Volunteers of the Year: Rich and Debby Harrison
From masks to races, the Harrisons put in time to keep their community together
The Enterprise’s volunteer of the year this year is actually two volunteers — Debby and Rich Harrison of Rainbow Lake.
“You can’t have one without the other,” Janice Fitzgerald wrote in her letter nominating the couple for the distinction. “They are a team who put service above self.”
The couple are avid organizers of ski and canoe races, generous friends always willing to lend a hand, and builders — whether that is helping a neighbor renovate a home or crafting thousands of masks during the coronavirus pandemic.
The Harrisons are not on many committees. They just serve the needs they see in their daily life. They’re well connected with many people and communities in the area, so they are constantly hearing about needs.
Carol Lamb and John Brown, who live down the street from the Harrisons, said their friends help those who might not know who else to reach out to. The Harrisons have helped neighbors renovate their homes, helped friends care for family members who were battling cancer and delivered food to those in need.
Lamb said she was “over the moon” about the nomination. She said the Harrisons are quiet about things they do.
“Without fanfare, Rich and Deb Harrison show up and step up to help where needed,” Fitzgerald wrote.
Debby and Rich are modest about their contributions to the community.
“We have a lot of time to spend,” Rich said.
They’re retired, their houses are built, and he said time running food giveaways, organizing races and helping friends is better spent than watching television.
“I never put in that much thought about it,” Debby said. “It’s not a conscious thing. … It just is.”
“Everyone does something,” she added.
“We enjoy it,” Rich said.
Debby is a Saranac Lake native. Rich moved from New Jersey to attend Paul Smith’s College in 1971 — mostly so he could ski. They married in 1976 and after a few years living in New York City, moved back here to do more of what they love.
She worked for the Olympic Committee. He was a “jack of all trades” at Whiteface. But that job didn’t pay enough for them to raise a family on, so he got into corrections. He worked at numerous facilities in the North Country — Franklin, Adirondack, Gabriels — and Orleans Correctional in western New York. Rich would work two sets of back-to-back shifts with a short break in-between and make the six-hour drive back home. If the snow was too thick to drive, he’d cuddle with his beagle Randy and take nap in his back seat on the roadside.
Skiing and canoeing
The Harrisons can often be found volunteering on local ski slopes — Mount Pisgah in Saranac Lake and Whiteface in Wilmington.
Fitzgerald said they’ve spent “countless hours” working on the mountains, waking early on the weekends to set up race courses and time young skiers’ runs.
Lamb said the Pisgah Candy Bar races would not happen without the Harrisons.
The Harrisons are the main organizers of these races now. Their sons grew up competing in the races. They love watching the young skiers get more confident as the races go on throughout the year.
When Rich’s grandson calls early in the morning, asking if he can set up race gates at Pisgah, Rich doesn’t hesitate to put on some warm clothes and head on down.
Debby loves Pisgah, calling it a “gem” of Saranac Lake. Rich volunteers his time and snowmaking expertise to keep the mountain covered.
They’ve also volunteered time running the New York Ski Educational Foundation races at Whiteface, where future world class racers gather to compete locally.
“These races only happen, year after year, because volunteers set up and (get) out in the bitter cold on a race course and help,” Fitzgerald wrote.
They also help organize the 90-Miler and St. Regis Canoe Classic races. After competing in the 90-Miler for 20 years, Rich joined his wife in the volunteer effort. Debby had always been a “pit chick extraordinaire,” meeting racers on the banks with supplies and food.
Lawn Chair Ladies
Debby is a long-time member of the Lawn Chair Ladies, who perform during the Winter Carnival Gala Parade every year.
“Deb takes a lead role behind the scenes keeping the Lawn Chair Ladies organized,” Fitzgerald wrote.
She keeps them polished and prepared for their routine, a job Lamb likened to herding cats.
“We’re all type A women,” Lamb said. “We’re not easy to herd.”
She said Debby handles the group’s communications, record-keeping and accounting. On their way to an interview with the Enterprise on Feb. 22, Debby met with a Lawn Chair Lady to give her some extra decorations ahead of their second 2022 performance for a boy who was getting a Make-A-Wish parade through town later in the week.
Debby’s been involved with the Ladies for 20-something years, nearly since the group’s inception.
Rich said he’s been vacuuming glitter out of the rug for weeks and there’s still pink feathers frozen in the ice on their porch.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit this area, Debby saw a need for face masks, which were in short supply at the time, and set to work with neighbors and friends making them from sewing supplies. Crafters always have stashes of fabric, Debby explained, waiting for the day they’ll be put to use.
In the “assembly line” process of mask-making, they burned out two sewing machines.
The group made around 8,000 masks in total, which were distributed to 18 baskets at local stores and apartments around the area for anyone to take.
Other volunteering efforts
The Harrisons also volunteer to run the Methodist Church rummage sale. They helped out at St. Bernard’s School when their sons and grandsons attended. They helped run the Daffest soap box derbies.
Lamb said sometimes residents of the towns around Saranac Lake don’t have transportation to get to the Fit for Life gym, where they can work out under medical supervision at a doctor’s recommendation. She said Rich always picks people up on his way there.
“There aren’t services for things like that,” Lamb said.
Brown said Debby, who has an accounting degree, helped him file his taxes for free when he did it online for the first time.
They organize games of pickleball at local courts and are hoping the village of Saranac Lake will convert one of its tennis courts to accommodate pickleball in the future.
Lamb said Debby helps organize class reunions for graduates of the former St. Pius X High School. They were in the same graduating class, where they met and became friends in 1967.
The Harrisons are godparents to her son. Debby was the matron of honor at her wedding and Rich took wedding photos.
They volunteered with food giveaways during the pandemic, supplying food to families in Vermontville and Saranac Lake. Rich said there was a big need. Some people were out of jobs.
He remembered one day, there were dozens of leftover milk jugs, so they set up a table in Saranac Lake and handed them out to people driving past. That was fun, he said.
The two donate gifts to the Holiday Helpers every year, toys to be given to children in the area who might otherwise not receive much for Christmas. They always try to find unusual stuff, like kayaks, and focus their gifts on the older children, who often don’t get as much. They’ve already started gathering gifts for next year.
The Harrisons say they do what they do to keep the events that bring their North County “families” together going. They have their “canoe family” their “ski family” and numerous other “families” they support through their volunteering.