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Twenty Years . . . and Counting

Now in her 20th year as a volunteer, New Tampa's Debbie Henrion does whatever she can to ensure the success of the Outback Steakhouse Pro-Am.
Michael Heape

April 14, 2011

By Laury Livsey, PGA TOUR Staff

LUTZ, Fla.—The plastic storage bin sits on the floor of Debbie Henrion’s bedroom closet in her New Tampa home. It’s filled with 19 neatly folded golf shirts, some of them a little newer than others.

There’s the blue-and-white-striped number, from 1998, and the lavender polo, with the yellow and blue stripes, from 2007. Soon, the red shirt with the thin white stripes with the Outback Steakhouse Pro-Am logo on it will take its honored position inside the bin with the blue lid.

“I had [the shirts] hanging in my closet. Unfortunately, all my closets are full, and I had to make room for other things,” says Henrion, the owner of the shirts by virtue of her now 20 years volunteering at this Tampa-area Champions Tour event.

Not long ago, Henrion’s husband, John, asked her why she didn’t get rid of her shirts. The answer was simple: All she has to do is open up the box, look at a shirt, and memories from that year’s tournament would stream back to mind.

It’s the sort of thing that happens when you do something for so long. And in commemoration of her 20 years’ volunteering, instead of the normal baseball cap or visor a volunteer typically receives, Henrion is wearing a special brown fedora this week, symbolic of those with at least 20 years’ experience.

“There are probably about 25 of us this year. We wear the hats proudly,” she says of the veteran volunteer crew among the approximately 1,200 volunteers who have descended on the course this week.

The shirts and the memories—and the hat—are one thing, but the true purpose of volunteering is what seems to stay with Henrion all those years after she first volunteered in 1992.

“All the money the tournament raises is kept locally, for local charities,” Henrion says. “I would not not volunteer if the money left here. But that’s one of the reasons I come back here year after year. What happens because of this tournament is something for the community.”

Since its inception 23 years ago, the tournament has contributed more than $8.7 million to Tampa Bay-area charities.

“I know what [the volunteers] are doing is actually for charity. The checks are not presented right away because the accounting processes takes time,” she says. “But I do go to some of the check presentations, and those events are reminders of what it means to be a volunteer.”

This year’s beneficiaries are the Special Operations Warrior Foundation and the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research—with contributions going to the Parkinson’s Progression Markers Initiative at Tampa’s University of South Florida.

“We have over 1,200 dedicated volunteers this year. They take true ownership in the event and are key to our overall success,” says Tournament Director Amy Hawk. “In the past seven years, the Outback Steakhouse Pro-Am has been able to contribute $3.7 million to local Tampa Bay charities. This would not be possible without to the countless hours and selfless service of our volunteers.”

This year, Henrion is serving as a volunteer director, with her mornings at the course usually beginning at around 6:30 a.m. and lasting 12 hours.

“When I come in in the morning, I help with the amateurs checking in. That’s primarily what I’m doing this week,” Henrion says. “I kind of do what [tournament officials] ask of me. I’ve been around long enough that I’m familiar with a lot of different things.”

Her jobs have included distributing volunteer uniforms, working in the scoring trailer and staffing the players’ hospitality pavilion, where she always has the good sense to hide the potato chips and candy bars when fitness devotee Gary Player used to arrive.

“He would come in, and if we had a lot of junk food, we knew to put them down out of sight. But even still, I have gotten a couple of fitness lectures from Gary over the years. He still would get on us if we had fruit juice in the coolers. He would say they weren’t organic and there was too much sugar. But he was always so nice.”

And niceness is a tradition that Tom Purtzer carries on. On Wednesday, the Champions Tour veteran made a point to visit a group of volunteers in player hospitality, thanking them for their work this week. “It’s something he does every year,” Henrion says of Purtzer. “You know the players appreciate you. It’s things like that that bring me back every year.”

With another year of volunteering almost in the books, after her shirt gets a good washing, Henrion will fold it and place it in the plastic bin in the closet. No. 20 stacked on top of the others, leaving Henrion to start wondering what color the 2012 volunteer shirt color will be.


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