Long-time Olympic volunteers searching for a room 

Florida couple desperate to help may have found a home through Rotary

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It was a steaming hot day in the summer of 1996 and Ernie Peterson and his family had just seen their first-ever Olympic event - swimming at Georgia Tech.

As they rode the bus after the event, two women in uniforms were resting their heads against the seat just in front of him, their faces drenched in sweat, their weary bodies speaking of their complete exhaustion.

Peterson asked them what they were doing and they happily explained they were Olympic volunteers.

"We thought everybody that worked for the Olympics got paid," said Peterson in his soft Floridian drawl.

He soon learned that it takes tens of thousands of unpaid workers to help put on the show.

From that moment this county property appraiser from Deland, north of Orlando, Florida was hooked. He signed up for the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, and got the job. He signed up for the 2006 Torino Games, and got the job again.

Now he desperately wants to be a part of the 2010 Games in Whistler. But he can't get the job until he finds a place to stay.

"If you don't have a place to stay, they won't let your application go any further," he said.

That's why Peterson and his wife Jeanne were here this week, to find a room or a bed for two weeks in February 2010.

The 17-year Rotarian even made an appeal at this week's Rotary breakfast meeting in the hopes of finding a place to stay.

"We want to be a part of the Vancouver Olympics," he said after the breakfast. "Why not call on fellow Rotarians to find a place to stay?"

So determined are the Petersons that they are willing to exchange their Florida home during the Olympics.

He might just be in luck. Two Rotarians have approached him since that meeting with the possibility of staying in their homes.

Gord Leidal has registered with the Homestay program, an accommodation matching service run by Olympic organizers, and has two rooms available. One is already taken. The other could be home sweet home for the Peterson's at Games time.

"Rotary works in many ways," said Leidal.

Doug Mildenburger also has a spare room and has offered it to the Peterson's. He has yet to register with the Homestay program but plans on doing so before the September deadline.

That's music to the ears of Olympic organizers, who are hoping to house 1,000 volunteers through the Sea to Sky program; that's about a quarter of the volunteers needed in the corridor.

"The Homestay program is tracking right on target," said Maureen Douglas, director, operations communications for the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Games (VANOC). "We're just past the 300 mark in the Sea to Sky."

Now that they're almost one-third of the way there, VANOC plans to release an offshoot program to Homestay encouraging people who have room to invite their friends and family to stay, and volunteer while they're here. In return, VANOC is offering tickets to Olympic events.

And so, for the 57-year-old Peterson and his wife Jeanne, the trip to Whistler has been a tentative success.

"I was getting nowhere looking in the paper, on the Internet," he said.

His resume, which he brought to the Rotary meeting, includes a long list of time served volunteering at sporting events, from the Superbowl to the NCAA basketball championships and non-sporting events like disaster relief in Mississippi one week after Hurricane Katrina.

But his eyes light up when he talks about his time volunteering for the Olympics. That's a different kind of calling.

The native Floridian vividly remembers the car thermometer plummeting on their drive to Park City to report for duty. That day they stood on the ice for hours at the security mag and bag checkpoint. It was a far cry from the warm Florida sand.

For the Salt Lake Games he called on some distant cousins and they graciously offered the couple a place to stay.

"I have no cousins here," he joked.

He had no cousins in Italy either during the 2006 Torino Games and ended up paying to share a large room with 12 other volunteers, each of them in bunk beds.

During those Games he remembers the double shifts at the Olympic Village in Sestriere, doing background checks on those looking to access the village.

"I don't know that they could pull this off without volunteers," admitted Peterson.

When asked why he's prepared to spend money traveling to Whistler and work for 16 hours a day, sometimes in the frigid cold, and always for no pay, Peterson's eyes glisten.

He quiet response is thick with emotion: "You'll find out in February."

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