Organizers of summer festivals adapting to times

Patrick Varine
| Thursday, July 11, 2013, 11:20 a.m.

Christine Polaski of Penn Hills captured the sentiment that many people share for local summer festivals.

“We love it. It's a lot of work for one day, but it's worth it,” she said.

Polaski is on the organizing committee for Penn Hills Unity in the Community, held every year at Linton Middle School until it fell by the wayside due to fighting and vandalism in 2007.

With encouragement from Penn Hills School District Superintendent Thomas Washington, Unity in Community was restarted in 2011. This year's event is set for 4 to 8 p.m. Aug. 8 at Penn Hills Park.

The Penn Hills event is one of dozens across the region that reinforce town traditions, even as leaders sometimes struggle for volunteer participation and funding. In some communities, elected officials help to host events and provide public money.

A lot of hard work

Leetsdale officials are planning a Fourth of July parade and celebration, while also looking at what they can do to keep the event going strong in the future.

“The mayor is involved, the police and fire departments are involved, and we're looking to broaden things out to include more people,” said Leetsdale Council President Joe McGurk, one of the event organizers.

“But we're trying to reach out and get more volunteers, first and foremost. We beat up the same five people, myself included, each year,” he said.

McGurk said officials are working with residents who have expertise in specific areas, such as obtaining corporate sponsorships and using social media to help boost interest in the Fourth of July festivities.

In Delmont, Mayor Gill Sanchez wants to bring back the town's Delmont Days after an absence of about four years, but volunteers have been hard to come by.

“To me, it should be something that's organized and done by the community,” Sanchez said.

Sanchez said he had no trouble soliciting suggestions for what to include in the festival, “but you have to have the staff to implement it.”

Sanchez said he hasn't heard Delmont residents discuss Delmont Days for a couple years, “but we have other things like Apples and Art, and Salem Crossroads, that do seem to bring the community together.”

In Dormont, residents will mark the 100th anniversary of Dormont Day on July 4, but organizing committee chairwoman Diane Veri said the eight-member group, too, could use new volunteers.

Some people on the “around-the-kitchen-table type of committee” have been octogenarians, Veri said.

“My mother is on the committee, and she's 83 … we've had a very strong committee, and most of us have been on it for at least 20 years or better … but we're all in our 50s or older.”

Towns take charge

Finding volunteers isn't an issue in communities where municipal employees organize summer festivals.

North Huntingdon will host its annual Summer Celebration on Aug. 23 and 24 at Oak Hollow Park, led by the town's parks and recreation department.

“We're very fortunate that we've been able to put this festival on for a number of years,” said Dan Miller, parks and recreation director.

Volunteer efforts come from the township's recreation advisory board, and staff from Miller's department are paid for their work at the festival

In Shaler, the annual Community Day on July 4 is hosted by the township, administrative assistant Sherry Martin said. Vendors sell food at the event. The township brings in inflatables for children and tries to find sponsors to pay for them.

Because many celebrations take place around July 4, fireworks are a mainstay.

Leetsdale and North Huntingdon use Zambelli Fireworks Internationale. Other companies also supply pyrotechnics that light up the night.

Murrysville officials save money at their annual Murrysville Community Day by hiring local certified pyrotechnicians to handle their fireworks displays. Still, Recreation Director Rob Hunter Jr. said they were dealing with the same lack of volunteers as many other towns at one time.

“When I first came to Murrysville (in 2008), the numbers were down and things were a little stale,” he said.

“We said, ‘We'll see if the community wants to have its own community day.' We have zero dollars in our budget for this, and we went around to local businesses and tried to raise between $20,000 and $22,000. Fortunately, we've been able to do that.”

The heart of a community

Community festivals are billed as a chance for local residents to celebrate their identity.

But now that cell phones, email and social media have broadened individuals' “communities,” do such festivals still hold such a cherished place?

“Everything is much more global now,” Veri said. “Kids today have so many more places to be that some of these community events just don't draw as well.”

Veri, a lifelong Dormont resident, said many residents opt to stay rather than moving away and this has helped to sustain Dormont Day, along with help from nonprofits and community groups.

In Penn Hills, Unity in the Community organizers plan the event through the school district, which is able to draw from a large pool of potential volunteers.

Still, Polaski acknowledged that recruiting people is a challenge.

“Especially in the summer: students are away, teachers are away and we tend to rely on the fall sports groups, because they're moving all summer long,” she said.

The effort, many say, is worth it.

“We're determined to continue, and it will be easier with a good array of volunteers,” McGurk said.

Patrick Varine is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7845 or

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