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Volunteer Spotlight: Josh Jefferis

Braziers, photograph by Jen Bonin

One largely unknown fact about WaterFire: everything we use for the event, except for the braziers, is set up in the morning before most people have risen, and taken down after the final visitors leave. Sometimes it takes until 2:30 or 3:00 in the morning before the last WaterFire truck has left the river, and there are a few dedicated volunteers that come specifically to help with the task of making the event disappear.

Enter Josh Jefferis.

Josh is a native of Rhode Island, growing up in Bristol and moving to Providence in 2014. Josh is currently a student and is pursuing a degree in accounting, while also working at the Providence Place Mall movie theater. Josh has a strong interest in different areas of art, such as theater and music. But Josh’s desire to volunteer goes all the way back to when his mother would bring him to soup kitchens. From there it was only natural that he was drawn to be part of such a unique Rhode Island experience.

Josh began his journey with WaterFire in the same way that many others do: by attending events and wanting to become part of the performance. The only problem was that Josh had to work on weekends, so he needed to find a way to contribute to WaterFire while working. During the first or second WaterFire event of 2015, Josh decided to take the direct approach and ask a staff member. The person he found was Chantal, and she gave Josh all the information he needed to become a vital part of the WaterFire strike team.

Strike can be a difficult area to recruit for, given how late it occurs. But when I asked Josh about his experience with strike he said it just made sense.

For me I wanted to do it because, for one, I’m kind of a night owl. I have nothing else to do, and you know I really do enjoy it and I don’t want to miss out, so I’ll be up anyway. So either I go home and play videogames or watch TV and knockout doing that, or I help out and do something that I want to do, be part of something I want to be part of. Something that I want to enjoy.

When it comes to strike, there is never a time where Josh is not willing to come and help out, saying “Even when I don’t sign up, I’ll try to come in and see what I can do.”  At our August 20th fire, Josh had informed us that he would not be able to make it due to a wedding. As strike got underway, seemingly out of nowhere Josh appeared, ready to work.

Josh embodies the passion and sense of community that many of our volunteers have:

Something about WaterFire for me, even just sitting down and watching the fires…for me I always interpret it as a community thing, you know? Everybody gathers around, and yeah you can have a firepit in your backyard…but it’s in the middle of the city with the whole community. You can meet anybody.

When asked what he believes WaterFire means to the city of Providence, Josh replied:

I hear most people say it’s an “art installation.” But I believe it’s a community event. We do this every other week during the summer. It’s a community event that showcases art in many forms that Providence and the surrounding areas have to offer. More than art too, even services. They have the vendors that are over [on the side streets]… It’s more than just a piece of art. Art is interpreted in many different ways. Everyone has their zen spot; that is my zen spot. I can go there and think deeply…It’s a place where people can celebrate, it’s a place where people can remember, it’s a place where people can just sit down and have a quiet time and enjoy their Saturday night… Or Sunday night in this upcoming case.

Feeding a Brazier, photograph by John Nickerson

Feeding a Brazier, photograph by John Nickerson

Everyone takes away memories from what they experience at WaterFire, and different events strike everyone differently. When asked what his favorite Waterfire memory, Josh went back to before he was volunteer, back to when he attended one of the performances at the ballroom stage:

They had the ballroom over by the banks. They had all sorts of dancing going on and it was pretty lively, I loved it, and then they dropped these Bananagrams from the tops of the buildings and I was like ‘Oh my gosh’ and I need to try and grab one of these…. I was in awe.

While Josh was trying to take it all in, he accidently backed up into a family with a disabled child who was in a wheelchair. Being so awestruck, he hadn’t noticed them when he was backing up.

So I run into this kid in a wheelchair. Almost tripped and sat down on him. I said ‘Oh my gosh I’m so sorry I didn’t mean to.’ That’s just how much I was in awe. So with all these Bananagrams coming down I went over and grabbed one and went back and gave it to that kid and his family. It was just an amazing night.”

Josh also encourages others to try and do their part to contribute to the spectacle, saying that there is a time and a place for everyone at WaterFire, it’s just a matter of finding the right fit:

Sign up to do anything. Come in with an open mind. You never know what will happen, you never know who you will meet. Just come in with an open mind and enjoy yourself. Just because you are technically working doesn’t mean you can’t have fun.

He goes on to add:

It’s a Saturday night. It’s a wonderful thing and there are many opportunities that you can come in and be a part of. Say you can’t do Saturdays, that’s cool. What about Woodpile Workouts? There is something to fit your schedule. People say ‘Oh it takes up the whole city and people are just trying to move throughout the city.’ That’s fine, just go enjoy your Saturday night, I’m going to enjoy mine at WaterFire. How about you come on a Wednesday or Tuesday and help us out quickly?

Volunteers at a Luminaria station. Photograph by Jen Bonin.

Volunteers at a Luminaria station. Photograph by Jen Bonin.

Josh is proud to be a Rhode Islander, and says that one of the biggest benefits of his time volunteering is how much of the city he gets to see. He believes that volunteering is just a great way to get out there and experience your own home:

The benefit I get from this is knowing a little bit more about where I live. People go out and explore the area, Rhode Island is a really small state. The reputation that Rhode Islanders have is that we don’t even know how to get around the corner, or get outside the driveway. That’s something I hear from people out of state. If you don’t get out there and explore how are you going to know what’s really around. It helps me figure out what’s really around… it opens up other opportunities.

Josh took advantage of those opportunities, just like so many of our other dedicated volunteers who have become some of the most crucial parts of the WaterFire experience.

Join Josh Jefferis and the whole WaterFire community to create this wonderful art by contacting WaterFire Volunteer Department at 401.273.9727 or email us at

[sc name=”photo-caption” caption=”Featured image: Braziers, photograph by Jen Bonin.” ]

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Seasonal Assistant Volunteer Coordinator

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