The Florida Strawberry Festival's parking lot volunteers help guests have a positive experience even before they enter the gates. Their organizations also win big by reaping some of the parking proceeds.
Where do Florida Strawberry Festival goers get their first taste of Plant City hospitality?
It actually begins in the parking lot. Before they approach the ticket booth to buy their passes, they’re greeted by one of dozens of parking lot attendants, volunteers who have a smile on their face and eagerness to make a positive impression on guests.
The volunteers are part of a program, spearheaded more than a decade ago by Rhett Raulerson that continues today by Ron Everett, to get local churches and other organizations involved in manning the lots and then splitting the proceeds with the groups.
“Parking is the first thing people see when visitors come to the festival,” said Florida Strawberry Festival Associate Director Stephanie Shuff. “They’re the first sign of the festival and it’s a wonderful program we have with these local organizations because guests are really welcomed.”
There are several festival-owned parking lots surrounding the grounds, including the Blue, Gray and Red parking lots located on Ritter Street, off of Highway 92 and Highway 574. Parking costs $5 ($10 for vehicles bigger than 20 feet long and $15 for buses).
Every organization has its lot. Students, parents and staff from Strawberry Crest High School work the handicap parking in front of Gate 1. Plant City Church of God volunteers man a lot across from Tomlin Middle School. Lots north of the festival grounds are manned by volunteers from Plant City YMCA. Mount Zion and GracePoint volunteers work lots on the east side of the festival grounds. Lots on the west side are staffed by members of Greater New Hope Anointed Ministries, Odd One, Inc., CityPointe Church, GraceWay and Hopewell. Volunteers from Turkey Creek First Baptist Church work a lot south of the festival.
At the conclusion of the 11-day event, the festival splits the proceeds of the sales with the organizations. Last year, more than $180,000 was disbursed to 12 local organizations, who have used the funds to offer swim lessons to local youth, send kids to summer camp, purchase needed items for their ministries and more. One year, Greater New Hope Anointed Ministries sent youth on a trip to Washington D.C. to visit museums and historical sites.
Pastor PeeWee Callins recalls the trip, which was memorable for everyone who went. “Some had never been on a plane or travelled anywhere outside of their home state,” he said. “It’s a blessing to be able to receive a blessing from such an awesome organization to be a blessing to others in the community.”
This year, Shuff has been collecting photos of how the organizations used the money to put on the “Why Wall” inside the parking trailer, where volunteers check in for their shift. “When they walk in it’ll be the first thing they see,” she said. “It’s a joy to show how the money they’re working so hard to earn is benefitting them.”
During the festival, Shuff, other redcoats and volunteers can be found riding golf carts, transporting volunteers, collecting money with a dedicated police officer or helping solve issues that may arise within the lots. In addition, this year they’re also adding additional ticket booths in lots on Hwy. 92 and on the north side. “Two ticket takers will hopefully alleviate some of the traffic flow issues,” she said.
For Shuff, it’s a joy to work alongside the churches and organization every year. “These churches and organizations truly appreciate people coming in and parking to support their work,” she said. “It’s what makes our festival stand out, because of our volunteers.”
The Florida Strawberry Festival runs from Thu., Feb. 29 through Sun., Mar. 10. For more information visit flstrawberryfestival.com.