Labor of love

September festival draws crowds for 27 years

By: Cara Latham
   FLORENCE — Since the Fountain of Life Center held its first Labor Day Festival 27 years ago as a fundraiser for its school, Life Center Academy, it has grown from a small church function to a huge celebration drawing in thousands of people and hundreds of vendor.
   Now festival planners are hoping to bring the celebration up yet another notch, according to Mary Smith, organizer of the Labor Day Festival.
   This year’s event, beginning at 8 a.m. Monday at the center on Columbus Road, will feature expanded outside children’s activities, a greater variety of foods, and even better access to the event, she said. The anticipation of the event is having organizers "praying that (Tropical Storm) Ernesto goes out to sea," she said.
   "We are going to even have a shuttle bus this year for parking," said Ms. Smith. The shuttle bus will be available to carry people from the parking area to the festival.
   New additions to the celebration include a giant slide, a moon jump, and a photo booth, where children can dress up in themes like the Wild West and take a picture.
   There will be more Hispanic foods — including tacos, nachos and Spanish rice — that will be brought outside this year. Also for the first time, people will be able to order food they can carry out with them.
   "We have visited many (other festivals) throughout the course of the year," said Ms. Smith. "We try to see what people really like and don’t like. We try to incorporate it into what we do."
   Because organizers saw that people might like the idea that they can order food in a take-home container, they decided to make it an option, she said.
   "You can stay there and eat, or come and get your food and go home and enjoy it," she said, adding that among the food options will be hoagies, and Italian, Hispanic, Polish and all-American food like french fries, funnel cakes, and desserts.
   Other events throughout the day will include pony rides, hay rides, dancing, singing, karate demonstrations, door prizes and a fishing contest from 8 to 11 a.m. The fishing contest will take place in the lake at Fountain of Life Center, where festival-goers will try to hook the most bass or the biggest bass.
   "Everybody had so much fun last year, we’re trying to make it even more fun this year," she said. "We just keep expanding and expanding on it to try to keep the interest."
   As in the past, vendors will be selling their products, ranging from handmade jewelry, to women’s and men’s clothing, perfumes and crafts at tables at the festival. One vendor will even be selling homemade dog biscuits, Ms. Smith said. This year, close to 200 vendors have purchased a spot to sell their items.
   Ms. Smith said the festival should provide a great opportunity for fellowship and bargains, as "we sell anything and everything" at reduced prices. Shoppers usually arrive at 7 a.m., even though the event does not officially start until 8 a.m.
   She said that the success of the event is a result of word-of-mouth between area residents and vendors and advertising efforts, especially over the Internet.
   "Based on last year, we had about 5,000 people (come to the festival)," she said. "We’re hoping for more than that" this year. The proceeds of the $20 vendor fee go to the school as a fundraiser.
   Ms. Smith said that her children each went to Life Center Academy for 14 years and graduated.
   "They look more forward to Labor Day than they did Christmas," she said. "It’s just too much of a fun day to miss."
   The event will end around 3 p.m., and a baptism in the lake will take place at 4 p.m., she said.
   "It’s beyond what you can imagine it’s going to be," said Ms. Smith. "It’s not just a small church function, it’s huge. There’s just a lot happening throughout the course of the day."