Wells UMC hits 25-year mark holding festival
By Woody Woodrick
Folks in Mississippi like festivals. Almost every community has a festival celebrating something, from catfish to watermelon, from blues to bluegrass.
In the Jackson area, such events come and go, but one has remained for more than two decades — WellsFest.
The first music festival staged in Jackson is sponsored by Wells Memorial United Methodist Church and this year celebrates its 25th anniversary. The event is scheduled for Sept. 27 at Jamie Fowler Boyll Park next to Smith-Wills Stadium on Lakeland Drive.
Bob Kersh, chair of this year’s event, said he thinks WellsFest has survived because of the commitment of volunteers.
“The only think I can tell you is that WellsFest is a service project from heart of Wells church to the community,” he said. “Keith (Tonkel, pastor) has asked do we want to keep going with this. It’s an intensive thing takes lot of work from a lot of people. The answer has been yes.
“I’m very excited about the art night preview and the pet parade. We're adding some new things to energize it.
“We have kept this going and it seems to be getting bigger, not smaller. I hope this year will be our largest yet.”
Tonkel, who has served at Wells for 40 years, including the last two in retirement, says the leaders of the event have kept its goal in the forefront. “I think it has grown because it’s all volunteer, and all the money has gone to the (designated) recipient,” Tonkel said. “This grew from the church’s desire to create a gift of love to the community.
“The key elements have been the church’s desire to offer something of value at no cost to the community and help from musicians who have offered the best bands by volunteering their services.”
WellsFest offers music of almost every variety including acoustic rock, blues, gospel jazz, classic party rock, rhythm and blues, Latin jazz and rock, folk blues and original indie rock.
Started in 1983, the first WellsFest was held on the campus of Millsaps College. It then moved to Riverside Park for two years before landing on Lakeland Drive where it has been since.
In addition to offering family fun to the community, WellsFest raises funds for a local non-profit organization. Each year a committee selects a community service organization as the recipient of funds raised by the festival. All money raised goes to the recipient, an amount usually in the $25,000 to $30,000 range.
This year’s recipient is New Life for Women, which helps homeless women confronting problems with alcohol and drug abuse.
Over the years, the event has grown from more than music. It offers games for children, a 5K run-walk, food, arts and crafts and silent and live auctions.
This year, the event added a new event, the WellsFest Art Night. Kersh said over the years, some folks interested in the art auctions have said they don’t want to attend an outdoor event. On Sept. 16, a reception was held at the Mississippi Craftsman Guild in Ridgeland where all of the art donated for the live and silent auctions was on display.
“This is to thank artists who have contributed over the years. A great percentage of the money raised comes from the live auction,” Kersh said. “It also brings the art inside so that if people are not interested in coming the day of WellsFest, it may be possible they can come to an inside venue.”
Another new event this year will be a pet parade. Many festival goers bring their pets with them, so the parade gives pet owners a chance to show off their dog or cat.
Kersh said chairing the event has been hard work but rewarding. “This has been one of the greatest privileges to be responsible as the chairman and to be a part of it,” he said. “It humbles me that my church asked me to do this. It has grown me closer to people in church and community, because I have talked about it this whole year. I get to share what Wells and the service work I’ve been able to do means to me.”
Tonkel said Wells members benefit from the event, too. “I think basic thing Wells gets out of it is the ministry that calls us beyond ourselves, because it takes more than we have to put it on.”
The festivities begin with an 8 a.m. with a 5-kilometer run and walk followed by a one-mile fun run, both directed by the Mississippi Track Club and Bike Rack. The start and finish are in the Smith-Wills Stadium parking lot. The festival and live music will kick off at 10 a.m. and continue until 5 p.m.,
Children's games, face painting, a rock climbing wall and other activities will be available by purchasing 25-cent tickets at the children's area entrance. Homemade desserts and coffee in the Geri Allen Coffeehouse, snow-cones, cotton candy, popcorn, nachos, hamburgers, sausage dogs, Rainbow health foods, soft drinks, McAlister's Tea and water will be sold.
Admission and parking are free.