Kid power keeps the Fair running

Caitlin Serpa and Truda Silberstein
Guarding an entrance to the main hall are Caitlin Serpa (left) and Truda Silberstein. Photos by Ralph Stewart

By Pat Waring - August 23, 2007

Kids at the Fair. The words bring to mind traditional scenes of youngsters whining for more French fries, cotton candy, and another spin on the Ferris wheel, begging Mom and Dad for more money for rides, spending hours (and small fortunes) on games of skill and chance. But every August here in West Tisbury, more than 100 youngsters take time away from rides and games and shows and food to help make the Ag Fair operate smoothly. Although it may appear that grown-ups run the Fair, without these dozens of responsible youngsters, garbed in oversized tee-shirts with "STAFF" on the back, the event could grind to a halt, or worse, turn into messy chaos.

From carrying treasured exhibits into the hall beforehand to toting trash barrels, taking tickets, and guarding the gates and exhibits, it's kids who keep the Fair on an even keel.

Diago Freidas
Diago Freidas does trash detail at the Fair.

Paid jobs doing trash and security detail are available for youngsters ages 11 and older. But younger children have an important part too, serving as runners in the Ag Hall. Several dozen helpers between the ages of 7 and 11 work under the supervision of Victoria Phillips carrying entries to their designated spots in the exhibition area. While the work is unpaid (the young people do receive Fair passes for their help) its importance is major. With hundreds of entries pouring into the hall (this year's total, 3,800, set a new record) it takes many hands to get the job done. On Wednesday afternoon and Thursday morning just before the gates open, eager young runners line up along the rope closing off the wide entrance door, standing ready to receive and deliver cakes, eggs, handicrafts, flower arrangements, vegetables and more from hopeful competitors. Extreme care is required to make sure the entries arrive for judging in perfect condition, and despite their young age, these crew members' work is conscientious and excellent.

When children are 11 years old, they enter the ranks of paid employees. Though salary is modest, the opportunity of working at the fair draws dozens of willing applicants who sign up beginning Aug. 1. For many it is a first paid job and many remain well into their teen years, helping summer after summer.

"It's a good way to be safe in a secure environment and start working and make a little money when you're 11," said Lorrie Renker, who supervises the security crew.

Although the jobs take hours away from the more frivolous pleasures of the Fair, we heard hardly any complaints. Most the workers say they can find time for fun before or after their shifts and they are happy to be helping and making money while being an important part of the Fair.

Devonte Austin and D.J. Seidman
Devonte Austin and D.J. Seidman have a sit-down job as they watch people enter and exit the main hall.

Toting the trash

In many public places trash barrels are packed, overflowing their unsightly contents onto the ground. Luckily, overflowing trashcans are never seen at the West Tisbury fairgrounds even with a record 30,380 visitors pouring in over four days this year. About 40 youthful trash collectors policed the grounds constantly, picking up rubbish that didn't make it into the barrels, emptying barrels into huge dumpsters out back. Many barrels conveniently placed around the grounds offer plenty of room for trash.

Noah Margulis, 12, of New York City and Chilmark, signed up to do trash collecting after someone asked him if he was interested when he brought in his art entries. "It's fine, it's fun, and I'm making money," he said. "You just put the trash in the can and deliver it to the dumpster." If your area is clean, he added, you can take a break.

Oak Bluffs resident Asher Cottrell, 12, and his partner Vincent Carlomagno, 12, from West Tisbury, were doing trash detail for the second year and both admitted it was not their favorite activity and is hard work. Asher said it is difficult not being able to spend more time enjoying the fair. "It's kind of dirty," added Vincent.

"It was fun, but you get a little sore at the end," said Joe Aguilar of West Tisbury after his first Fair working trash. Joe, nearly 13, was stationed in the food area, "the most busy part." Easier jobs are near the rides and the barn, he said.

Tim Mavro of Oak Bluffs has been supervisor for the trash pick-up team for five years and Kandace Sylvia has been his assistant for the past two. "I did trash since I was 10 or 11," said Tim, now nearly 20, taking a moment from final clean-up duties on Monday.

The trash staff ranged from 11 to 24 this year, with most being between 11 and 18. Tim said that for the most part the young employees are serious about doing the job well and are responsible. But he said occasional issues can arise, especially with less experienced staff.

"You just have to stay on top of them," said Kandace. "Kids will be kids."

For both trash and security teams, the hardest time to find help is Friday night when many youngsters head to the fireworks in Oak Bluffs. Both departments worked with very short staff on Friday, but somehow the jobs got done and fairgoers were none the wiser.

We found Alex Monto, 11, of Chilmark and Cape Cod, Patrick McDonough, 12, from West Tisbury, and Stowe Counsell, 12, from Oak Bluffs, outside the animal barn happily enjoying a brief break. All three boys agreed the work can be hard and tiring. "But," said Patrick, "you get paid for it."

After imagining what they would do with their paychecks, the boys said they would work again next year, but not as many shifts. "Try to sign up with your friends," advised Patrick, but then they all said that it is possible to make new friends on the job too, just as they had done. The threesome then grabbed their plastic barrels and hurried back to work.

Keeping watch

"Excuse me," said a young girl politely but firmly when I walked through the gate without showing my red hand stamp. Seeing the stamp on my belatedly extended hand she grinned and waved me through. This scene takes place again and again. Youngsters posted at the entrances and side gates must keep a close eye out to be sure everyone has a ticket, pass, or stamped hand. At the hall doors they are scrupulous, making sure visitors don't carry in food, drinks, pets, or even young children wielding potentially destructive playthings, all of which could harm the exhibits. Bare feet are forbidden too.

Daunting though it may be to stop a determined fairgoer from entering the gates or the hall, these children take their jobs seriously and are not shy about stopping people when they must. Though this may be the first job where they had to interact with the public, they are composed and gracious, even when demanding that a ticket be shown or a cold soda be left at the door.

Lorrie Renker of Rochester, N.Y., a former Island resident, comes to the Island each August to visit her mom, Barbara Cotterill of West Tisbury, and supervise the security team of about 60 young people. Not too many years ago Lorrie's own son worked full days at the Fair every year, and others did too. Now, although some youngsters work full days, many only choose a few shifts over the long weekend.

After doing the job for five years, Lorrie has learned the pitfalls and pluses. She knows how to match a child with the right job, letting the reserved ones do hall security while giving the older and more confident youths the ticket-taking jobs where they must greet, and possibly challenge, customers. Although children receive a detailed list of rules and responsibilities, Lorrie finds she must often reinforce the information. For example, children are strictly prohibited from eating on the job, but she has often had to confiscate snacks.

"I enjoy the kids and I feel bad when I have to reprimand them," Lorrie said. The favorite job, she said, is hand stamping, probably because it is more active than simply guarding a door, which can get tedious. But children must be constantly told not to play with the stamp, and often cannot resist stamping shirts, chairs, or their own or friends' arms, again and again. Along with their given jobs, youngsters sometimes get called on to catch others who have jumped the fence to get in without paying.

"They're really an integral part of the Fair," said Lorrie of the young workers. "They've been an integral part of the Fair for a lot of years."

Madeline Webster of West Tisbury sat outside the front door of the Ag Hall Saturday evening, watching fairgoers enter. After 20 minutes on the job, she reported, she'd stopped eight people trying to carry in drinks or food, but "no pets so far."

"You aren't allowed to eat when you're working so I'm kind of hungry, but it's okay," she added.

Across from her, Zoe Zeeman of Chilmark was also keeping watch. She said she took the job to make some money, and because her mom wanted her to sign up. Like other youngsters, Zoe said she had plenty of time to enjoy the fair even though she was working. "You can do both."

Justice Yennie of Edgartown, who is nearly 11, was inside the hall on Sunday, and said there was not much activity. His earlier post at the big door to the exhibit hall was busier, he said, and that people were "mostly nice about not bringing stuff in." Usually bottles of water is what they are stopped for, he said.

"The best part is you get to hold people's dogs," reported Ian Tripp, 13, guarding the side door to the hall's front room Sunday, explaining that when people discover they cannot bring their pets inside they often ask the security guard to lend a hand.

Ian, who is from West Tisbury, had been working every day, and admitted that occasionally he missed seeing certain events, "but it's not too bad."

Tyler Sowizral, 11, and his sister, Tory, 14, were working the side gate Saturday afternoon along with Jack McIsaac, 12, who lives in Washington D.C. off-season and West Tisbury in the summer.

"I like it, you get to see all different people," said Tory, who was taking tickets. She said that she was not missing the Fair because she could go enjoy herself before or after work.

All agreed that it can get boring when there are no people coming through the gate, but they were all smiling nevertheless. "I can hold your drink," Samantha Bunker, 11, politely told one Ag Hall visitor. "If you come early you can get the stamping jobs, and that's the best one," she said. "Everybody wants that job." She is determined to arrive at work very early next year so she can have her choice of jobs.

After taking a moment to stop a mother and caution her that her young son must be careful not to hit anything with his plastic sword, Samantha admitted that she would prefer the stamping job.

"I like that better because I don't want people to think I'm too bossy," she said. "I don't like people to think I'm too bossy and mean."

She added that the stamping role is more exciting, with constant activity, although workers have to be vigilant to make sure no one sneaks in without paying.

This week Samantha and all the other fair kids go back to being regular kids, making the most of the last few days of summer. But, next August they'll be back, industrious and responsible, stamping hands, collecting trash, and protecting exhibits from dripping ice cream cones and unruly pets, doing their important part to make the Fair a success.