Monday through Friday, Mark Karas helps people plan their retirement through Merrill Lynch and Bank of America. He wears a tie, shined shoes, and glasses. His profession demands the ability to truly understand people, to connect with their needs while representing large financial institutions in the process.
During summer weekends, though, he’s out on the Providence River maneuvering a boat full of physically impaired WaterFire visitors, where he’s better known as Mark Karas: Captain of Fez.
Before becoming one of WaterFire’s most reliable and dedicated volunteers, Mark lived on the Cape and would plan trips back to Rumford to see his parents around WaterFire lightings. This was about 16 years ago. “I would visit Mom and Dad, and after dinner, I’m going to WaterFire,” he would tell them. “ It was magic. The music, the people – I just fell in love with it. It was very spiritual for me to be there and to be a part of it.”
Soon, his aging parents began looming as larger priorities in his life. “Mom and Dad are in their 80s, and I’m needed at home. That’s what my heart said.”
So he moved back toRhode Island to be with them. His father eventually passed, but Mark stayed with his mother. Soon after moving, an old friend of a friend in the neighborhood asked about going to WaterFire, and popped a life-changing question: “Do you want to be on a wood boat?”
They went out. Finally, Mark was able to get his hands dirty with his passion for WaterFire.
“One of the coolest things I’ve ever done,” Mark says. “It just increased and enhanced my love for WaterFire.”
It meant a great deal to Mark, and still does, to simply be a part of the event and its magic. “You know, all of us in life want to be a part of something, and something that I felt so special about – I now was a part of it.”
It seemed like fate had brought Mark to WaterFire, then WaterFire to Mark. But fate would soon strike again. An email arrived in Mark’s inbox asking if he’d like to become a Guest Boat Captain, but nobody knows how or why Mark got this message. It remains a mystery to this day.
The next season, Mark found his niche as a WaterFire volunteer. He landed, eventually, at the Access Program, where those who can’t physically walk up and down the River are given a very special view of the fires from the water. He started his journey as a co-captain of Fez, the Access Boat, with another volunteer.
“Two of us went out, and we kind of took turns, and after that time this other person never came back. And I said, ‘Cool. Igot this.’ And ever since then my commitment and devotion for what I do in this program just kept burgeoning, and it flourished, and it’s my summer love.”
Mark’s experience caring for his parents had created a soft spot in his heart for taking responsibility for those in life’s later stages and for those less able-bodied than himself. His life had begun to come full-circle, and “the dots all got connected.”
Mark’s soft spot is obvious when he talks about his duties as Access Boat Captain. He struggles to find the words to express how much it means to him and why he loves it like he does.
“It brings tears to my eyes what a gift it is,” Mark says. The passion and compassion between what I do with the access people, and with the whole staff here – there’s a unique passion here that there’s not enough of in the world right now.”
Off the water, during his own visits to Providence, Mark can’t help but talk about WaterFire. Walking up and down the River with a friend recently, with the braziers barren and the water still, he began to gush about what it all means to someone who hadn’t experienced it.
“I’ve fallen in love with this city … I see tens of thousands of people go to WaterFire, and I see that it pulls people together. I can only hope that what brings them there is what brings me there: You’re a part of something… WaterFire lets us be a part of something that’s very special. When something brings people together, we’re a better race. We’re better people.”
Mark’s love of WaterFire blossomed into an absolute passion when he became a volunteer, and his commitment is part of what keeps the fires burning so brightly. To potential volunteers, he says simply: “Do it. Just do it.”
If you’d like to volunteer or have Mark as your captain, send the Volunteer Department an email.
Oh, and his crash history? “Haven’t hit a wall yet.”