How do you make having to wear four layers of clothing to stay warm and maneuvering through soft pools of oozing, brown mud into fun? Well, you call it Cheat Fest. You call it family.
This 23rd year of the festival that celebrates the beloved river, the Cheat, is just past, and I, a somewhat long-time supporter, want to report that the last two years I’ve attended, Cheat Fest renews my faith in the organization called Friends of the Cheat. The organization, which used to have a somewhat scruffy, ragtag reputation, pulled this major feat together with determination and forethought, and this year, regardless of weather and its stupendous mud, with tremendous professional skill. No ragtag group puts this thing together. It’s more like a group of smart, flexible, class-five rapid-runners.
A new spin for 2017, the event began one day earlier. And Friday was one of those perfect, crisp, fresh spring days when wind gently rustled blooming dogwood branches and grass was still under foot . As a major donor, my eyes look a little differently at FOC than maybe a once-a-year attendee. Of course, I want to see progress, and well-considered spending of precious resources. I hope for sustainability, and thoughtful planning. I could see that everywhere, from the large, new composting toilets to even the food vendors using very cool heavy paper plates that could be composted too. How vendors came to do that wasn’t necessarily on their own—it was at the urging of Cheat Fest organizers.
Speaking of vendors, I was blown away by the artists that bring their work to sell. Their wares are really quite high quality—from indigo-dye, earth-image printed clothing, to delicately woven-wire jewelry to intricate mosaic-inlaid cutting boards—I could do a whole year of gift shopping in one fell swoop if I wanted. And feel good about it since the person you’re buying from is usually the person whose sweat and vision made the thing.
Board member Connie Miller organized a membership drive this year. I don’t know the final numbers. But speaking with attendees was so inspiring and useful from the standpoint of just spreading the word about FOCs projects. Let me tell you about some encounters when my shift came around. I’d ask people to join us Friends of the Cheat for an annual member fee of $30. Sometimes I’d discuss the remediation work FOC does, with lots of back and forth questions. (And with the help of FOC staff!) Or I’d explain the water monitoring CAPABLE program, where we regularly visit creeks to gather their baseline health. The person would say, “Wow. I always believed in you guys, and I come to this festival, but I’m so glad you talked with me. Your work is amazing. I guess I never realized the extent of what you do.” Other times I’d ask where they were from. Answers ranged from Cleveland (!) to Baltimore to Preston County. The fellow from Baltimore had been coming for 14 years! The Preston County guy had personally known the painter, Hoyt Reel, of the FOC giveaway postcard. And had been attending every year. The Cleveland couple explained it was their first year and that they knew quite an entourage in their Ohio city who love Cheat Fest and attend. One woman wanted to be the 28thmember to sign up since her birthday falls on the 28th. One man just about demanded to donate money to the stage. We made sure they got what they wanted.
But I took away the kind of thing you can’t put a price tag on. Like from a young woman who returned to be certain we’d follow up with a call so she can start monitoring the creeks (yep, I’ve got that covered!). Or when I asked one young guy if he was a member, and would he like to join, he stopped dead still. After a moment of quiet reflection, he said with reverence and awe, “I. Love. This River. I love. This river. So much. Yes. Yes, I’d really like to become a member.” He might’ve been the one who also said he was so glad someone cared about it like he did. Another memorable joiner wrote on our sign-up sheet, “Thank you. God Bless.”
FOC thanks Susan Sauter for sharing her time and talent in CAPABLE volunteering and writing! We are so grateful for her kind words…