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Strawberry Festival the result of nearly 8,000 volunteer hours

Editor’s note: This is one in an occasional series highlighting volunteer activities in the Lebanon community.
By Sarah Brown
Lebanon Local

Ever stop to consider what it takes to put on one of the largest festivals in Oregon?
Lots and lots of volunteers.
It took 10 months, 140 volunteers and at least 7,981 volunteer hours to pull off the four-day 114th Strawberry Festival.
The festival, operated by nonprofit Strawberry Festival Association, has expanded in recent years to include live musical entertainment, a Family Land arena offering free entertainment for kids, alcohol vendors and corporate sponsorships. The SFA also brought back the junior court tradition and introduced strawberry mascots known as AJ and Ida Berry.
But apparently there’s room for more. Joe Calderon, who is stepping into the chairperson position for SFA, said there is more ground to fill to make Lebanon’s biggest event even bigger, but he is short in supply of helping hands.

Committee chairs meet in May to discuss final preparations for the upcoming event.

“If I have volunteers, we have the facility to get bigger,” he said. “We have the resources, we have the corporate sponsorships, we have everything we need to grow this festival even larger. We just need to man it with more volunteers.”
Cindy Kerby, who just completed her three-year term as SFA chair, estimated they need 20 or 30 more volunteers to help with next year’s event.
Calderon said he joined the SFA in 2018 to help the festival grow for the purpose of bringing more commerce into the area.
“That’s my challenge, to market a crowd to get in and to watch these small businesses prosper, at least for one weekend,” he said.
Now recognized statewide as an Oregon Heritage Tradition, the Strawberry Festival receives more attention and drew an estimated 22,000 visitors this year.

A few volunteers sort through banners to be hung around Cheadle Lake Park.

The SFA is operated by a board of about 40 volunteer members who serve from September through June and manage another 100 volunteers during the festival itself. Most of those who invest themselves into the community event are long-time devotees to the affair.
Jenny Sheldon, who’s volunteered for the Strawberry Festival for six years, said she comes back every year because she enjoys seeing all the people filled with excitement as they attend the event. Even former local business owners April and Josh James flew out from Texas to chair the vendors committee.
April was found preparing the grounds at Cheadle Lake Park with Bobbi Birch for vendor spaces. Birch, it should be noted, is the chair for coronation.
“Everyone is so great on the board,” April said. “When they have time, they always hop in and help in other areas.”
This was the ninth festival the James’ volunteered at, and Birch completed her 23rd year.
“I have more fun doing this than actually attending,” Birch said.

Chairs for the junior court and coronation ceremony, along with Strawberrian escorts, run the children through a dress rehearsal on Wednesday, May 31.

The community sees the end results of the work – the parades, the entertainment, Heroe’s Day, the coronation and strawberry shortcake – but there’s much more work behind the scenes they don’t see.
These volunteers drive to and fro, hang banners and signs, deliver and set up equipment, mark parking spots, ensure everyone is fed as they work from morning to night, gather sponsorships that fund the event, clean, erect fences, organize meetings and presentations of the courts, secure food and retail vendors, prepare thousands of pounds of strawberry shortcake, sell tickets, man booths, and work with and operate security services to provide a safe environment.
Jenni Grove chaired the entertainment committee, which included setting up a cooking station to feed the bands.
“Diamond Rio could not believe they received the treatment backstage that they did by a bunch of volunteers,” Calderon said.
And despite sponsorships and entry fees, the SFA “strives” to break even, financially, each year.
According to Calderon, if a profit was to be made, some of the extra funds might go to local nonprofits supported by SFA. But none of it goes to the many committed people who work to give the community a Strawberry Festival worth being proud of.
“There are no paid positions on the Strawberry Festival,” he said. “We’re all volunteers.”
As Calderon immersed himself in the SFA, he started seeing it was made up of a loyal community of skilled individuals, he said, and he was impressed with their talent and commitment.

Brandi Rose and Shyla Malloy prepare food for the music entertainers.

“As I started to engage and know them, it’s truly about their community,” he said.
He also realized the Strawberry Festival tradition has been made up of these same kind of community leaders for more than 100 years.
“When I see a group of individuals that are willing to utilize their skill set to create something, I want to be a part of that,” Calderon said.