Volunteers make the Mushroom Festival possible
● By Steven Hoffman
On each morning of the Mushroom Festival, students from Kennett High School can be seen carrying large bags of ice to the vendors who are setting up along State Street. Other student volunteers help those vendors unload their goods from their cars and carry them to the stands set up along the street fair. Students help sell the admission wristbands and staff the refrigerated trucks where fresh mushrooms are sold.
It takes an army of volunteers to plan and stage the Mushroom Festival each year, and high school students play an important part during the days of the event, when there might be as many as 350 or 400 volunteers working to ensure that visitors have a good time.
“There are many ways that Kennett High School students get involved,” explained Joe O’Sullivan, a teacher at the school who works with Lori Gebert to coordinate the student volunteers. “We take great pride in being able to support the effort.”
Gebert, a current board member of the Mushroom Festival, Inc., has volunteered at the festival in various capacities for more than ten years. One of her primary duties for the 2017 Mushroom Festival is coordinating the activities of the student volunteers.
Some of the students from Kennett High School who volunteer are members of the school’s Walk In kNowledge (WIN) program, which provides after-school studying opportunities for students. It is from this group that volunteer team leaders are selected to oversee the other student volunteers.
O’Sullivan said that the WIN leaders usually spend about ten hours planning and organizing the other volunteers before the festival even starts, figuring out what jobs will need to be accomplished.
O’Sullivan usually arrives at around 6 a.m. on the first morning of the festival, and the student leaders show up shortly thereafter to start handling the many tasks. One important early job is helping the vendors to bring their wares to the stands where they are setting up. This allows the traffic to keep moving in town. According to O’Sullivan, it used to be a major issue at one time as vendors would have to line up their cars to unload their wares, creating a traffic jam. Now, with the help of an army of students, the task gets accomplished much more smoothly.
“It’s a good experience for the kids. We always have more pupils show up to work than signed up,” O’Sullivan explained. “Friends bring others, and the manpower is never wasted.”
During the course of the weekend, students will help set up tables and chairs for performance areas, take care of the recycling and trash collections, and run errands whenever they are needed. One of the more labor-intensive activities is delivering the 40-pound bags of ice to vendors.
“Vendors throughout town have contracted that service with the organizers,” O’Sullivan explained. “The hotter the day, the faster the ice melts―usually in waves. In some years, the calls are fast and furious. Teams cycle throughout the festival area and pick up trash or provide directions to the town’s guests. Shifts of students are available for whatever odd job happens to pop up―and there typically is always a need for something.”
Students also assist with the effort to make the festival’s announcements in English and Spanish so that all the attendees of the event can understand them.
Occasionally, the volunteers’ tasks might be a little extra demanding. After a big rainstorm on the Saturday afternoon of the 2016 event, high school students were called on to help drain the excess water from the inflatable slides and the inflatable bounce houses.
“It was cold and the water was colder, but it was a necessary function for the attendees to be able to have a good experience,” O’Sullivan explained.
On Sunday morning of the festival, high school students will do laps around the borough, picking up any trash or debris that might have been left during the first day. Soon, it’s time to close out the festival.
O’Sullivan explained, “As vendors begin to pack up, our students are on deck. Between the hours of 4 p.m. and 7 p.m., our town goes back to normal. Everything that was put out on Saturday is broken down on Sunday. Teams of kids don work gloves and do a massive sweep of town, from Willow to Garfield Streets, to pick up debris. The barricades are cleared by our police and Kennett returns to normal awaiting the next festival.”
In addition to the learning experience, many of the students who help out at the festival are able to satisfy a significant portion of the graduation project that mandates at least 40 hours of community service.
According to O’Sullivan, the students who help out during the festival have had nothing but positive experiences. It’s a good way to showcase how good the students in Kennett Square are.
O’Sullivan grew up in town and is very proud of the Kennett High School students―and the town.
Esbeiry Cordova, a 2015 Kennett High School graduate who is now a rising junior at Indiana University of Pennsylvania majoring in biology, is a good illustration of the kind of leaders that WIN provides year in and year out, according to O' Sullivan. Cordova served as a volunteer coordinator for two years, organizing and overseeing the student volunteers who helped out at the Mushroom Festival.
“I think it was a fantastic experience,” Cordova said. “I learned a lot about working with others and what it entails to take on a leadership role.”
Like O'Sullivan, Cordova really liked the fact that students from Kennett High School were involved with the effort to make announcements at the festival in both English and Spanish. Cordova said that making the bilingual announcements was a good way of saying to the Hispanic community that, “It's your community, too.”
According to O'Sullivan, the involvement with the Mushroom Festival helps the students feel connected to the community, and also makes the community more aware of the good students who are growing up in Kennett Square.
“The Mushroom Festival has been a fantastic venue for us to showcase ‘our kids’ to both the Kennett community and visitors alike,” O’Sullivan said. “By the end of the festival, we typically have about 200 to 300 students who work at least one shift for the Operations Committee. Our leadership team is there for the entire event―as Lori's right hand people―and they log approximately 30 hours each over the weekend. The Kennett High School's partnership with the Mushroom Festival is one that I'm proud to facilitate. In many ways, it showcases what is best about my hometown.”
The festival also raises a significant amount of money each year to support nonprofit organizations in the community. The Walk In kNowledge program is one of the ones that has received grant funding from the Mushroom Festival. The funding is utilized to support the program’s activities, including arranging college visits for students.
The students’ work during the festival makes a real difference to the Kennett Square community because it helps make the town’s most popular event a success.
“It’s a great festival for Kennett Square,” Gebert said. “It brings in a lot of people to show off our town a little bit. It’s a really nice event.”