The atmosphere in Kokomo was as chill and nostalgic as the live music by Rhum Academy students piped through the block. Acoustic guitars strummed to classics like John Denver’s “Country Roads” and a’ha’s “Take Me On.”
There were smiling faces, but many were masked.
The Strawberry Festival went off without a hitch after a near two-month delay due to the coronavirus pandemic. The annual festival, usually held as June’s First Friday event to open the summer, was instead held as a closing to summer fest this year.
In spite of COVID-19 and anticipated decreased attendance, there were 3,000 gallons of strawberries to make about 5,000 strawberry shortcakes. Typically the event has nearly 7,000 shortcakes.
“Every year, we sell out,” Linda Wilson, the administrative assistant at the Greater Kokomo Economic Development Alliance, said. “Almost every single year. We’re hoping we will this year too.”
Wilson had the daunting task of helping coordinate all the vendors, of which there were more than 52.
“We kept making a map of where all the vendors would be and then would have to change it and send out a new one,” she said. “One of the food trucks got a hold of me just the other day, like, ‘Hey, I can make it. I want to be there.’ And I told him, ‘Don’t worry, we’re going to find a place for you.’”
And, they did. All of the vendors were required to wear masks and spaced out to allow for social distancing.
But once the event started, everything was great.
“You’re all stressed out trying to get everything ready,” Wilson said. “Once the national anthem was over and everything got started, it was like I could take a breath. We relaxed and everything was moving.”
Susan Alexander, the downtown facilitator for the Alliance, also said the “The Star-Spangled Banner,” performed by Rhum Academy, was an emotional moment for her.
“It kind of brought tears to my eyes to hear the national anthem and everybody was so respectful, then to hear all the beautiful music from the Rhum stage, it set a really nice tone for the whole festival,” she said. “The moment was, ‘Oh, we made it.’”
Caele Pemberton, manager of marketing and communications for the Alliance, said the team worked closely with the Howard County Health Department to ensure safety for the guests, vendors, staff and volunteers, providing hand-washing stations, hand sanitizer and masks.
Alexander said that making sure everything was up to scratch kept the team on their toes.
“We just had to keep our knees bent and ready to turn whatever direction we needed to turn, we were trying to be very flexible,” she said.
The event was made possible by many volunteers, Alexander added. There were approximately 200 volunteers who helped coordinate and put the event together, and approximately 125 of those were onsite during the festival. Volunteers came from a variety of place, including the City of Kokomo and the National Honors Society.
“It’s been such a pleasant experience out here today; people are ready to see their community,” she said. “We’re all still here, we’re in this together, and we’re going to make it.”
That sentiment of community was exactly how Robin Stellhorn felt when she came to the festival.
“It’s been so nice to be out here, and really neat to see all the people and businesses,” she said. “It’s been such a relief to finally have a social experience. I think, as a community, we needed to have this.”
Stellhorn was visiting with her daughter, Brittany Siscel, and grandchildren, who were happily eating vanilla ice cream cones.
“We needed to get out here and see everyone, see that we still have this community,” Stellhorn said. “It’s a way for us to band together as a community for something really enjoyable. This is something we look forward to every single year, so I’m glad we got to have it.”