Families in the Park: 19 years of good music, food, company

They came in packs to Jackson park last Thursday night -- parents hoisting coolers, lawn chairs, blankets, and children.

Sweat trickled down their faces in the intense heat as they made their way to shady spots on the grass, but there were plenty of smiles amid the sea of t-shirts and tank tops.

The crowd was gathering to hear the Paul deLay Band take to the stage as part of Hood River Community Education's Families in the Park concert series, which offers free concerts Thursday evenings during the month of August.

What began in 1983 with a puppet show, a band and audiences of 200-300 people has ballooned into some major acts and crowds of over 2,000 people, like last Thursday's audience.

"When we started, we just wanted a nice place for people to sit and watch entertainment," said Mike Schend, director of Community Education.

The series really got going in 1986 when a permanent stage was constructed in the park by Hood River Valley High School's home building class, with help from John Brennan, Charlie Schuepbach and Hood River Sand and Gravel. Monetary support was provided by the Soroptimists and Rotary, among others.

"Before we got the stage, performers were never in the same place. They'd look around wondering where they were supposed to set up," said Schend. "I'd say, 'Here's a flat spot!' They'd have to tie props to trees."

Schend is dedicated to his project -- in 19 years as master of ceremonies, he has only missed one event. The weather has also been consistent, and only twice has a concert been moved inside to the Hood River Middle School auditorium or the high school's Bowe Theater on account of rain.

"I want Families in the Park to maintain its local flavor -- that's the most important thing," said Schend. "It can get too big, since there's high quality entertainment and it's free."

In spite of the many attractions the series offers to outsiders, Schend wants to preserve an atmosphere in which visitors "can see neighbors at a comfortable social event. It's like going back to the '30s and '40s, when they had big events in the park."

And gauging by the audience feedback, Families in the Park is providing just that.

"It really should be offered all summer because it's such a wonderful opportunity for people with kids," said Chauna Ramsey as she sat on a blanket with husband David Case and children Owen, 2, and Cooper, four months.

The Flem family was situated across the grass and a little closer to the music.

"We got to almost all of the shows," said Jess Flem. "It doesn't matter who's playing or what's on tap, because my wife runs into friends and gets to chat."

What's his daughter Meghan's favorite thing about the program?

"Hanging out with her mom!" interjected Meghan's mother, Beth.

"I like coming and playing with my friends!" added her son Shelby.

Nearby, Liesl Peterson was trying to keep her 21-month-old son Taylor reigned in before the show as he danced about wildly in anticipation of the music.

"I think the series is great -- I wouldn't miss it for the world," said Peterson. "I just know it's a good band tonight."

Indeed, not everyone who showed up was familiar with deLay's status as one of the best blues harmonica players in the world.

"We're really excited to have him," said Schend. "We've been looking at his band for years, and were excited that the date worked out for him.

"What's fun about these concerts is that a lot of children get exposed to music they normally wouldn't have access to," said Schend.

Another side to Families in the Park is the fund-raising opportunities for community groups. On Thursday, volunteers from the Hood River Adult Center were busy selling bratwurst and hot dogs to the hungry crowd alongside Volunteer Network members who were serving ice cream sundaes to honor Hood River County volunteers.

"Paul deLay is very special, and there's been a steady stream of people since 5:30," said Cherie Vannet as she helped refill a mustard container. "There hasn't been a spare minute. We've been taking turns serving, and everyone's pitching in so we can survive the heat."

Their toils were worth it -- concertgoers were unfazed by the weather, too busy enjoying good music, good food, and above all, good company.

SIDEBAR

Looking towards next year, Community Education Director Mike Schend plans to bring in a very well-known group for the program's 20th anniversary, but isn't quite sure who yet.

"I don't think people understand how expensive it is," he explained. "It costs around $12,000 per year to run the series, and a major groups can cost around seven to eight thousand each."

However, Schend can breathe a little easier thanks to key support from Sprint, Mt. Hood Meadows and dozens of other local sponsors, and is careful to keep his perspective.

"More money and better entertainment doesn't necessarily mean a more quality program," he added, stressing preservation of the crowd's "wonderful relaxed attitude" that he enjoys about the event.

Three more shows remain this summer, with Shamir on Aug. 17, Lonesome Road on Aug. 24 and the White Salmon Jazz Band closing the series on Aug. 31. Fundraising dinners will be served each night prior to the music, which begins at 7 p.m.

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