The Philadelphia Folk Festival is the oldest folk festival in the US, but the event was already having serious financial problems before the pandemic and only able to host virtual events for the past two years stressed its non-profit organizer even more. One of the event’s biggest assets and challenges has been the tradition of operating with several thousand volunteers.
I was very happy to give this festival a try again this year, though, since the vendors, the craft area volunteers and festival patrons have always welcomed me and our crafts. I set up my smaller 10 x 20 foot booth in record time with help from my long-time friend Brenda and three other women (Vicki, Nancy and Mary) who signed up to help us through VolunteerMatch.org.
One vendor friend that I particularly enjoyed seeing again after a three-year absence was Sonam who left Tibet with his parents as a young child, grew up poor in India and got lucky enough to get a visa to come to the US where he further developed the entrepreneurial skills he had needed to survive. He now sells a wide variety of beautiful clothing, jewelry and decorations from Nepal and other parts of Asia at medium and large festivals and two stores in New York state.
I particularly appreciated Sonam's blend of business savvy and conscientious philosophy. He told me that he once saw a young woman accompanied by her mother steal a bracelet in his booth. Rather than embarrass her in front of her mother, he only spoke to her when she returned alone to his booth. He told her that he had seen her take the bracelet and that while the loss of this object wouldn’t hurt his business, it would damage her soul to become a thief. On the other hand, he had no hesitation confronting an adult woman he saw stuffing a bag with new clothing from one of his outdoor racks. He asked for the items back and said he never wanted to see her again in his booth or he would cut off her festival bracelet which would banish her from the event.
The next evening, a volunteer recording festival sounds and a lively woman with a French accent coalesced at my booth near the end of the night to share some music with my guitar. They much appreciated hearing me play Song to the Vladivostok that includes me making sounds like a humpback whale and ocean waves.
I really enjoy sharing this song as a way of continuing to tweek peoples’ conscious about the plight of the whales so I took my guitar up to the camp site and signed up for a slot at an open mike. When I got on the little stage, I was brightly lit but the small audience was in total blackness. I was further unnerved when I started to play and felt that the sounds of my amplified guitar were out of tune. It was a moment for spiritual recentering so I went inward to keep playing but just focus on my voice. It didn’t feel like my finest performance, but I appreciated that several people came up to me afterward to say how much they liked my song.
During the day, it was great to greet repeat customers like biologist Sasha who like various others have bought a new bird ornament from us at four or five festivals.
I made particularly strong connections with two visitors to the booth. Since Diane retired from her career in the tech field, she has dedicated her time to outdoor adventures and volunteering. She has visited every national park in the continental US, is on track to see the others in Alaska and beyond, and has done service projects in several countries. Within ten minutes of hearing about our work in Peru, she asked about volunteering with us.
I told her about our flexible Amazon Field Volunteer program so over the three days of the festival, we spoke for almost five hours to discuss her experiences, hazardous Amazon critters and ailments, the state of outhouses, types of boats, and projects in the forests and communities she might assist us with. None of the potential challenges phased her. To firm up the placement, she would need to learn enough Spanish to reasonably converse with our partners in the field. I have had many initial conversations over the years with people who like the idea of volunteering with a project based in a native community in the Amazon, but these rarely make it to a second stage. Diane has already researched and got some needed immunizations and begun studying Spanish. I am optimistic that this connection made at a festival will lead to a productive partnership in Peru.
I first met Giselle three years ago at the last Philly Folk Festival and we connected well then. She was intellectually sharp, curious and enthusiastic about our work, bought several crafts, and discussed some ideas about doing some type of internship with us. The pandemic intervened, but she returned to our booth this year with renewed interest and candor, new ideas for how we could expand the appeal of our partners’ crafts to younger women, a pledge to become a monthly donor to our group (now done), and new offers of how she might contribute some of her new skills with financial analysis to support our organization. I look forward to cultivating the spark of collaboration I felt with Giselle to a relationship that can benefit our group and give her an opportunity to apply some of her formidable energy to a cause she believes in.
I will end this missive with a grateful shoutout to Nancy. Beyond helping us set up and break down (with additional assistance from her partner), Nancy spent four hours every day dodging the sun to help update our inventory of hundreds of designs of earrings that we are now selling at festivals and slowly getting listed on our online store.
Once again, though, it was my friend Brenda who stayed with me to the very end. While we enjoyed good weather through most of the festival, it started raining off and on just as we started breaking down the booth. This meant temporarily stashing boxes with pictures inside my car or under the trailer where they wouldn’t get wet. We finally got every bin in the trailer or car with banner and poles bungee chorded to the roof rack around 3 am, and she headed home. I did some Houdini maneuvers to change into dry clothes in the driver’s seat and drove far enough to find a motel to get some rest before driving the rest of the way home on Monday morning. Such is the life of a solo vendor.
Please enjoy other photos of numerous wonderful customers who were willing to share their smiles and new crafts for my camera.
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