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The Pensa-Mom And Her Volunteers Help Pensacon Succeed

Jennie McKeon

Pensacon has become one of the largest annual events held in Northwest Florida. A huge factor in its success is the thousands of hours put in by hundreds of volunteers. The Pensacola Little Theater was just about filled on a Sunday evening in January as Pensacon held its annual volunteer training and orientation.  From the stage, Cheryl Sackman addressed the crowd. “Pensacon has a reputation for Southern hospitality. It’s something that brings many of our guests back year after year. And that’s because of you. "

Cheryl Sackman is the volunteer coordinator for Pensacon. She says they are always looking for more people to help make the event a success. “We usually try to shoot for between 700 and 800 volunteers. We can make the convention happen with less, and our group of volunteers are so dedicated, if we (only) had 400 people they’d find a way to make it happen.”

Sackman was not the only one on stage talking to this year's crop of volunteers.

“I think we have more volunteers than a lot of conventions have, but a lot of that has to do with our size. As we continue to grow, we need more people," said Mike Ensley is the founder and CEO of Pensacon. He says the volunteers are an important part of the convention experience. "To make that experience really great for everyone, we want to make sure that there’s plenty of people there that can help then and see them to where they need to be, take care of their needs, make use that everybody knows what’s happening (and) when, as well as taking care of our celebrities and our vendors. Because everybody’s important to us at the convention.”

Credit Bob Barrett / WUWF News
The volunteers get their marching orders from the Pensa-Mom! Also on stage (L-R) Julio Diaz, Steve Wise & Mike Ensley.

Cheryl Sackman says there's a place for everyone. “If you’ve got a good heart and a willing attitude, we can find a place for anybody, whatever their skill-set is.”

This is Sackman’s  fifth year as volunteer coordinator for Pensacon. She stays in touch with her team leaders and the volunteers at large year-round through a Facebook page to keep them involved and excited about the event.  She says volunteers come from all over and they keep coming back. “We have (people) that come from all over the U.S. A lot of them come from other parts of Florida, we have people who come over from Louisiana and Mississippi. People come from all up and down the eastern seaboard.”

Cheryl Sackman with Michael Rooker.

Because she remains involved with the volunteers year-round, the regular volunteers have dubbed Sackman the “Pensa-Mom."

“My very first year as volunteer coordinator, two of my celebrity handlers came up and said ‘we’ve been talking to Michael Rooker about you. We’ve been telling him about the Pensa-Mom and he wants to meet you’, and I just kind of laughed it off. I don’t get to meet celebrities, I work with the volunteers almost exclusively. So I was standing there at the desk eating a bag of potato chips and then all of a sudden, right in front of me is Michael Rooker, and he was like 'I want to see the Pensa-Mom.' And I had potato chips all in my mouth and everything and it really took me by surprise. And then later during that convention, his aide came up and we gave him a volunteer shirt, and he asked if I would autograph his shirt. And he went around to all the team leaders and team admins and asked if they would autograph his shirt because they were so impressed with how Pensacon conducted itself and how we treated our guests.”

And there are plenty of jobs to go around during the event.

“It’s everything" said Ensley. "There are volunteers who sit with the celebrities all weekend at their table as they’re signing autographs. We have a team that just escorts people, like if they are going to a photo op or a panel they take them there. We have a huge transportation team obviously, with over 100 guests we have to get them (to and) from the different venues. Unlike a lot of other conventions which are all centered in one place, we have to spread out all over downtown Pensacola. So we have a whole team that does nothing but drive all weekend and take those people everywhere. We have a safety team that just there to make sure everyone stays safe for that weekend. (There’s also) the people that run the panels, that do the moderating for us and things like that. It’s a giant machine.”

And that machine has help grow Pensacon’s reputation among celebrity guests who regularly work conventions. Cheryl Sackman says they always try to go the extra mile to please the guests. "We had a guest that needed a certain kind of cigar, and decided at 10 o’clock at night that they wanted that cigar. So somebody on our transportation team went to the different cigar stores in town and found the cigar they were looking for.”

One would think that the Pensa-Mom would tell their guests that smoking is a bad habit.

Volunteers at Pensacon are asked to work 12 hours during the three-day weekend and get a three-day pass to the convention and a special T-shirt, as well as discounts at various merchants around town during the convention.  Applications are taken right up to the first day of the event.

And, full disclosure, Bob Barrett is a Pensacon volunteer.

Bob Barrett has been a radio broadcaster since the mid 1970s and has worked at stations from northern New York to south Florida and, oddly, has been able to make a living that way. He began work in public radio in 2001. Over the years he has produced nationally syndicated programs such as The Environment Show and The Health Show for Northeast Public Radio's National Productions.