AP NEWS

Off-stage, but Very Much a Starring Role

April 15, 2019

This is the latest in The Sun’s “Be a Volunteer” series.

By Emma R. Murphy

emurphy@lowellsun.com

LOWELL -- Francine Clay has spent much of her life volunteering.

Once a week she sits at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s front desk ready to greet visitors and lend a hand to the theater’s small staff. It is one of several roles Clay fills as an MRT volunteer.

When Clay is not working the front desk, she’s working as part of Friends of Merrimack Repertory Theatre, a volunteer group that helps coordinate special events like the theater’s annual gala.

Clay joined Friends of MRT in the fall of 2017 and has been volunteering at the front desk since last fall. She had left her job as a social worker at a local homeless shelter to help family, and when she later found herself with more time on her hands, Clay began to look for volunteering opportunities.

The MRT seemed like a perfect fit, Clay said.

In addition to helping with the gala, Friends of the MRT is responsible for organizing meals for the cast and crew on the first day of Tech Week, which is when rehearsals move from the rehearsal hall into the theater. The meals are often based around a theme and it is a chance for volunteers like Clay to get to know the actors and even catch snippets of upcoming performances.

“I’ve learned so much about the theater,” Clay said.

A born-and-raised Lowell resident, volunteering at the theater has also offered a new window into the city Clay has lived in all her life. Clay’s work with MRT has taught her about Lowell’s deep cultural roots, she said. It has also given her a closer look at how the MRT’s work connects to the larger Lowell community.

“It’s a group of people that are really dedicated to the city and doing things to improve the city,” Clay said of the theater’s team.

Clay’s transition from her career in social work to volunteering is more like a return. It was her experience volunteering on her children’s schools’ Parent Teacher Organization, and then at her church, that made Clay realize her interest in social work.

“I recognized that everything that I was doing in my life, it was a revelation that this is what social work is,” said Clay.

That revelation led her to go back to school to study social work and get licensed.

As with social work, Clay likes volunteering because it allows her to explore new interests, like theater.

She said that working at the homeless shelter -- a nonprofit -- laid the groundwork for Clay to volunteer at another nonprofit where the ability to help organize and fund-raise is key.

Clay embodies the age-old adage “no job too small”. Ask Clay and she’ll tell you that is what volunteering is all about. Whether it is hand-addressing envelopes or making calls to help coordinate the MRT’s annual gala, Clay is there to help however she can.

“That’s not menial -- I know that they are the things they don’t have time to do,” Clay said of tasks like addressing envelopes.

Clay is one of several volunteers essential to MRT’s operations.

Equipped with just a small staff, the theater relies on the Friends of the MRT and volunteer ushers, and is always looking for more volunteers.

“Having all those extra hands around with a staff of three people in the development office is just so amazing,” said MRT’s Director of Development Laura Frye.

Having Clay volunteer at the front desk is a particular help.

“She’s just wonderful, she’s someone who’s just always cheery, someone you want out right in front,” Frye said.

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