIRST. For the past three years, I have been the volunteer coordinator for our Yuma Regional Qualifying Tournament, which has grown to 40 teams. I love seeing volunteers catch the fever of FIRST. It only takes one tournament and at the end of the day volunteers ask me, “So when is the next tournament?”    

Colton FIRST Volunteer

What do you think is the most rewarding part of being a volunteer with FIRST?
The most rewarding part of being a volunteer with FIRST is the people and the unique FIRST family connection you have with coaches, students, and volunteers. FIRST builds lasting relationships and connections in the community and beyond. The FIRST community is an amazing worldwide group of people who have the same passion for and interest in helping students achieve and helping students DREAM BIG! FIRST teams and volunteers are everywhere, and when you run into one, it is like seeing a long-lost friend or relative. I still get excited to go to our state tournament just to hug and talk to volunteers from years prior. 

What advice would you give to a new volunteer?
The best advice I could give to a new volunteer is to jump in and have fun! Once you volunteer and see the program in action, you fall instantly in love with it. You won’t ever be sorry you volunteered. No matter what amount of time you can give, every minute counts to help our kids and FIRST events be successful. When you volunteer, you will understand the value and mission of FIRST. Before you know it, you are wearing silly hats and wacky pants and laughing and cheering for every team like the rest of us. I recommend every school principal and school district official get involved so you can see how amazing your students are. Just by being at an event, you learn so much from our current and future problem solvers.  

Is there anything else you’d like to share?
Volunteering with FIRST for the past ten years has been the best choice I’ve made in my career as a teacher. I love how FIRST fosters community relationships and builds connections between organizations, schools, clubs, and businesses. I have lots of great students from past teams who still come and see me. This year I will embark on coaching a FIRST® Tech Challenge team because students from my very first FIRST LEGO League team want this opportunity. They will walk from their high school back to their old elementary school to participate. They help tutor and mentor our FIRST LEGO League and FIRST® LEGO® League Jr. teams now. We now have a legacy of FIRST teams and traditions that have helped our school culture and students grow and change.

As a science teacher, I have had the opportunity to see challenge-based learning go the distance with FIRST programs. Last year, our all-girl FIRST LEGO League team, Super Aqua Squad, secured a provisional patent for their invention, the Aqua Box. The Aqua Box was designed to solve a problem faced by a community superhero who our students met during summer school. After the team shared their Aqua Box with the Community Superhero Rescue Pilot, they were emotional. They couldn’t believe the students cared enough to solve this problem for them. The pilot was so surprised the team remembered the challenge they discussed five months prior, and to see a tested prototype was overwhelming. Through this project, we built long-term, lasting connections in our community. When we heard we advanced to the FIRST LEGO League Global Innovation Award, our community rallied behind us. Local media helped us spread the word and before we knew it, many people were helping us. Local businesses and organizations helped us raise enough money to attend the event, and we were blown away by the generosity of our community. The most amazing part of this was the change I saw in each of the girls on this team. They grew in so many ways. We had a lot of new experiences and they all grew academically, in maturity, and in skills like public speaking and more. By the end of the school year, every single student on the team tested highly proficient in all subjects. Their families grew closer, and the expectations grew for these girls. Their confidence grew and now they dream bigger for careers in STEM.

Jon Kentfield

Jon Kentfield is originally from Connecticut, but now resides in Kokomo, Indiana, and works for FIRST Crown Supplier AndyMark. Read on to learn about Jon’s experience as a FIRST® volunteer and alumnus!

How did you get involved with FIRST?
I got involved with FIRST when my mom took me to my first FIRST® Robotics Competition regional in 2000. At the time, she worked for United Technologies, and one of her co-workers was involved with the regional planning committee. I was hooked. As soon as my middle school had a FIRST® LEGO® League team, I signed up because I knew I wanted to join FIRST Robotics Competition Team 173 “RAGE” in high school.

When did you start volunteering?
I started volunteering in 2003 as a field reset/repair person at the 2003 FIRST Championship in Houston. I was a sophomore in high school and didn't have a whole lot to do as a member of the team. They needed help that year, and so I volunteered to help out while I was there. Getting the experience of being on the floor, in the action, at a championship, was something that just stuck with me, and made me continue my volunteerism through high school, college, and now as an adult working for FIRST Crown Supplier AndyMark.

Why did you start volunteering?
I started volunteering because there was a need for more help at the FIRST Championship. I felt that it would be a unique experience for a high school student and give me a sense of accomplishment that I don't think I would have received with my team that season. I keep volunteering because of the lifelong friends and connections I was able to make as an alumnus.

What do you think is the most rewarding part of being a volunteer with FIRST?
The most rewarding part of volunteering with FIRST is the feeling of giving back to a community that gave me so much. I have since gone on to co-found The Rainbow STEM Alliance, a 501(c)(3), with two of my fellow alumni and volunteers, Tom Wexler and Brian Boehler. I had the privilege of meeting both of them while volunteering, one at the 2013 FIRST Championship and the other at a FIRST® Tech Challenge Qualifier in Indiana. Our non-profit is dedicated to supporting LGBTQ+ students pursuing STEM, and a large part of our focus has been supporting the LGBTQ+ of FIRST student group and our successful lapel pin campaign. Seeing the impact of something smaller than a quarter has been profound. To let young LGBTQ+ students know they are not alone, and to be a role model for them as a key volunteer in FIRST and working for a Crown Supplier has definitely been one of the most rewarding experiences in my life.

on Kentfield FIRST Volunteer

Jon, third from left, as head referee, with fellow refs at the 2018 FIRST Championship Detroit.

What advice would you give to a new volunteer?
Ask questions often. People may not know you're interested in a role unless you talk to them. Everyone had to start somewhere, so ask about their experiences and what led them to that role. Having worked in many districts and regional events, there are always places to grow.
It could take time to discover what volunteer role you want to play, so don't be afraid to try out new roles if they interest you. Also, don't be afraid to venture into other programs. If you are only familiar with, say, FIRST® LEGO® League Jr., see if you can help out at your local FIRST Robotics Competition event. There are always ways to help out, even if you can't give back to the program you are most familiar with!

How many times have you volunteered at Championship?
This year in Houston will be the ninth Championship I have volunteered at!

What is special about volunteering at Championship?
Volunteering at FIRST Championship is such an amazing experience. You have the opportunity to meet people from all over the globe who are coming together for a common purpose: to promote STEM education. This past season, I was honored to receive a head referee position for the FIRST Robotics Competition at the FIRST Championship in Detroit. I got to work with an amazing field crew from all over, including Michigan, Minnesota, California, Ontario, and more. Our field received numerous high-profile visitors, including the Secretary of Education for the United States. Not to mention the times I have been able to speak with high profile FIRST staff and advisers like Dr. Woodie Flowers, Dean Kamen, Don Bossi, and Frank Merrick. You never know who may pop by your field to check out the action, like will.i.am.

What is your favorite thing about the Championship event?
Being such a long-time volunteer and alumnus, FIRST Championship is a homecoming mixed with a family reunion. Many of my friends have flung themselves all over the world and the FIRST Championship is the one event that will always get us back together. I would say that is my favorite thing. Being able to reconnect with so many people and make new connections with others in the industry has definitely been a privilege.

Sireesha Vudatha

My name is Sireesha Vudatha, and I am the coach of FIRST® LEGO® League Team Plasma Doge, from the Washington, DC, metro area. I attended a parent interest meeting for FIRST LEGO League at my child’s middle school. There was a huge turnout, but no volunteers who wanted to step in as a coach for this large group of rookie 6th graders. For some reason, seeing the enthusiasm of the kids and their parents, my inner voice came out and explicitly said, "I can volunteer as a lead coach for one of the teams, however, we just moved to the Washington, DC, metro area from California, I have a new job along with a house full of moving boxes, and we have only seven weeks until the qualifying tournament..." Being a program management professional, I considered this task close to impossible and with high risk if the team had to perform well in all areas of the INTO ORBITSM season, the Project Research, Core Values, Robot Design, and Programming, given the time and scope of what we had to achieve.Sireesha Vudatha FIRST Volunteer

At the kick-off meeting with the kids and their parents, all I could think was "how do I coach this group of ten kids so they work as a team?” They were all rookies except for my own child, Akhil, who had participated in FIRST LEGO League for the last two seasons. I tapped into the potential of the kids and of the other parents, who gladly accepted the opportunity to mentor the team in areas like programming and research. I considered this whole task of mentoring the kids along with parents’ expectations and emotions like a critical NASA mission; it was my job to steer kids in the right direction, making use of their hidden talents. Akhil started taking the lead, sharing everything he could from his last two FIRST LEGO League seasons to help the rest of the rookie team. This change in him helped to keep the joy of learning and enthusiasm on the team way higher than I expected.

Things started happening at such a fast pace that I couldn't even think about putting on the brakes – team registration of Team Plasma Doge (we were the last team to register in the Virginia-DC area), the design of t-shirts by the kids, a field trip, a scrimmage tournament, and then the qualifying tournament. I was pleasantly taken by surprise when our team made it to the State Championship. Our team was so motivated by this achievement that we found a natural upsurge of enthusiasm and hope. Everyone wanted to put in 100% effort. We met almost every day after the qualifying tournament for a couple of hours after school, refining strategies and making improvements. Incredible things were happening, and then securing an award at the State Championship was the cherry on top of the cake. Tears of joy just came in! 

I feel that I am heavily indebted to FIRST LEGO League for making my time volunteering as a lead coach an unforgettable experience this season. I am looking forward to many more seasons, to keep the joy of learning and spark of hope going for another set of kids!

My advice to others who are thinking about coaching or volunteering is to just step in at full throttle and put 100% into it to experience the miracle that the FIRST LEGO League kids under your guidance go through! 

Ricardo Delfin

My name is Ricardo Delfin (pictured second from the left). I've been a volunteer with FIRST for the past four years, and a team member in FIRST® Robotics Competition for the three years before that and I have to say they've been some of the most rewarding experiences I've had the privilege to participate in. The events are always energetic and full of truly passionate people, both in the teams and in the volunteer corps!Ricardo Delfin FIRST Volunteer

I initially joined FIRST as a volunteer thanks to one of my friends (also pictured, second from the right). He mentioned that FIRST Mexico was looking for volunteers for the FIRST Robotics Competition regional in Mexico City. I had been out of high school for a year by then and had really enjoyed participating in FIRST. The events had a unique and energetic vibe and I had gotten to meet a lot of wonderful people. Not only that, but I wanted to give back to this community that had given me so much. Thanks to FIRST, I got into my university of choice, and I even had recently gone through an internship interview at Microsoft where I discussed a problem I solved while I was on the team.

I signed up, was assigned as a referee, and quickly realized how wonderful and different it was to participate in FIRST as a volunteer. When you go with a team, it seems like the events move almost by themselves, like a well-oiled machine. It's not until you get behind the scenes as a volunteer that you realize the work required to get an event this big working properly. Most volunteers are here because they love robotics and love everything FIRST does. You can really see that everyone embodies the values of FIRST, and everyone wants to see all the teams succeed.

One of the most wonderful parts of this, however, is seeing the teams go up and compete against each other. The amount of raw talent you see at this event, all high school students, is truly mind-boggling. Not only that but seeing all the teams work together and try to help each other succeed is one of the most inspiring things I have ever seen.

I've since gone on to volunteer at multiple other events in Mexico and in Texas, both as a referee and robot inspector. I even volunteered as head referee at the 2018 FIRST Global Challenge in Mexico City. I've enjoyed every minute of this amazing experience. In summary, if someone were to ask me if it would be worth volunteering for a FIRST event, I'd tell them this. When traveling to one event, I had to take three connecting flights, for a total of 18 hours in flight, not including layovers and the return trip. I arrived at the event jetlagged and tired. Even after going through all that, I have never felt as energetic as I have during that event, and I can say, decidedly, that this was an experience worth going through.

Ricardo was born in Guadalajara, Mexico, and grew up in Mexico City, Mexico. He currently lives in Dublin, Ireland, and works for Facebook.

James Griffin-Allwood

I have been involved in FIRST® LEGO® League for 13 years. During my undergraduate degree, I was approached to volunteer as a scorekeeper at a competition intended to bootstrap interest in the region. I was immediately taken by the excitement of the students who were participating and the combined enthusiasm of both the volunteers running the competition and the coaches that brought the teams. I can safely say now that I was hooked immediately.James Griffin-Allwood FIRST Volunteer

For the next four years as I finished my Computer Science and Education degrees, I volunteered as a FIRST LEGO League referee. I spent the weeks leading up to the competitions studying to make sure I understood the missions, the models, the rules, and most importantly that I was prepared to foster a spirit of Gracious Professionalism® among the teams and coaches that came to my tables at the competitions. The collaborative nature of FIRST competitions where volunteers, parents, and coaches work together to model professional behavior and to ignite passions for science in students has always set this program apart from others in my mind.

For the past eight or so seasons, I have been privileged to be the Head Referee for the FIRST LEGO League competitions at Acadia University. Every year, it is my pleasure to train a team of referees which ranges from 10-40 volunteers and continues to grow. I have been privileged to see students compete through the FIRST LEGO League and Robofest programs, and then come back to volunteer in a competition or as a coach for a team. I have seen firsthand students entering Computer Science programs after discovering their passion in FIRST.

Every year, I look forward to competition season because I get to work with a wide selection of volunteers, parents, teachers, and industry professionals toward a common goal. Inspiring students to learn and pursue their dreams by working together to create role models and opportunities that empower them to take a chance.

James is from Halifax, Nova Scotia, and is the Head Referee for the FIRST LEGO League competition held at Acadia University in Nova Scotia, Canada. He is a Senior Development Engineer for Ping Identity.

Kasey TrossKasey Tross - FIRST volunteer

About eighteen months ago, I found myself wearing safety glasses and a bright red t-shirt with the words "FIRST Tech Challenge" on the front, and "VOLUNTEER" on the back.

Someone came up to me and asked, "Should we bring our robot with us to judging?"
Me: "I don't know…"
Them: "What do they do in judging?"
Me: "I don't know..."

Truth be told, I didn't even know what I was doing in that red shirt. I had never even been to a FIRST Tech Challenge competition before and I hadn't the slightest idea what would happen there, except that it involved robots. The only reason I was there was because my son had joined a robotics team - the Library Bots, Team 7278 - a few months before and I was trying to be supportive.

Fortunately, I found another group of red-shirted volunteers in a hallway gathered around a young woman (also wearing safety glasses) holding a walkie talkie and looking very official. She started talking to us about judging and "the pit" and "Kamen" and "Flowers" and finally I tentatively raised my hand and said, almost in a whisper, "Um…this is my first time. What are you talking about?" At which point the entire group let out something like a little squeal of delight and I found myself engulfed in a group hug with lots of pats on the back. They ensured me they'd help me and I'd figure it out as I went along.

And figure it out I did.

First, I figured out that my son had landed amongst his kind. At last, he found a place where he fit in and was not the only one who didn't care how he looked in those delightful safety glasses.

I figured out that FIRST is a place where everyone helps everyone. In fact, it's the nicest competition I've ever been to. Forgot a tool? Ask the next team over, they'll lend you theirs. Robot acting wonky? Ask an official, they'll help you troubleshoot. If you have any inclinations toward cutthroat competition, you better check them at the door, because at FIRST it's all about "Coopertition® "- cooperative competition. Your rival in one round might be your ally in the next, so it's smiles and handshakes all around at the beginning and end of every match and everything in between.

I also figured out that FIRST is about much more than a working robot. In fact, your team's robot could turn out to be a total dud, and you could still move on to the next level in competition. How? Your team could demonstrate exceptional Gracious Professionalism® (the handshakes and smiles and tool-sharing), or uniquely creative innovation, or you could be working to spread the message of FIRST in your community in the off-season. In FIRST, everything you do is a part of the process, and everything you do matters, both on and off the playing field. FIRST is about creating not only great engineers, but great people.
Finally, I found out that FIRST is really about fun. From the crazy getups some teams wear to the impromptu dance party before the awards ceremony, if you're not having fun, you're not really getting the whole experience.
So at the end of that long day, when I hugged my beaming son - careful not to disturb the medal hanging around his neck - and I finally took off that red shirt, I was careful to fold it and tuck it into my bag, because I knew that while it was the first time I'd worn it, it most definitely wasn't going to be the last.

MK Baldwinmk baldwin - first volunteer

I've been volunteering as a FIRST LEGO League referee since the 2006 season. I began to referee at the FIRST World Festival/FIRST Championship when it was in Atlanta, and volunteered at the final two years of the Atlanta event. For the past several years, I've been the Head Referee in South Carolina and active on the South Carolina FIRST LEGO League steering committee.

Volunteering at events around the country, I have made a number of great friends.  My fellow volunteers have become like a family to me. We travel together and have a great time when we are gathered together! When we discovered we had similar interests, we decided to try vacationing together. Our trips have included going to the Johnson Space Center in Houston, the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, various gardens and science centers, a local air show, and watching Bill Nye, the Science Guy – live! We are a family scattered across the country, yet we now stay in touch and visit when we have the chance.

At the 2017 FIRST Championship, I volunteered in both Houston, Texas, and St. Louis, Missouri, and I am already registered to do it again in 2018! I enjoy refereeing at the FIRST World Festival/FIRST Championship because I love seeing the high caliber teams and their high energy. I am motivated by the stories of the teams and individuals – learning about how they have overcome obstacles to get there. It also helps me to have stories to tell others that I meet as I encourage them to participate in FIRST programs.

My advice to others: volunteer and be a part of shaping our future! If you have ever been depressed by the news, then volunteer to help FIRST LEGO League kids. They are upbeat, smart, and willing to try… AND they have FUN!

Samantha LipscombSam Lipscomb - FIRST volunteer

My name is Sam Lipscomb and I’m currently a volunteer for FIRST. I volunteer at events across the FIRST New England district. As a high school student, I couldn't get enough of FIRST Robotics Competition and was looking for ways to attend more regional events. I started as a crowd control volunteer at the New Jersey Regional in 2005, and since then I have volunteered in almost every position at more than 80 regular season FIRST Robotics Competition events — as well as many off-season events. I personally love to volunteer on the field as a field supervisor. I also enjoy volunteering in a queuing or judge position where I get to meet with all of the teams, and as a volunteer coordinator to help make sure that events run as smoothly as possible. I even got my parents to volunteer at my annual district event. The funniest thing I've ever done while volunteering was emceeing a FIRST LEGO League tournament in a polar bear onesie for the ANIMAL ALLIESSM 2016-2017 season.

I continue to volunteer 14 seasons later because I know what an amazing experience being part of a FIRST team was for me as a student. The competitions and events are the culmination of months of hard work; a stage for the students and their creations to shine. One of the most memorable experiences I've had volunteering, was inviting a student who was about to graduate to come and volunteer with me at the Connecticut Regional. He was so happy to learn how to wire a field, work with the key volunteers, and aid in the success of the event, and now — years later — is a FIRST technical advisor in another region. Spreading the volunteer love so that students know they can stay involved as alumni is always a great feeling.

Spending time at events with current students makes me realize that what excited me about FIRST when I was 14 is still going strong. By volunteering, I can ensure that there will always be events where students can feel that same magic.