A family affair

Bluegrass festival offers entertainment for children and adults

Courtesy photo Bev Bender, middle right, and her daughters Michelle Houser, left, Melissa Tomaselli and Carolee Horner celebrate at the annual Pickin’ For Wishes festival at the Cresson Sportsman’s Club.

CRESSON — During the past five years, 34 Blair and Cambria county children battling critical illnesses received wishes through the Make-A-Wish Foundation with the more than $130,000 raised through a bluegrass festival,called Pickin’ For Wishes, held each August.

As bone cancer ravaged her body, 17-year-old Danielle Bender’s spirit reached out to others. She asked her family to “be good to Make-A-Wish,” said her mother Bev Bender of Loretto. Danielle, the second oldest of four girls, died 30 years ago this November. Danielle’s desire for her family to pay-it-forward came from her generousity and the gratitude she felt for receiving a once-in-a-lifetime trip to San Diego, Calif., to attend the 1987 Super Bowl.

For the Benders, the wish they were granted created great memories.

“It was the most fabulous vacation ever,” Bev recalled recently. “We learned that no matter what the circumstance, it’s important to build happy memories and carry that forward.”

Since Danielle’s death, many family members spearheaded by Bev and her oldest daughter Michelle Houser of Duncansville, have volunteered in varying capacities with Make-A-Wish, said Lindsey Herzing, regional manager of Make-A-Wish’s Greater Pennsylvania and West Virginia chapter.

“They have raised more than $130,000 and it is one of our biggest fundraisers in the region,” Herzing said. “This is a great and unique event. It is so well-organized and the whole family pitches in. Additionally, (Bev and Michelle) have remained wish-granting volunteers. So it is a full circle.”

Any person can refer a child with a critical illness for wish consideration. The family’s goal, Michelle said, is to raise funds to grant five or more wishes a year to local families. Wishes vary from trips, room make-overs, swing sets, swimming pools/spas, computers and even music lessons.

“Everyone handles grief differently,” Bev said. “For me, volunteering and doing it in memory of (Danielle) is what worked for me. Once you lose a child, life is never the same. It’s like you have to walk a mile in my shoes to understand.”

Wish children and their families are invited to attend the bluegrass festival and about 25 families usually attend, Herzing said.

“If the kids are having fun then the adults, mom and dad, are having fun,” Bev said. Children under 12 are admitted for free when with an adult, and the first 100 children under 12 receive a free festival T-shirt.

Children participate in many free activities such as face painting, fair hair (hair creatively styled and colored), sand art, paper crafts, corn hole, and even fishing in the sportsmen’s club dam.

“We make it a family event,” Michelle said. Attendance is difficult to estimate as people come and go from Thursday to Sunday. The main day is Saturday and she estimated up to 1,200 people attended last year.

Saturday features music by six bluegrass bands, food, crafts and a basket raffle.

Friday’s music begins at 5:30 p.m. with the band Tree playing until 8:30 p.m.

Michelle estimates up to 1,200 people attend on Saturday when the music of six bluegrass bands begins at 11:30 a.m. and runs to 8:30 p.m. The event is Aug. 24 through Aug. 26.

The bands performing Saturday are Mama Corn, Morgan James Band, Windy Mountain, Mountain City Grass and Marv Ashby & High Octane.

Additionally, many families “rough” camp in tents (no electric or water hookups available) or stay in campers for the weekend.

“Camping is free, but we ask people to call ahead to make sure we have enough spots,” Michelle said.

The bluegrass festival has grown each year and Michelle and Bev are grateful for the support they receive from an army of volunteers and local businesses who donate supplies and services.

“We’ve been overwhelmed with support from all our family, sponsorships from local businesses, and tons of volunteers who work the entire event,” Michelle said.

An admission ticket costs $10 in advance and $15 at the door and can be purchased at Miller’s Hunting & Fishing, Cresson, and B&S Beverage in Patton. Each ticket holder is eligible to win more than $2,500 in prizes, individual tickets to college and professional sporting events and gift cards to area businesses. The grand prize is a trip for two to Las Vegas that includes airfare, hotel and transfers.

“Never underestimate the benevolence of people,” Bev said. “It’s an honor to help Make-A-Wish. It’s like spending time with Danielle.”

Staff writer Patt Keith can be reached at 949-7030