By Erika Webb
Organizers of the Orange City Blue Spring Manatee Festival are not prone to complacency. That could be why, despite a persistently-lagging economy, the annual event just grows and grows.
The 2014 Manatee Fest will be 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Jan. 25 and 26 at Valentine Park in Orange City.
Entertainment will include Bubba Whoopass Wilson and the Whoopoffs -- with former Monsters in the Morning radio personality and Central Florida area musician Jeff Howell; musician Karegan Wodz; The Propellors and the ever popular Disc-Connected K9's World Famous Frisbee Dogs.
As always the Central Florida Zoo will be on hand with educational displays, presentations and animal ambassadors. There will be arts and crafts, face painting, shows and rides, children's finger painting by V.I.P.S., walk-on-water balls, sand sculpting and pet adoptions through the SPCA.
Food Chair Suzy Edwards said there will be around 10 food vendors selling Greek fare, Mongolian stir-fry, seafood, barbeque, hot dogs, hamburgers, sausages, cheese steak subs, kettle corn and funnel cakes.
There will be raffles, including one for a large-screen television; a beer tent; and commemorative T-shirts will be sold.
The number of booths featuring area businesses showcasing goods and demonstrating services grows each year as well.
Manatee festival president Jeff Allebach said the chiropractors always are a hit.
"You can bounce around the manatee festival and get your whole body massaged for free," Mr. Allebach said, laughing.
Arts and Crafts Chair Diana Ford said this year there will be two chiropractors and a rehabilitation center, "a lot of jewelry," various crafts, hats, manatee memorabilia, homemade Orange City jams and jellies, homemade beef jerky, glass work, pottery and wildlife paintings.
"We're up to about 57 (booth reservations) with more pouring in," Ms. Ford said in a phone interview a week before the event.
Twenty-nine years of practice might explain how a committee of eight is able to put together an event that draws crowds approaching 10,000.
Mr. Allebach -- a 20-year event committee veteran -- said attendance has "exploded" in recent years.
"For the past three years, we've had record-breaking numbers of people and manatees," Mr. Allebach said.
The economy has been the festival's friend.
"Before '08 and '09, people could afford to go to (theme parks) to see manatees," he said. "We're cheaper. And the park has done great things to increase their visibility, which has increased ours."
Nearly half the event's attendees take advantage of the comfortable bus rides to nearby Blue Spring State Park to view the large loafers.
"There are four 55-passenger motor coaches that go back and forth continuously," Mr. Allebach said.
It's fun with a very dedicated purpose. One dollar for each park goer is donated to the Friends of Blue Spring State Park.
Each year the festival raises money for numerous other community causes and local citizens. Proceeds fund educational scholarships and help Greater Orange City organizations, including the Orange City DARE Program. Other recipients include Adopt-A-Manatee, Florida Hospital Cancer Center, Scouts and Police Explorers.
Two years ago Danny and Amanda Brandt of Orange City were out of work and caring for their one-year old son, Blake, who had been diagnosed with leukemia.
Mr. Brandt said funds donated by the festival and by Lawrence Frederick of Disc-Connected K9's Frisbee Dogs helped the family survive.
"They gave us funds and we used those funds for basically everyday living and to continue as if we were working, in a sense, while we really needed it," Mr. Brandt said in a telephone interview.
Since then, the couple has found employment and young Blake, 3, is undergoing 14 months of maintenance treatment.
Mr. Brandt now works as a community relation coordinator for One Blood. His job on the Big Red Bus takes him throughout Southwest, and parts of Southeast, Volusia.
He is delighted to be able to give back by educating the public on how vitally important blood donations are to lifesaving efforts.
Mr. Brandt should know.
"We are very thankful," he said of the donations, which helped the family reach the other side of tragedy.
Manatee Cove Elementary School in Orange City benefited to the tune of $2,700 for much needed books in 2013.
House of Hope and Restoration in Orange City is another organization that has gained from festival proceeds.
HHR is an outreach program established in 2004 exclusively to serve the needs of local communities. HHR was initiated in Founder Marvyn Sedeno's home in Deltona and is expanding to include all of Volusia and Flagler County, according to HHR's website.
Operating out of garages and small warehouses, the group collects clothes, discarded furniture and household items. It even helps redecorate homes.
"HHR's main goal is to improve the quality of life for families that need a helping hand," the website states.
Pastor Sedeno said HHR and the festival committee became acquainted in 2011.
"They've been amazing," he said. "They came here and asked if we'd help with the event. It's been almost like family."
HHR runs an independent orphanage and helps at-risk, homeless kids learn skills and character building through service to others.
The group went to New York City to help with the Hurricane Sandy relief effort. Festival funding provided that opportunity for local kids to be of service outside of their community.
"Manatee donated $600 to the cleanup effort on a house for the kids," Pastor Sedeno said.
His organization partners with Home Depot.
"They told us about a lady who needed a new roof," Pastor Sedeno said. "The manatee festival provided the funds. Home Depot gave a huge discount for the lady to afford to get the roof done properly."
Home Depot staff trained HHR volunteers who provided the labor, he said.
The young people, wearing military uniforms, assist at the festival, setting up vendor tents, greeting attendees and facilitating parking.
"HHR would like the community to know that the manatee festival and staff has integrity," Pastor Sedeno said. "When they say money goes back into the community, they mean it 110 percent."
He said 23 kids had Christmas presents thanks to the festival.
"They didn't hesitate," he said. "When we called them they came in and dropped off a check."
For information about the Annual Orange City Blue Springs Manatee Festival, call (386) 775-9224 or visit themanateefestival.com.