17th Annual SummerFest provides family fun and community resources
Cars are lined down the street. Helium-filled balloons inject color into the hazy, late-afternoon air. The ear-splitting sound from a bright red fire engine pierces the sky; it is followed by an onslaught of giggles, which wakes everyone in the vicinity up to the fact that this is not an actual emergency, but, rather, a fun demonstration. Adults mill around beneath a row of pop-up-tent-covered booths. A swarm of bare, gangly legs and arms teem across the jungle gym; they are still slightly pale from school days, only just concluded. The plucking of a few stringed folk instruments and the wale of a harmonica can be heard nearby, and the smell of hot dogs hangs in the air.
If you head to Thompsonville on the third Monday of June, you might be surprised to see the downtown bustling with all of this activity. Monday, June 19, will mark the 17th annual Thompsonville SummerFest, a free, family-friendly event that, on the surface, is all about fun. But beneath all of that free fun, there is a deeper, more purposeful intent—bringing valuable resources into a community that sometimes struggles with basic needs.
Shirley (Sexton) Damore is the brains—and much of the brawn—behind Thompsonville SummerFest, but she is so humble that many people do not realize it. When we ask for a photo, she grabs another organizer to stand beside her; when prizes are raffled off later in the evening, she has her husband, Rick Damore, announce the winning numbers, while she stands off to the side.
Though she does get plenty of help nowadays, Damore basically started this event from scratch back in 2000, when she served as the head of the Community Centered Work Group and they identified a summer festival as a priority.
Damore moved to the Thompsonville area from Grand Rapids in 1994, and she has been on the Human Services Collaborative since 1997. In 2000, Damore and Rosa Brenneman, the volunteer coordinator for the Department of Human Services in Benzie County at the time, coordinated the first Thompsonville SummerFest, with funding from the Community Chest, as well as the Benzie County Democrats, who have helped with set-up and tear-down every year since. When the volunteer coordinator position ended in 2002, Damore took up the event on her own after that.
“Shirley [Damore] came up with the idea for SummerFest, because she noticed that a lot of people in Thompsonville are isolated from the services that are more centered in Beulah or Honor, in the other corner of Benzie County,” says Sarah May, human services coordinator for Benzie County, who heads up the Thompsonville work group that helps with the event each year.
Filling A Community Need
In the summer time, most visitors cruising the M-115 highway on their way to/from Benzie County’s beaches more than likely completely miss the one-square-mile village in our southeast corner. Just three blocks off the main highway, with 438 souls, according to the 2014 U.S. Census estimate, Thompsonville is Benzie County’s second-largest village by population and by geography, next to Benzonia (493 people, 1.13 square miles), another drive-thru village that was once a hub of Benzie commerce more than a century ago. The greater Thompsonville area—made up of the village proper, plus Colfax and Weldon townships—is 72.5 square miles with a population of 1,640.
Sure, Crystal Mountain is located just outside of Thompsonville proper, and the four-season resort brings all kinds of people to the area: golfers in the summer, ski bunnies in the winter, conference-goers just about any time in between. And although the 1,125-acre Crystal Mountain Resort is a mini-village unto itself—with restaurants, things to do, and apparel stores, so that you never really have to leave until it is time to check out—many folks do venture out to breakfast at Rosie’s Country Cafe, or to grab ribs on Thursday nights at Geno’s Sports Bar & Grill. (Seriously, if you have not, you need to: check out the story that ran in The Betsie Current about Geno’s from 2014 at bit.ly/2cKWcjR.)
The truly adventurous head out to experience the local “night life” at the Laughing Horse Saloon or the Crystal Palace, or both. For the day-drinkers, now there is also the Iron Fish Distillery, located just over the Benzie-Manistee county line. Snowmobilers and bikers alike enjoy the trails in and around the Betsie Valley, depending on the season.
But what visitors to the T-ville area might not realize is that this tight-knit community has perhaps not benefited from the local tourist economy as much as other areas of Benzie County have.
U.S. Census data shows that, per capita, the people of the Thompsonville area are younger and poorer than many of their Benzie County neighbors—per capita income for Thompsonville is among the lowest in the state, hanging just over $12,000 per year, compared to close to $26,000 for the average Michigander. Likewise, the median household incomes for the two townships that Thomponsville straddles are among the lowest in Benzie County—$37,740 for Colfax and $31,005 for Weldon, compared to $51,939 nationally.
The median age for Thompsonville was 38.5 in 2010; 41.5 in Colfax Township, and 46.5 in Weldon Township, with only Gilmore, Almira, Inland, Homestead, and Joyfield ticking in at this age or younger (38, 39, 40, 42.5, 45, respectively). In Colfax and Weldon townships, there are around 140 and 110 children respectively, or about 21 percent of the population, and more than 20 percent of households are those with single parents.
Valuable Resources… and Fun!
“More than 500 people came the first year,” Damore says. “We ran out of food.”
There are up years and down years, but about 300 people consistently attend SummerFest each year—everyone from the very young to the very old. The favorite part of the evening is the raffle, when everything from potted basil plants to Nerf guns to brand new children’s bikes are given to attendees.
Damore spends countless hours every year raising money to pay for the event and the prizes through grants and sponsorships that she seeks out, in addition to coordinating more than a dozen volunteers—including musicians—and two-dozen local organizations that partake in the evening’s events.
Last year, there were 23 exhibitors, both inside and outside the Thompsonville Village Hall, including the local Fire & Rescue, the Benzie Bus, Grow Benzie/Hive Minded, Michigan Works, the Community Action Agency, the Benzie County Council on Aging, and the Betsie Valley District Library. This year, Damore is excited that Oxo, Benzie County’s new K-9 unit dog, will be attending.
“Except for one year, the dog handler has always come to SummerFest,” Damore says. “I think it’s great to have so many groups participating year after year.”
The event includes free food and refreshments, children’s activities like putt-putt golf and face-painting, and information booths of the participating organizations.
“It’s a great way to reach that community—in a fun way, and with lots of give-aways,” continues Sarah May of the Human Services Collaborative, which includes all of the organizations and agencies that service Benzie County, from BACN to Early Head Start to Northwest Michigan Health Services. “All the representatives [from these various organizations and agencies] go there, and the community gets all of this great info on how to access these resources. It’s a fun summer atmosphere.
Angela Johnson, a mother and Thompsonville resident, has volunteered to run the kids’ games for the past three years.
“I like to volunteer for the kids, to see them outside playing,” she says. “Seeing smiling faces, watching families spend time together. Watching a diverse group of people bring informative information—you have nearly every group/organization from Benzie County that shows up. It’s just a fun event.”
This year, the Thompsonville SummerFest will take place on Monday, June 19, from 6-9 p.m. at the Thompsonville Village Hall at 14714 Lincoln Avenue. The children’s door-prize drawing will begin at 7:15 p.m. For more information, call 231-920-1789.
Photo Caption: Sarah May (left), human services coordinator for Benzie County, with Shirley Damore (right), mother of the Thompsonville SummerFest, a fun, family-friendly, annual event that brings valuable resources into the community. Photo by Aubrey Ann Parker.