Well before thousands of runners descend on the North Shore or the Blue Angels take flight above the Duluth International Airport, Mary Erickson and her crew will be hard at work.
Donning baby-blue polos and high-visibility vests, a handful of local residents make it to nearly every major event in the city. Their duties range from setting up barricades along race courses and parade routes, to locating lost children amid large crowds, to giving restaurant recommendations to inquiring out-of-town visitors.
"You get to meet people from all over," Erickson said. "We just want to kind of be a representative of Duluth and help people find their way around and stay safe."
Erickson is an eight-year member of the Duluth Police Reserves, a team of roughly two dozen volunteers who provide behind-the-scenes work that supports this weekend's Grandma's Marathon, next weekend's Duluth Airshow and many other 5K races, festivals and parades throughout the year.
The volunteers include college students pursuing future law enforcement careers, as well as retirees simply looking to keep busy and give back to the community. They work around their own professional and personal schedules to provide rotating coverage of major events, sacrificing many summer weekends and holidays in the process.
"I don’t think a lot of people know about the Reserves," said Erickson, who two years ago logged 120 volunteer hours. "I think some people assume we're all just retired police officers, but we have people from all walks of life."
A year after the COVID-19 pandemic essentially wiped out all significant gatherings, summer 2021 is proving to be busy as ever, said Officer Dave Decker, who serves as a liaison to the Reserves in his role as Duluth Police Department special events coordinator.
"They supplement what police do during big events," Decker said. "It's really beneficial for the city and for the folks putting these events on. But it's a sacrifice for our volunteers. To think about airshow weekend, they spend 20 hours out there, getting sunburnt, just to make sure these events can happen for the city."
Volunteers, who must be 18 years old and have a clean record, are able to drive specially marked Reserves cars, wear badges and carry radios. While Decker said they are also provided some "verbal judo" training, the volunteers can summon an officer in the unlikely event of a tense situation.
But, mostly, members said they spend their time setting up barricades and cones before and after events, directing traffic and simply helping attendees have a good time.
"I've always felt a strong calling to help my community," said Joe Cullen, who joined about two years ago when he moved to the area to attend the law enforcement program at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College in Cloquet. "This profession is the way I can see myself doing that."
Cullen, who works an overnight security job as he pursues a full-time career as a police officer, has taken on a role overseeing equipment for the Reserves. He said he views the program as a good opportunity to learn more about the law enforcement profession.
"It was a really great way for me to get involved in the Duluth community," said Cullen, a native of Roseville, Minnesota. "It's just nice to be able to get out and talk with people and be part of making sure everything stays safe."
While it's typical to see younger members like Cullen use the program as a stepping stone, there's also a core group of long-serving members like Erickson, who as senior team lead helps conduct interviews with potential new recruits.
Erickson said had no significant ties to law enforcement, but her job as a registered nurse in the emergency room at Essentia Health-St. Mary's Medical Center in Duluth regularly brings her into contact with officers. She first heard about the Reserves after taking part in the department's Citizen Police Academy roughly a decade ago.
Erickson said the team had to reassemble and rebuild this year after dropping a few members during the long hiatus.
"A few have gotten jobs and I think there are some people who are nervous about it because of the climate of law enforcement right now," she said. "But I really enjoy it. I really enjoy working with the DPD, being out in the community and volunteering with a really good group of people."
Anyone interested in becoming a Reserves member can contact Decker at email@example.com.