July 13, 2020

This Whatcom sports club rallied to massively improve its fields during the pandemic

The COVID-19 crisis canceled sports. But rather than simply sit this season out, one local rugby club rallied to renovate its fields. Chuckanut Bay Rugby has been regrading fields and installing a new irrigation system at its Ferndale facility since the coronavirus pandemic started. With the sport on hiatus, club leadership seized the opportunity to make substantial progress on their grand improvement plan, said Craig Brown, president of Chuckanut Bay Rugby. “Whenever you see massive change, it is quite humbling,” Brown said. “It’s humbling to see that many people in an effort to transform the facility. It is an exciting time, there’s no question about it.”

Will Wheaton, a club member assisting with the project’s design, said the club funded recent improvements with donations from more than 200 people and in-kind assistance from volunteers. “I think the rugby community in the Pacific Northwest is tight-knit enough that everyone rallies around projects and supports each other,” Wheaton said. “So we definitely benefit from that community aspect of the sport itself.”

Wheaton said the quality of the field had fallen significantly over the years, making it a liability. He said the pandemic-fueled shutdown created the perfect conditions to address the problems. The club has been playing on these fields for decades but only gained ownership in 2018, Wheaton said. Since then, the club has been developing a master plan to renovate the fields, build new facilities and construct audience seating. Wheaton said many people have volunteered but two stood out: Todd Vasey, owner of Award Construction, who donated his expertise and equipment to lead the regrading, and Greg Gandy, a fabricator at Architectural Elements, who has been leading the irrigation work.

Volunteer Greg Gandy leads the installation of a new irrigation system at the Chuckanut Bay Rugby facility in Ferndale in spring 2020 along with club member Joel Weisser.

Vasey, also the director of coaching at the club, said many felt disheartened by the cancellation of the season. He said he felt motivated to help because he loves rugby and wants to increase its popularity. “It is fantastic, especially for young people,” Vasey said. “It instills absolutely the best of what the sport is and that’s sportsmanship and respect for each other.”

He said the club has produced several prominent rugby athletes and he expects the new fields to be the envy of the Northwest. Regrading the field took about 10 days of work, Vasey said. Since then, he has continued to volunteer sporadically while Gandy has taken on the lion share of the work, he said. Gandy said he has been working on the fields for about six weeks. He said he started by helping Vasey level the fields, but he has now moved on to work on the irrigation system.

He said he works on the system in the off hours from his day job, including on the weekends. He said he felt motivated to donate so much of his time because he feels the rugby club benefits many young people, including his children. In light of the pandemic, volunteering for the rugby club has been a positive outlet, Gandy said. He added he often throws himself into his work during difficult times. “Everyone’s got their different ways of coping with this and you have a couple of options as a human being,” Gandy said. “You can either clam up, get depressed, feel sorry for yourself or you can find somewhere where you can make an impact and go attack that target as hard as you can to lighten the rest of it.” Brown said the completed and planned renovations will total a couple of million dollars, so he sees it being funded in phases. He added his organization is actively working to secure grants and build local partnerships. The undertaking will benefit the club but it also is intended to benefit the community, Brown said. He added Chuckanut Bay rugby is building relationships will local schools to develop school teams. “We are sort of the stewards of this land, but its real intent is for the community to access and participate within the game,” Brown said. “We’re intent on delivering a pretty exceptional experience, and you know that’s what’s really driving us.”

This article was originally written by Martín Bilbao for The Bellingham Herald, in July of 2020.

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