With only 10 paid staffers, the Delaware State Fair needs its volunteers to be successful
Over the course of almost a century -- it was founded in 1919 as the Kent and Sussex County Fair -- the Delaware State Fair in Harrington has changed and grown.
It still maintains its focus on the agricultural economy of the First State. And although designed for fun and entertainment, at its core the fair is a business, one with only 10 permanent employees.
Ron Draper, president of the fair’s board of directors, said to keep things going, those folks need a lot of help.
“We would not be able to put on the Delaware State Fair if it weren’t for the number of people who volunteer their time during those 10 days,” he said.
While he’s technically in charge of everything to do with the fair, Draper himself volunteers. Marketing director Danny R. Aguilar, one of the 10 paid employees, said volunteers do everything from managing exhibit buildings and livestock shows to parking cars. Some use vacation time from their jobs to help out, while others put in time on behalf of charitable organizations. They are paid Delaware’s minimum wage, with the money going back to their groups.
“Throughout the year we train [the volunteers] to make sure they’re armed with all the knowledge and information they need and so everybody knows their roles,” he said. “We 10 people are responsible for coordinating everything and working with key personnel in each department. We kid around the office by saying once July 1 comes around, we turn over the fair to the volunteers.”
On average, about 300,000 people visit each year. Of those, about 71 percent are from Delaware. The rest come from Maryland and farther afield.
To manage such crowds, the fair needs around 1,000 additional people, including seasonal employees and about 600 more who work gratis. There are 13 different groups totaling about 370 people who are paid for their efforts.
In all, the paid volunteers work more than 4,200 hours over 10 days, Aguilar said.
Those numbers don’t include those dedicated to emergency services, such as firemen and emergency medical technicians, nor 25 state troopers on the grounds at any given time.
In addition to Aguilar, the full-time staff is general manager William DiMondi, accounting manager Jill Baylis, accountant Christina Dill, facilities manager George Scuse, rentals and concessions manager Robin Rockemann, box office manager Trish Dunlop, Aguilar’s marketing assistant Tessa McDonald and administrative personnel Rebekkah Angeles and Caitlyn Cain.
They manage the contractors, vendors, ride and health inspectors, maintenance personnel and others who play a part in the fair.
A labor of love
Like Draper, board members are unpaid. Now retired from a 36-year career at the state auditor’s office, Draper has been on the board since 1992 and was president for the past seven years. At least two members, Jack Short, vice president of the executive board, and Edgar Welch, have been on the board 45 years.
The 80 volunteer members on the board cover all aspects of agriculture in the First State. Like almost everyone else on the governing panel, Draper has a close connection to agriculture.
“My father was a dairy farmer, so I grew up on a farm,” he said. “I always would look forward to July knowing the fair would be coming.
“We’re all very active in so far as participating and being involved with the fair. With 80 members, a lot of people ask me, ‘How do you ever get anything accomplished?’ But believe it or not, while we don’t always agree on particular issues, when a decision is made all 80 members are supportive.”
That’s because everyone on the board is concerned with the ongoing success of the fair and its traditions, he said.
“It shows we want to continue that tradition of having 10 days where people can come as a family, have a good time and enjoy seeing the animals and produce that farmers grow and take care of during the year,” Draper said.
It allows those who aren’t involved in farming to see where their food comes from and the work involved in bringing it to their tables, he said.
Aguilar said in addition to the board of directors, the fair also has a junior board, made up mostly of high school or college juniors and seniors.
“They’re a neat group of individuals,” he said. “They, too, have a love and passion for the fair, and they also volunteer and donate their time for the full 10 days. They’re amazing individuals who want to learn more about what it takes to organize something like the fair.”
Fair volunteers working on behalf of groups such as Lions clubs or Boy Scouts donate their earnings back to those organizations.
Workers from the Murderkill Lions Club manage the show’s VIP parking area, said Lion Gene Heber.
“We do it to raise money,” he said. Other Lions clubs’ members drive parking shuttles and golf carts.
Each year, the Lions rely primarily on public donations and fundraisers. Money raised goes into a service account reserved for their public and community efforts.
Cash earned through volunteer work at the state fair is for the Lions’ administrative accounts. Although they may use that money as they see fit, about one-third finds its way to the service account. There, it’s used to support the annual Blue/Gold football game, Special Olympics Delaware, the Felton Little League team and food baskets at Christmas.
It also supports the Lions’ well-known vision research and glasses program, and scholarships at Lake Forest High School.
This year, the Lions plan to spend about 400 man-hours over the 10-day fair, which should bring in about $3,300. Of that, about $1,300 will go into their service account, Hebert said.
At age 79 he’s not as active as before, but Hebert enjoys his volunteer time in the fair’s parking areas.
That’s despite the weather, which can turn from sunny and pleasant to scorching hot to thunderous rain within a single eight-hour work shift.
“We have small tents that give us cover, and the folks who manage the parking run around giving us water and Gatorade,” he said. “It’s like a day at the beach except there’s no sand and you’re popping up and down a lot, scanning tickets.”
Overall, Hebert just enjoys meeting people and helping where he can.
“Occasionally, we meet a young person who hasn’t bought their parking pass and wants to buy one on the spot, using their smartphone,” he said. That’s when they find cell service isn’t always available in Delaware.
“I remember one young lady from New York City saying, ‘Where are we, in the middle of nowhere?’” he said.
One of the groups that’s volunteered longest is Del-Mar-Va Boy Scouts Troop 141 of Felton. They’ve been there more than 20 years.
Since all but two of the boys in the troop this year are less than 16 years of age, the volunteer minimum, their parents man the posts. The boys often accompany their folks while working, Scoutmaster Eric Siverson Sr. said.
The fair has proven to be Troop 141’s most important fundraiser of the year.
“It pays for all the awards and badges and camping trips and equipment, so it’s very important to us,” Siverson said. “If it weren’t for the fair, a lot of the cost would be on the parents and wouldn’t be affordable for a lot of them.”
This will be Siverson’s 10th year at the fair. He said he thinks the volunteer work goes hand in hand with the Scouts’ mission of developing leaders.
“It’s a pretty good feeling to help these boys,” he said. “Anything I can do to help them become leaders gives me a good feeling. We also have a lot of adults who don’t have boys come out and help. They know it helps the troop by filling in for shifts that aren’t covered.”
Many organizations, such as the Delaware Grange, bring in their own volunteers.
The Grange has operated its own food concession for 50 years. It has between 70 and 80 volunteers on hand each day. They begin work every morning preparing corn on the cob and their signature, secret recipe fried chicken for hundreds of hungry fairgoers. All of the food comes from Delaware farms, and cash raised by the Grange eatery supports the FFA, 4H and Delaware Agricultural Museum. The group also provides scholarships and lends a hand to people in need, even if they’re not farmers.
Places like the Dover Building, which houses exhibits ranging from homegrown vegetable and fruit displays to needlepoint, baking and quilting, are full of volunteers. They set up displays, man information booths, explain the exhibits to the curious and generally keep an eye on what’s going on.
Draper said the many volunteers are immensely important.
“We wouldn’t be able to put on the fair if it weren’t for the number of people who volunteer their time,” he said. “In our case, volunteering gives them an opportunity to be part of something that’s been in existence for 99 years. It’s a tradition, and if you talk to many Delawareans, you’ll see they look forward to going to the Delaware State Fair. It’s work that’s crucial to us.”