Two generals & an army of volunteers script a successful Immaculate Conception Church Strawberry Festival

News photos by Arundhati Das (L to R) Kim Geller shares a light moment with her mother Kathy Rollinson as Vickie Barletta looks on at the 2014 Immaculate Conception Strawberry Festival.
News photos by Arundhati Das Childhood friends Darlene Light (L) and Vickie Barletta share memories from as far back as the 1970s when the women parishioners of the church first started the event as a one-day affair.

It takes energy, effort and enthusiasm to host a successful strawberry festival. For a three-day extravaganza—complete with homemade food, rides for the children, games for all ages, live music, fireworks by the acclaimed International Fireworks and, yes, delicious strawberry desserts—it would take nothing short of an army imbibing all three attributes, and then some, to score a hit.

Tom Doyle and Mike Bobb should know. Every year since 1998, the duo has summoned and supervised a veritable army of organizers, managers, volunteers and parishioners to work tirelessly and in tandem to offer the community a sumptuous spread under the aegis of the Immaculate Conception Church, Douglassville.

“The festival had stopped in the late 70s, early 80s, prior to which it was a one-day event. In June 1998, we revived it and converted it into a three-day event. People that ran it years ago wanted it back and the then pastor gave us permission to go ahead,” recalls Tom, who, together with Mike, was part of the construction crew that built the church from 2001 to 2003 in its current Douglassville address.

“Today, we purchase the food. We have volunteers to run the food tents, the beer tents, the games. Cooking is done by a lot of people, including my wife.”

Hot, plentiful and varied, and the undisputed crowd-puller, food is front and center at the festival. In total agreement, Kathy Rollinson spelled out the reason she was there.

“My other daughter has to work late tonight and she said to me: ‘Would you go over and get a platter of the Filipino food because I really liked it last year.’ So here we are.” And Filipino cuisine was the star for Thursday. Friday was for Polish, Saturday for Italian.

Incredibly, it had all started off with a spaghetti night. For Vickie Barletta, memory fails but the memories persist. “I forget the year, but it was many, many, many years ago at the old church, the women had spaghetti dinners at the YMCA and the men would come in from their second shift and quickly eat and go. Then as the women passed away one by one, they left their recipes and guidelines, and then when their next generation got older and retired, the younger people took over and they are now in charge,” she scans the bustling scene with her hand, the twinkle in her eye belying her years. “Today, even though my legs won’t allow me to stand for long, I help in the kitchen.”

And like the food, help is never in short supply. “We have great volunteers and we wouldn’t have been able to do without them. And this year, a lot of teenagers have come in to help, a lot of them my son’s friends,” affirms Susan Guadagno, a core member of the organizing team and a key functionary for 12 years. Pastor John Mccann agrees: “We have so many parishioners who have volunteered to run the booths. The church today has 1,600 families who attend our services and events. Most of them are native of Berks County, particularly from Birdsboro. And we are always making improvements to the parish and our facilities.”

“We are like one big family,” affirms Susan, “Through all the craziness and the hard work, we are all in it together. I am in charge of the food service. I don’t cook it but I serve it.”

Delectable dishes, washed down with frothy pints from the Beer Garden, make certain spirits never flag and the grounds encompassing the imposing structure of the church echo with the happy sounds of a satiated crowd that swirled between the food stalls and gaming centers. “This year we have the Speed Pitch and the winner gets tickets to the Reading Phillies,” says Jason Mariano, the brain behind the games together with Jacob Coatney and John Simon. “Two of the games that are the largest draw are the one in which we give away a gold fish and the other in which the winner walks away with a two liter bottle of soda.”

To hear Tom Doyle say it, all it takes to host a successful event of this scale and scope is two minds thinking like one and taking decisive action to achieve what a multitude of decision-makers would only muddle. “Too many make too many decisions. So with just the two of us we make all the decisions,” he points to Mike Bobb, who quips in: “He is the brain and I am the muscle. So I try to carry out all the plans and execute the ideas coming from him. And I make sure he does not make any mistakes. I have his back.” On cue, Tom agrees: “He’s got my back.”

So has Jolene, Tom’s wife and at the helm of the kitchen for 17 years. “Today, I made roast beef, roast pork, meatballs and the sauces—items that will feature on all the three days of the festival together with the special cuisines.”

Complementing Jolene’s efforts on Thursday was Isabelita Santos and her team comprising her mother Norma Crespo and daughter Erin. “In 2006, the church had Monsignor Voltaire Rono from the Philippines who introduced egg rolls at the festival. When he left in 2010, we carried forward the tradition,” says Isabelita, serving up a slice of history. Today’s platter of Chicken Adobo (chicken cooked in vinegar and soy sauce with garlic, onions, pepper corn and bay leaf), Pancit (Filipino noodles sautéed vegetables and chicken) served with white rice and an egg roll “are all made from scratch in our kitchen.”

“In the morning, we have a crew that comes in and cuts strawberries. Older women who want to help. And these are the women who have been here for 17 years and Rose White is their leader,” Jolene readily acknowledges. “We work together as a team and we all give up on a week’s vacation to be here through Sunday night. The core group is involved in every activity from interviewing volunteers to auditioning bands. It is a year-long operation. And if one of us is missing, it’s like a puzzle piece is missing. We have it down to a science.”

A science that’s evidently proving to be a huge success if the happy chatter and jollity all around are any indication. Tucking into the Filipino fare, Kim Geller says with relish: “My dad goes to this church and this is my second year to this event. All we do is eat and gossip, so if there is food this delicious we are happy.”