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Volunteer coordinator Susan Maataoui works behind the scenes, managing hundreds of volunteers for the annual Tri for a Cure

The job of coordinating several hundred volunteers to make sure they’re all in their proper spots for an annual event that hosts more than 1,300 participants, covers land and water and spans miles can’t go to just anyone.

First and foremost, the person must be exceptionally cool under pressure.

Susan Maataoui, a psychologist who lives in Portland, fits that bill, possessing that all-important trait—and all the rest needed—and she’s been asked back as the Tri for a Cure’s volunteer coordinator year after year.

This is Maataoui’s 10th year of involvement with the Maine Cancer Foundation’s popular fundraising triathlon, set for July 22 and starting and ending at Southern Maine Community College in South Portland.

She started as a general volunteer in 2009 and was “so inspired by the phenomenal event” that she and two friends agreed they’d sign up to participate as a team in the 2010 race.

“I am not an athlete by any stretch of the imagination, but I decided I’d get myself so I could run a 5K, and we got really excited,” she says.

Unfortunately, though, online registration for the event filled up in eight minutes, and her team was without a number.

As the Tri for a Cure’s volunteer coordinator, Susan Maataoui manages hundreds of volunteers on race day, as well as the Friday setup and Saturday Expo. It’s a role she’ll be serving in for the 10th year at this year’s Tri. Photo by Lauryn Hottinger

“I was just bereft!” she says. “So I contacted the race people and said if you have something for me to do, I’d be interested.”

When event co-founder Julie Marchese learned about Maataoui’s extensive volunteer background, she asked her to fill the volunteer coordinator position Marchese’s husband Dave was handling, so he could be freed up for other race-related responsibilities.

Maataoui, 59, took it on and hasn’t looked back. And Marchese is delighted about that: “Susan is the person behind the scenes making all 500 volunteers come together. We could not do it without her!”

Each third week of July, as the event is upon her and she’s immersed in a flurry of details while working a full-time job, Maataoui confesses with a laugh that she does wonder what in the world she was thinking in signing up again. But then race day arrives, and she remembers.

“It’s an amazing thing to be a part of,” she says. “Crazy. Fun. And an honor.”

Renee Bunker of Portland, who has been the event’s run course coordinator for eight years, laughs in agreement with all those feelings and, like Maataoui, is moved each year by what the event represents.

“It’s a lot of work, but the energy of this race is unlike anything else I’ve ever been involved in,” says the assistant U.S. attorney. “This is all about being out there and supporting a cause, rain or shine, and not about winning. That’s what I love about it.”

Bunker praises Maataoui for her ability to keep things in order while ensuring everyone also has fun each year.

“Susan gets us all fired up and organized and somehow keeps incredibly calm, no matter what. She somehow figures it all out.”

Maataoui says that’s something that she’s gotten better at, year to year. Being a high-energy multitasker and having a “pretty calm temperament” helps. As do the thousands of supporters who surround the annual event, she says.

“It is like a big family, and it’s hard to imagine not being involved. I get as much back as I put in.”

“There are always problems and issues that come up, but we do what we can and it comes together. The community always comes in and gives us what we need, and I’ve grown to trust that over 10 years.”

Maataoui has 15 volunteer area coordinators, including Bunker, who manage people all along the course through South Portland and Cape Elizabeth—on the bike and run courses, on the water, at water stops and more. Starting in May, she gets a list of everyone who has signed up to help and starts feeding their names to her coordinators.

On nights and weekends, around her job with the VA Maine Healthcare System at Togus, she is responsible for handling larger volunteer groups, assigning tasks and staffing for everything, including Friday-night setup and the Saturday Expo and packet-pickup the day before the Sunday event. She also must consider all the safety issues, manage crowds, make sure traffic is directed, athletes aren’t impeded and much more.

“It was a lot easier to coordinate when I was in private practice, and now I’m not quite as responsive to emails and that sort of thing. But we get it done. It’s a team effort.”

Many members of that team are repeat volunteers and, as a result, deep friendships have been formed over the past decade, Maataoui says.

“It is like a big family, and it’s hard to imagine not being involved. I get as much back as I put in, definitely.”

Giving back has been part of Maataoui’s life since childhood.

“We need to do these kinds of important things in our communities. That’s a value I grew up with. My parents were very active in their communities and valued volunteerism and modeled that. I got the message that if you are fortunate enough to have resources, you have an obligation to share those resources with people who don’t.”

Photo by Lauryn Hottinger

Maataoui was the volunteer coordinator on the Mental Health Steering Committee and facilitator of a support group for the AIDS Service Center in Pasadena, California, for many years before moving to Maine in 1992.

Fundraising for cancer research and supporting cancer services is near to her heart, she says. Her 89-year-old mother, who lives with her, is a longtime breast cancer survivor and her father died of colon cancer “far too young” at age 67.

“I believe in what the Maine Cancer Foundation is about and support it completely,”  says Maataoui, who also volunteers on a Maine Cancer Impact Network hospice and palliative care taskforce affiliated with the MCF. “And all of the money raised stays in Maine.”

Now in its 11th year, the Tri has raised about $12 million (not including the money raised for this year’s event), all of which has been reinvested in Maine communities for cancer prevention, early detection and access to care.

“I love that all the people involved are so committed to the mission,” says Maataoui.

Patricia McCarthy is a long-time writer and editor. She has three daughters, lives in Cape Elizabeth, and also has a photography business (patriciamccarthy.com).

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