Volunteers Crucial to Operation of Cook Forest Sawmill Art Center

COOKSBURG, Pa. (EYT) – Volunteers are the backbone of the Sawmill Art Center in the heart of Cook Forest, so says executive director Karen Hazlett.

(Photo: Sawmill Art Center volunteer Charli Thompson (right) helps Sawmill employee Christine Hendryx hang quilts at the Center. Photo courtesy of Karen Hazlett)

“We could not exist without our volunteers,” Hazlett said of the center that is most famous for its summer theater program.

“We have a very small staff. People who volunteer keep us alive. They are completely important to us. We couldn’t run our organization without them.”

Hazlett is the only full-time staff member year round, and she is joined by just two full-time staffers from April through November, so volunteers are what keep the center and the theatre running.

“We regularly use volunteers,” Hazlett said. “In the theater, all of the ushers are volunteers. Some have been with us since the beginning in the 1980s. Our concession stand is also completely volunteer-run.”

Hazlett said she even relies on a volunteer maintenance man.

“One gentleman, Frank Ochs, likes this place so much he called last year and asked if he could do anything to help,” Hazlett said. “He does everything. He takes out the trash, he sweeps the floor, changes the light bulbs in the theater, he does all the heavy lifting. We have no maintenance or janitorial staff. I call him my volunteer maintenance man.”

The center gets volunteers from every walk of life, and this winter the son of one of the seasonal full-time workers, Jeremy Kaltenbach (pictured below), stepped up to help modernize the ticket process.
Jeremy Kaltenbach
“Jeremy’s mom, Debbie Kaltenbach, is our office assistant,” Hazlett said. “She started with us last spring and noticed that we had to do everything by hand with our ticketing. We didn’t have any type of ticketing software. We would have to print out 180 tickets for every show, that is our capacity. And, we had thousands of tickets lying around. So, she said this winter (winter of 2017-18) when the theater closes she would have him develop some software for us. He is a software engineer living in Columbus, Ohio.”

Hazlett said Jeremy Kaltenbach, a 2002 graduate of North Clarion High School, has designed a software system that enables the theater staff to reserve and print tickets in a computerized method, customized for its specific needs, and so far nearly 200 tickets have been sold using the new system.

“I cannot express how much easier having the computerized process is,” Hazlett said. “The consumer probably won’t see a big change, if any, but from our record-keeping and what we do on our end, it changes a lot. He did it all out of the kindness of his heart and love for his mother.”

Outside groups also play a key volunteer role for the theater with the Leeper Wildflower Garden Club being responsible for many of the outdoor upkeep of the facility and local theater groups putting on the shows.

“The Leeper Wildflower Garden Club takes care of all the grounds,” Hazlett said. “They take care of the flowers and painting the benches every spring. They keep everything neat and clean outdoors. That is so important. Because we are in the forest, the outside here is almost as important as the inside. I can’t imagine what it would look like without them. It would look a mess without them.”

Sawmill Center

As for the variety of theater groups, without them, there wouldn’t be a Sawmill Theater season.

“Without them, there would be no performances,” Hazlett said. “It really works out well for both parties. Most of them – not all of them – but most of them, don’t have a place to perform without us. And, we don’t have a performance without them.”

The actors are all volunteers, Hazlett said.

“A lot of people think they are professionals,” Hazlett said. “Most of them are locals who have other jobs who act as a hobby.”

Theater groups come from all over the tri-county area including the Brookville Community Theater, the Clarion Community Theater, the Clarion Center for the Arts, the Punxsutawney Theater Arts Guild, the Oil City Community Playhouse, and the Knox Community Theater. Additional performances this year will also come from the Mahoning Valley Ballet, the Elk County Footlighters, and the Charlie Wheeler Band.

“Our biggest expense in putting on a show is the copyrights for the scores and the script,” Hazlett said. “There is also set building and costumes and marketing and advertising.”

Hazlett said the theater and the center are always taking on new volunteers, and she would really like to find volunteers to work in the gift shop.

“I would love to have volunteers in the gift shop, to run the craft market,” Hazlett said. “I haven’t been able to find anyone yet.”

Anyone interested in volunteering should contact the Sawmill Art Center at 814-927-6655 or at [email protected].

More information on the Cook Forest Sawmill Art Center, its performances, and other items of interest can be found at www. Sawmill.org.

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