Sandee Parke-Sytsma’s father, Roy Parke, held the same position in 1981 and 1982.
When Sandee Parke-Sytsma’s father, Roy Parke, served as the president of the Florida Strawberry Festival in 1981 and 1982, Sytsma never imagined that she would one day hold the same title.
But on Tuesday, April 11, Sytsma held her father’s gavel as she was elected the newest festival chair, —the new title for the president — a position she will have for the next two years.
While Sytsma makes history as the first female to serve as chair, she’s also the first to carry on a family legacy — it’s the first time two family members have held the same title.
“That’s special,” Sytsma said. “That is a big deal.”
Years prior to her election, fellow board members attempted to recruit Sytsma to begin the chair process — to start as an associate director and then to serve as secretary, treasurer and vice-president before her two-year term.
But Sytsma, full of respect for the fesåtival and all who serve year-round to make the 11-day event a success, needed to think about it.
“It’s a huge responsibility,” she said. “When Ron Gainey was president, he took me to lunch three times. After the third lunch, it got me thinking. I love this festival and I love our town.”
In 1995, Roy Parke told Sytsma that she had been nominated to the associate board by Terry Ballard, and had subsequently been elected.
Shortly thereafter, she found her first niche. She began to serve as the chaperone for the Florida Strawberry Festival Queen and court, organizing the girls’ appearances, mentoring them throughout their year of service and leading them through the 11-day festival. It was a position she held for 13 years before passing on the reign to current chaperones Di Lott and Donna Keel in 2015, in preparation for her current role as chair.
“When I took on queen and court, that changed my life,” Sytsma said.
Prior to becoming chaperone, Sytsma said, the girls had events but not mentorships. Her goal was to make the queen and court’s role more effective. When she was asked to take over as chaperone, she began making calls to get the girls invited to events.
“It took a while to get there,” Sytsma said. “But we earned the trust. It made me very knowledgeable in a very small area. But I didn’t know about parking and traffic and the Baby Parade.”
Things she needed to know about, she said, to be an effective leader as chair.
Following her service as an associate director, beginning the festival’s chair process takes six years. The festival has 14 associate directors and 16 directors, four of whom are chosen to serve on the executive board.
She began the chair process in 2011 as treasurer. When the time came to be nominated, Sytsma didn’t promote herself.
“I said that if I was nominated and elected, I would serve,” she said. “And I was genuinely surprised.”
The moment was monumental for both Sytsma and her mother, Helen Parke.
“She was thrilled,” Sytsma said. “She was delighted that I would be carrying on the tradition. My husband, Hank, was also happy.”
Like the directors before her, Sytsma served two years each as treasurer, secretary and vice president before being elected chair.
To prepare for what would eventually become her chair role, Sytsma gave up her chaperone position and didn’t serve on any committees for the last two years.
But she attended committee meetings. She asked questions. She observed. And, she said, she shadowed immediate past chair Dan Walden at events.
“He’s such a great mentor,” she said. “He’s been helpful, he’s brought me to events and that helped immensely. It was smooth.”
Like the committees she’s served on, Sytsma discovered the same sense of pride throughout the festival operations she observed.
“It’s amazing,” she said. “Everyone feels ownership. This is a Plant City festival. That’s why everyone is so passionate about it.”
As chair for the next two years, Sytsma said she will remain focused on continuing to look at ways to improve the festival.
“I hope we never think we’ve arrived,” she said.
Contact Emily Topper at [email protected].