The "Color Run" from the first Festival of Life in 2014. This year's 5-K will be less colorful. All that purple was fun, says organizer Diane Rumley, but: "We had to get the city to wash the streets so we wouldn't leave a mess." (Photos courtesy of Diane Rumley.)
Last winter, as my beloved friend Mary Petruska passed the last months of her life in hospice care, her brothers and their families from all over the country had gathered at her house in Wildwood for a goodbye dinner. They cooked a turkey and I brought the mashed potatoes.
As we were clearing up afterwards, I didn't think there were enough mashed potatoes left to fool with, what there were was in my container, so I put the top back on the container and took it home with me.
A day or so later, I was over there again helping Mary rustle up a meal and she kept fumbling through the refrigerator. "Didn't we have some leftover mashed potatoes?" she said.
You want to talk about fat-girl guilt! My friend was struggling for her life, all she wanted in the world was mashed potatoes--and I had stolen them! I made a solemn vow I'd make some more and bring them the next time I visited.
But the next time I came there was some reason I couldn't--maybe I'd come straight from a meeting or maybe I hadn't had time or maybe I hadn't had potatoes. Anyway I arrived mashed potatoless and consumed with remorse, and immediately began apologizing.
Mary cut me off: "Mashed potatoes?" she said. "Please!"
She opened the refrigerator and showed me: three separate containers of mashed potatoes. In the day or two since I'd been by, three separate neighbors had included them with three separate meals they'd brought her.
And that was the way it was for the rest of her illness. I visited as often as I could but I stopped worrying about food because friends and neighbors had it covered. There was one guy I'd known before mostly as a Facebook troll, and probably a jerk, but while Mary was sick he showed up every week without fail bearing her a hot home-cooked supper. (I think some of those mashed potatoes were his.)
There were other things like that, too. Once I was talking to Mary on the phone and she said she had to hang up--"There's a truck coming down the driveway with a load of firewood."
Mary died in May and I've missed her every day since. I'll remember her always. But the other thing I'll never forget is how tenderly Dade County took care of my dying friend. Looking back at that sad time, it's a beautiful bright part. Dade is a place where people look after each other.
That old-fashioned neighborliness is the heart and genesis of Dade County's Festival of Life, the fourth avatar of which will be celebrated this Saturday, April 8.
Diane Rumley (left), who with Cindy Cross is the chief organizer of the festival, explained FOL started in 2014 to help neighbor Kelly Moore, who was battling cancer. "It was Cindy's idea," she said. "She said, let's just sell some hot dogs and do something at the pavilion. Well, when we started meeting and planning, so many people wanted to help that we saw this was not a hot dog fundraiser. It had turned into a festival."
Ms. Rumley, Dade's "First Lady" --the wife of County Executive Chairman Ted Rumley--had in previous years organized Dade's Relay for Life race in conjunction with the American Cancer Society. It was a fine event for a fine organization, but raising money for a national cause didn't seem personal enough when neighbors right beside you needed help.
"The financial part is so hard, even if people have insurance," said Ms. Rumley. "There's just so much that isn't covered."
Medical bills are of course the great dread, but even regular expenses begin piling up when a person is too sick to earn a living. That's the kind of case the festival is meant to address--people with life-changing illnesses that heap financial hardships on them and their families.
"That first year we put it together in five weeks and we raised $40,000 for Kelly and her family," said Ms. Rumley. "We had the festival for her in April and I think it was September or October she passed away. But she said it was comforting to have a little peace of mind without all the financial stresses."
In 2015, there were five Dade residents who shared the proceeds of the benefit, and last year Bobby Bradford, who was recovering from a double lung transplant, was the FOL beneficiary.
This year the chosen recipients are Karen Gass and Brenda Kesler Gass. Karen Gass (left), says Ms. Rumley, has battled cancer for about seven years while raising two children. Her oldest recently graduated from the Southeastern Lineman Training Center. The younger child is still in high school.
Brenda Kesler Gass (below, with her granddaughter) is in her second year of the struggle but cancer hit her especially hard in 2016. "She missed over 80 days of work last year," said Ms. Rumley.
The 2017 Festival of Life hopes to raise enough money for these two ladies to offset that kind of financial worry, freeing them up to concentrate on their health.
If you'd like to contribute, you can do so directly by mailing checks to Dade County Festival of Life (DCFOL), P.O. Box 81, Trenton, GA 30752. FOL sought and was awarded formal nonprofit status after the first year, so your contributions are tax deductible.
Another interesting possibility is the "Kelly Moore 5-K," in Ms. Moore's memory. The event begins at 9 a.m. on Saturday at the Dade County Public Library, with registration at 8 a.m. The cost is $20. "You get a shirt and a water bottle and a little bag and several things," said Ms. Rumley. "It's usually a lot of fun."
If you're not a runner, that's perfectly OK, she said. You can walk. "That's like three-something miles," said Ms. Rumley. "It's not that hard to do."
Festivities also include musical entertainment on the Trenton town square from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. The lineup of performers includes the Davis School Chorus, Carl Towns, Captivated and many more acts. There will be a silent auction, craft vendors, food stalls, a cornhole tourney and free activities for children.
As it did last year, the Dade Library is jumping aboard with a health fair in conjunction with FOL. Festival attendees can wander into the library for free blood pressure checks and other free screenings, and Memorial Hospital's Mary Ellen Locher Mobile Mammography bus will be in the parking lot. Financial assistance is available for those who don't have insurance.
Ms. Rumley, Cindy Cross, the library staff and the other festival organizers hope Dade will turn out in force at the festival, to support neighbors in need but also to celebrate the kind of community this is, one that takes care of its own with such compassion and such generosity--to say nothing of the mashed potatoes.
The Planet closes with a quote about looking after neighbors attributed to Mother Teresa:
"Help one person at a time, and always start with the person nearest you."
The Festival of Life work crew at the second FOL, in 2015.