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Volunteer Spotlight: Nancy Papagno

In January of 2005 Nancy Papagno was volunteering at a folk music venue in Rhode Island. Little did she know that this particular day was going to leave a lasting impression on her forever. It would be the beginning of beautiful friendships and it would lead her to the open arms of what she calls a “bear hugging family” at WaterFire.

“A lovely woman, Betty Havrylik, came up to me while I was volunteering and asked if she could sit with me. We began to talk about volunteerism and about Rhode Island. Being quite new to the area, I mentioned to Betty that I had been to this beautiful art installation downtown that had really impressed me, but I couldn’t quite remember the name of it.”


Unbeknownst to Nancy, Betty and her husband Larry were actually volunteers for WaterFire and Betty knew exactly what Nancy was talking about. Betty went on to tell Nancy all about WaterFire and how everyone there was like a huge family from a nuclear physicist, to a custodian, to a college professor.

“Having this person right beside me that I really took a liking to, gave me that push and I was in.”

Nancy went on to attend a volunteer orientation and then began her career as a WaterFire Volunteer right away. From woodpile workouts and prep parties in the off season, to feeding the fires aboard wood boats and welcoming honorary guests to the Brazier Society during Lightings — “there’s really nothing I haven’t had fun with, except for the first time I volunteered at a Luminaria station.  However, I think that had to do more with the clashing of personalities rather than the installation itself because over the years it has become the thing I do most often, and enjoy the most.”

LUMLOOKING TOWARD DOWNTOWN 6-9-2012 - JAS (Photo by John Simonetti)Nancy has taken a particular liking to the Luminaria Installation where anyone visiting WaterFire is asked to add their light to the night by lighting a Luminara lantern. These elegant paper bag lanterns are a complement to the bonfires on the river, as they bring beauty and light to the dark, lesser-noticed corners of the park. With each lantern, visitors make a dedication or special note. Often times, this note is in memory of a loved one, or in celebration.

 “I like the interaction with people. It’s a great chance to be an Ambassador of WaterFire as you are always answering questions and striking up conversations with visitors. But, what I love about it most of all is how emotion filled it is. The people who really get to me are the ones that are having a hard time writing because it brings back a lot of emotions for them. You learn to be very patient with these people, no matter how busy you are!”

When Nancy was asked what her most memorable moment as a WaterFire volunteer was, she was brought back to one evening in particular. “I was striking the Luminaria station and I came upon a dedication I had seen a young boy of about eight years old fill out. At the time he was writing the card, I couldn’t really make out what it said other than “grandpa” so, I took a moment to sit and read it and I instantly welled up.” The dedication read:

I’m here at WaterFire Grandpa and I miss you.”

“To me, that symbolized Luminaria.”

Nancy enjoys giving her time to WaterFire by volunteering at the Luminaria Installation. She appreciates the ability to hear what people have to say about WaterFire and the sense of pride that it brings to be a part of that. She also enjoys being a part of the WaterFire family. “It doesn’t matter how much time you give — if it’s just one or two events per year, or if it’s every Lighting, woodpile work out, and prep party. No matter what, you are made to feel like you’re a part of the family and that’s what I love.”

Family Reading Luminaria Dedication (Photo by Erin Smithers)

Are you on the fence about becoming a WaterFire volunteer? If so, here is what Nancy has to say…

“Go to a WaterFire and keep in the back of your mind that you could be a part of this. You can do anything and you can give as little or as much as you want. There is always invitations to do such a wide span of things whether you’re a skilled craftsperson, a photographer, or you just want to get out and meet new people, there is something for everyone.”

For more information on how you can begin your journey as a WaterFire Volunteer, please contact the WaterFire Volunteer Department at 401.273.9727 or email us at [email protected]

About the author

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I've worked at WaterFire Providence since 2003. For the first 9 years of my career, I worked in the Production Shop learning all of the details that go into the physical production of the event. In 2012 transitioned to the role of managing WaterFire's social media and web presence. I now head up WaterFire Providence's digital projects including, web, social, databases, and our physical IT infrastructure.

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