DETROIT LAKES, Minn. - WE Fest, the iconic country music festival that wrapped up its 35th anniversary celebration on Saturday, Aug. 5, brings thousands of visitors to the Detroit Lakes community every year during the first week of August.
The festival itself employs a cast of thousands, from backstage crew to sound and light technicians to food and beverage vendors, merchandise and ticket sellers, and much more. But what many WE Fest guests don't realize is that many of those people they might see working behind the scenes, from selling tickets for the shuttle service that constantly runs back and forth between DL and the concert site throughout the festival, to those serving food and beverages to hungry, thirsty WE Festers in the VIP Hospitality area and other venues, are actually volunteering their time and talents to help make the festival run smoothly.
Those volunteers do receive something in return - mainly in the form of cash donations to help support the nonprofit organizations they are working for, which include the local Chamber of Commerce, Boys & Girls Club, and Humane Society of the Lakes.
"It's kind of a win-win-win, for everybody," says Sue Trnka, resource development director for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Detroit Lakes and Perham. "WE Fest gets the manpower, and we get a cash donation from Townsquare Media (the company that operates WE Fest) for every hour that our volunteers work in VIP Hospitality."
In addition, the volunteers have the opportunity to earn tickets for the festival, and free on-site camping is also offered to those who don't live in the lakes area, Trnka said.
"Some of them come from as far as the Twin Cities ... they use this as their vacation," she added, noting that many of them began volunteering in VIP Hospitality when North Country Food Bank was partnering with WE Fest to provide that service, which they did up until last year, when the Boys & Girls Club took over. "They just volunteer for us now."
In all, about 150 Boys & Girls Club volunteers work in VIP Hospitality during the three days of the festival. "They work in shifts," Trnka said.
"This is my first time volunteering at WE Fest," said Connor McLeod, who has been working at the Boys & Girls Club in Detroit Lakes for the past four summers (he says this one will be his last).
"I love the Boys & Girls Club so much," he added. "I've loved every minute of working there. This (volunteering at WE Fest) is the least I can do to help them, because of all they've done for me."
Justin Skarie, a member of the Boys & Girls Club Board of Directors, was on hand Thursday to help supervise the VIP Hospitality volunteers.
"We make sure the tables are clean so we can keep moving people through here," he said. "Doing this allows us an opportunity to show our commitment to the club, and demonstrate our core values (the importance of public service, working hard to achieve goals, etc.)."
In addition, the Boys & Girls Club partners with WE Fest, Outlet Recreation, Arvig, Lakeshirts, Midwest Bank, Nereson's Chevrolet, Leighton Broadcasting and the Detroit Lakes club's "Thrift Store & More" to sponsor an annual raffle, where WE Fest campers and guests can win a "fully-loaded," 21-foot camping trailer, along with a pair of VIP box seats and camping for WE Fest 2018, a $200 gift card for camping at Minnesota state parks, a barbecue grill, sleeping bags and more.
"It's all one package that's worth about $120,000," says Trnka, noting that she has about 50 volunteers working in pairs out at the festival site, selling raffle tickets. "We started on Wednesday (Aug. 2), and we'll be selling out here every day from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., until Saturday, when we stop at 6 p.m. The drawing is at 7:30 that night."
Trnka said that her daughter Emily Moran, 14, is one of the volunteers selling tickets this year.
"I really do enjoy being out here and meeting all the people," says Moran. "It's fun just walking up to random people and asking if they want to buy a ticket... some of them are really nice."
Moran was partnered up on Thursday with adult volunteer Sue LaPlante.
"This is my first year out here as a volunteer for the Boys & Girls Club," said LaPlante. "I like to volunteer, and this is a great cause. I'm a teacher - anything I can do to help support positive activities for kids is a real plus."
Meanwhile, over at the Becker County Fairgrounds and downtown outside Norby's Department Store, Chamber of Commerce volunteers help sell tickets for the shuttle service that runs back and forth between Detroit Lakes and the WE Fest gates throughout the festival.
"The shuttle service runs for three full days, Thursday through Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 2 a.m.," says Johnston.
Shuttle drivers are provided by Anderson Bus Service, but the ticket-sellers and those who help guide WE Festers into and out of the buses are Chamber volunteers. Cost for the shuttle is $7 per day or $15 for all three days; all proceeds go to benefit Chamber programming in the community, Johnston added.
"We also run the information booth in the concert bowl," she said. "That includes a lost and found... we get a little bit of everything, including lots of wallets, ID's and cellphones. We even occasionally get a lost person (looking for their group of friends or relatives)."
Chris and Amanda Wolfe, who were manning the shuttle ticket booth at the fairgrounds on Thursday, said that they've also worked the information booth, and the most common questions they get asked is where to find the bathroom or an ATM.
"The No. 1 question used to be, 'What time is it?'" Johnston added. "But now that everyone has cellphones we don't get asked that one much anymore."
"We love the people," said Amanda Wolfe, adding that she's been a Chamber volunteer at WE Fest for the past 17-18 years since she was 14 years old.
"People who have been coming to WE Fest for years come up to us and as how we're doing," she added.
"I like going to WE Fest for the music," Chris Wolfe admitted. "I also like this community, and giving back (to it) by volunteering."
The Humane Society of the Lakes also sends dozens of volunteers out to the WE Fest site every year before the festival starts, to help set up chairs in the concert bowl, and provide beverage service inside the beer booths in the concert bowl during the festival; in return, they receive a cash donation based on the total number of volunteer hours worked. A small notice in the official program thanked WE Fest guests for their support - including the money they put in the beer booth tip jar for them.