FORT SMITH – The return of the Immaculate Conception festival is another sign that things are getting back to normal.
The church parking lots and parish center were filled with parishioners and local residents May 7-8, enjoying live music, games and bingo, browsing through the silent auction and watching their children play games and get their faces painted.
The festival, usually the result of five months of planning and manpower, was put together in one month.
“Due to the pandemic, we only had an online silent auction last year,” Monica Dickerson, festival chairwoman, said. “We considered postponing 2020’s festival to the fall, but the parish was still operating under many restrictions. Father John (Antony, pastor) said he didn’t feel like we could have the festival until he had a full open church. Bishop Taylor, who lifted restrictions in April, made this festival possible.”
Dickerson and her team of Immaculate Conception School parents relied on years of experience and community contacts to put the event together quickly. With an online silent auction of more than 600 donated items, they decided to have a hybrid auction.
“The online auction worked really well for us last year,” Dickerson said. “This year, community businesses were so generous. It seemed as if every restaurant and business we approached offered us gifts and certificates because they were so happy everything was finally opening up.”
They distributed raffle tickets to the students with a special incentive, a tuition discount to the biggest seller, and a portion of textbook fees paid to the runner-up, raising more than $9,000 the week before the festival. School parents signed up for their mandatory shifts.
“We had 260 shifts to fill, but only a few families expressed health concerns,” Dickerson said. “We also had some Trinity (Junior High) students volunteer for community service hours and Target, which has an employee volunteer program, offered to help if we needed it.”
Their planning took COVID-19 into consideration. Laws Drug set up a free vaccination clinic at the entrance to the parish center. Organizers eliminated high-contact games like football, basketball and baseball tosses. Only two children were allowed in the bounce houses at a time, and they borrowed foggers from the school to sanitize the inflatables regularly. Food servers were required to wear masks and gloves, and the committee provided gloves and hand sanitizer at every booth. Masks were required in the silent auction section but were optional outdoors.
For the first time in years, a bingo tent was set up, this time with hand sanitizer to spray the cards. Deacon Greg Pair called bingo all day Saturday and announced that regular church bingo nights would resume May 10.
Fort Smith’s new Garrison Avenue entertainment district, extending from the street on the church’s western border to the riverfront, added a new challenge for festival planners. Local law allows people to carry open containers of alcohol in the streets of the district. The Steel Horse Rally, a charity motorcycle event, was held in the entertainment district that weekend.
“We have a great relationship with the rally organizers,” Dickerson said. “Dennis Snow, their chairperson, has a radio show and gave a shout-out advertising our festival. We have always had bikers visit and have never had a problem. But since we border the entertainment district, we have to make sure that no one carries an open container of alcohol in or out of our festival, and we hired five police officers to help us with security.”
The goal is to raise $100,000 for the school’s scholarship fund. Most of the profit will come from the raffle and silent auction, both of which could have been held without a festival. However, organizers said they were happy to see the parish community together, mobilizing hundreds of volunteers and visitors to support the school.
“People really need to get together right now,” Dickerson said. “For the past year we’ve been unable to participate in our normal parish activities or attend our children’s sports events, but we are slowly starting to open up.”
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