BENNINGTON, Vt. (AP) - Behind the scenes of the food, music and fun, Bennington’s beloved Garlic Fest is a smoothly running machine, powered by 2,000-plus hours of volunteer time.
These volunteer hours encompass prep and the multi-day event itself, held the Saturday and Sunday of Labor Day weekend, with 150 volunteers taking care of parking, merchandise, info, trash, music, demonstrations and program development.
The festival - officially known as the Southern Vermont Garlic & Herb Festival - attracted nearly 14,000 people last year. Now in its 24th year, the festival involves $14,500 in sponsorship dollars and in-kind sponsorships valued at $8,200.
When Brenda Jones pulled out her Garlic Fest volunteer T-shirts Tuesday morning, she saw 10 different designs.
“So it’s been over 10 years,” said Jones, who is “team captain” of parking with fellow volunteer Tom Dailey.
“There was a huge need,” she said. “It can be an absolute nightmare if you don’t have organization, when you’re trying to park the number of cars that we park in a weekend.”
Their main goal? Getting the traffic off Route 9.
Together, Jones and Dailey oversee parking for what is usually 8,000 to 9,000 cars. They need 340 volunteer hours for parking on Saturday and Sunday, not counting their core staff of six people who work all day, both days.
The week before the festival, volunteers transform the large field just to the west of Camelot Village into a nearly 35-acre parking lot, installing fence posts and signs to show where to park.
“We’ve got everything lined off, measured off, and all the fence posts are in,” Jones said Tuesday, early in the pre-festival preparation week. They also planned to put up signs, she said.
“We have everything from row number signs to telling them where the pedestrian walkway is,” she said. “We’ve learned how to have those visitors go in the direction that we need them to go in. It’s very closely orchestrated.”
Her volunteers, she said, are very good at lining people up in the lanes, maximizing the available parking space.
Jones works Monday to Friday the week before the festival, doing setup and training volunteers. She works the event all day Saturday and Sunday, and is there for Monday’s cleanup.
“It’s an eight-day commitment,” she said. “That’s not counting all of the planning that we do throughout the entire year.”
Team captains attend meetings in the months prior to the festival, usually about once a quarter, progressing to once a month and biweekly as the event draws closer.
Organizers also carefully consider feedback from vendor and attendee surveys in their ongoing efforts to improve the festival, Jones said.
“We try to always make this a much better event year after year, and we really take all their suggestions to heart,” she said.
That effort extends to the survey itself - it was previously done on paper, but this year, surveys will be on iPads, and there will also be a QR code for people to scan to do the survey on their phones, along with electronic surveys for vendors.
“We’re trying to streamline this,” Jones said.
There have been a lot of changes to the festival over the years, but the biggest change is coming this year: top-quality Wi-Fi access, she said.
Garlic Fest has had Wi-Fi before, but was “spotty,” she said. This year, organizers are pulling out all the stops for a high-quality system.
“We wanted to have a top-shelf Wi-Fi system, so we wouldn’t have to worry about outages,” she said.
This year, volunteers are thinking even more about the quality of the event, she said.
“…We want to perfect everything that we’ve been working on,” she said. “And the number-one reason we want to is we want everything to run seamlessly, because next year is our 25th anniversary. So we’re gearing up to Garlic Fest 25.”
Jones said she’s always been a kind of person to volunteer, but she’s also quick to credit her involvement in Garlic Fest to Lindy Lynch, a key organizer and champion of the event, who died on Aug. 3 after a long battle with cancer.
“I learned a lot of this from Lindy,” she said. “We both put a lot into our community. That’s the thing. Your community is as good as the people that volunteer and really provide good experiences. That was Lindy’s thing. She just wanted to provide a really, really good experience to any visitor that came to the Bennington area.”
Peg Mulligan also traces her years of involvement in Garlic Fest back to Lynch.
“I just happened to have a conversation with Lindy, years ago,” she said. Lynch was talking about how difficult it was to find volunteers.
“I said, ‘what do you have to do?’” Mulligan recalled. “She said, basically, you just have to have a pulse.”
From that conversation came years of involvement in the festival, to Mulligan’s current position as a team captain in the area of trash, compost and recycling at Garlic Fest. Prior to that, she worked the gates for five years.
Along with Lindy Lynch’s husband, Kevin Lynch, she oversees a group of volunteers - close to 40 this year - in handling the waste generated at the festival.
“It’s not the cleanest job,” she said. She’s very fortunate, she said, that her team is “so competent and safe and enthusiastic.”
Workers staff the stations - six this year - each set up for recycling, trash and compost, helping people handle waste properly.
“We always ask people if they have bee sting allergies,” Mulligan said. “We haven’t had anyone get stung yet, but as you might imagine, there’s a fair amount of critters that like to fly around.”
Once the containers for trash, compost and recycling are full, volunteers take them over to the waste disposal area, where they’ll be picked up on Tuesday.
“There’s so much waste generated at an event, any event,” Mulligan said. “In everyday life. If we deal with waste responsibly, it takes some of the pressure off the planet. That’s the way I look at it.”
It’s a long week prior to the festival for Mulligan, who said she puts in about 4 to 5 hours a day. She also works full festival days.
And, she said, she loves it.
Just seeing the festival, its operation and people’s happiness to be there is rewarding, she said.
It speaks well of the community that it has an event like Garlic Fest, which is so well-loved and popular, she said.
“This is something that I totally enjoy every year,” she said. “It’s great to see people out, having a good time, and interacting, and having fun and chatting with each other. And getting out of the house, basically.”
Mulligan said the best people she knows are volunteers.
“I would not have done this if I didn’t have a friend who was a volunteer, and who had great experiences,” she said. “I thought, what could it hurt? I may as well try it. And I love it. It’s great interacting with other people. We’re all humans.”
Zak Hale, a field marshal at Garlic Fest, remembered meeting at Lindy Lynch’s house during the planning process, when she wasn’t well enough to go out.
“Even though she couldn’t get off the couch, Lindy was very committed and was getting us together very in advance,” he said.
Hale, who is in his second year volunteering at Garlic Fest, originally oversaw the survey process. This year, that job is mainly being handled by his sister, with his new field marshal position.
The field marshals are new this year.
At all times, six people will surround the perimeter of the festival, looking out for suspicious activity. They’ll communicate via walkie-talkies on a separate channel, and be connected directly with police.
“We’re really doing the field marshal thing because of the Gilroy Garlic Fest shooting,” Hale said, referencing a shooting in July at a garlic festival in California where three people were killed. “We’re trying to create more of a security presence and make people feel more comfortable coming to a Garlic Fest.”
Hale said he is taking the job seriously.
“Because you never know what’s going to happen,” he said.
The biggest challenge in his new position, Hale said, is finding people who want to volunteer. He’s been trying to get young professionals involved - this year, of the field marshals, most are his friends.
Hale first started volunteering after a business acquaintance, who was already a volunteer, asked if he’d like to sign up. He said yes right away.
“I just wanted to show people that there are young professionals that are willing to step up to the plate and get involved in stuff like this,” he said. “Garlic Fest brings a lot of people to Bennington, and it’s something that is definitely important for Southern Vermont.”
Kelly Clarke was brought to Garlic Fest by her friendships with other volunteers. This is her third time volunteering.
“Everyone has kind of a positive attitude,” she said. “It’s a really fun event to work for.”
Clarke manages online ticket sales and check-ins on festival days of those ticket-holders.
She puts in about 20 hours in the several months before the event for planning, and probably another 20 hours the weekend of the festival.
“Honestly, I have one of the easier jobs,” she said. “Some of the other crews do a lot more work than I do. The parking group - they’re always trying to improve it, every year. Make things go faster, make things go more efficiently.”
The most important thing about her job, she said, is getting young people, who tend to buy their tickets online, involved in the festival. She works all day both days of the festival.
“I’m not just doing my task,” she said. “I also just kind of lend a helping hand. Everyone kind of pitches in and does what’s needed.”
That’s also how Jon Larson, who takes tickets at the festival, sees his role.
“It’s really coming in with an open mind to be used in whatever capacity the festival needs, and that’s what we enjoy doing,” he said.
Larson has been volunteering with his wife, Lisa, since last year. They got involved through Matt Harrington, executive director of the Bennington Area Chamber of Commerce.
“Knowing how much work it takes to put on an event like this, I said, ‘hey, whatever you need us for, Lisa and I would love to help you out,’” he said.
Larson said he’s long been a volunteer in life, in various capacities.
“My mother and father were very active in volunteer roles as long as I can remember, and they just instilled in us kids that you’ve got to give back to a community - you can’t just take,” he said.
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