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Plant City Observer Friday, Feb. 23, 2018 8 months ago

Berry deep traditions

The Florida Strawberry Festival relies on an undercurrent of volunteers to create a universal feeling of southern hospitality.
by: Breanne Williams Staff Writer

The Florida Strawberry Festival is consistently named one of the top fairs in the United States. While its headlining acts and strawberry-themed attractions make it a must-see event, the lifeblood of the festival lies in the heart of its 2,500-volunteer network.

When people walk through the gates of the Strawberry Festival they are greeted by an armada of smiling volunteers who all give up their time to ensure visitors are guaranteed an experience chock-full of southern hospitality and neighborly goodwill. Each of the 11 days, approximately 30 red-vested volunteers walk the grounds, aiding anyone who appears to need assistance.

The Roving Ambassador program was created seven years ago to help make the festival an easy and accessible event for everyone attending, locals and visitors alike. They are a “beacon of information,” always on the search for someone looking puzzled and ready to help whoever approaches them, Jim Scott, chairperson of the ambassador program and associate director for the board of directors, said.

“By using local volunteers we have a group of people who have grown up in Plant City and grown up around the festival,” Scott said. “They know the way around and they know where everything is. Training for us is more on the ‘nuts and bolts’ side. We teach them how to respond when someone is hurt and how to use the radios. They already know how to give advice on the festival itself.”

Each day there is a captain and co-captain of the volunteers. They are in charge of drafting a team of 30 other volunteers who all know the festival inside and out. Over the past seven years, the festival has only had one turn over, which was the result of a captain being promoted to take on other responsibilities.

Plant City residents love to show off their town, Lauren McNair, public relations and media representative for the Florida Strawberry Festival, said. Creating a feeling of universal southern hospitality isn’t difficult when you rely so heavily on people who genuinely want to be a part of the festivities.

“We always want to create a warm and friendly atmosphere for our visitors,” McNair said. “What I love and what always catches me by surprise is the fact that we even have people use their vacation time at work to volunteer at our festival. It’s neat for us how much they enjoy not just attending but also serving at the festival.”

McNair knows the ins and outs of the festival firsthand. She represented the festival years ago as its coveted Strawberry Queen and later traded her crown for a red vest when she volunteered to be a roving ambassador.

Now she works for the festival and said throughout the year its staff often goes to other fairs or conventions to compare notes and find ways to constantly improve their own event. She said whenever they share the fact that they have nearly 2,500 volunteers people are normally shocked. Others have tried and failed to replicate the experience. Often the only way they can get such a large group to man the events is by paying them.

Local employers often adopt tolerant and often even accommodating policies for festival season. Scott is an owner at Jarrett-Scott Ford and said he sees first hand the community partnership that envelops the festival each year.

Many allow their employees to take off or work different hours to give them the opportunity to help man the festival. He himself will spend days at a time on the festival grounds, though his co-chair, Jodi Stevens, helps carry the responsibility of managing the many volunteers.

Vendors will often reserve the same spots year after year, making memorizing the map a breeze for long-time attendees. Whenever something new comes to town, like this year’s revamped funnel cake stands, the ambassadors are sometimes thrown for a loop. When that happens they simply walk over with the attendee to Guest Services to consult the strawberry whiz on deck.

The information booths are manned by festival experts who also have the bonus of a three inch binder full of all the information one could possibly need. If they are stumped, they can use their walkie-talkies to radio back to the main office, where the answer is only a click away.

Southern charm and hospitable attitudes catapult an already impressive festival to record heights. Whether you’ve grown up attending or are coming for the first time, the atmosphere of the Florida Strawberry Festival is sure to make it an experience to remember.

The festival isn’t just an annual event put on by a handful of people in red coats, it’s Plant City’s shining glory. Thousands of people like McNair have grown up roaming among the agriculture halls and searching for the perfect shortcake. Now they’re uniting to make sure every attendee, including those coming for the first time, feel like they’re being welcomed home.

“There’s just something different about Plant City,” McNair said. “I don’t know if I can put a finger on what it is but there’s a spirit among people here that is just different.”

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