GTPulse: The National Cherry Festival Virtual Presidency
Written by guest columnist Christal Frost
“I was about as old as you can get to be on the Cherry Festival Queen’s court,” she laughs thinking about the week she spent as royalty. “It was so much fun. I had been going to the festival for my whole life, but being on the Queen’s Court, I saw the festival up close—I saw all the ins and outs of it and it was amazing. I was hooked. As soon as I graduated from optometry school, I came home and I got involved in the festival.”
Bekah began volunteering as an event director running the Health Shows by the Bay event.
“I work in the health industry and I thought it was a good fit. I got to be a part of the festival family, and that’s really what I wanted.”
She continued volunteering each year, adding teen activities to her roster for several years before joining the Cherry Festival Foundation Board of Directors in 2010.
Bekah may not have received the crown in 2006, but, 14 years later, Dr. Rebekah Lynch is serving as the festival’s president in one of the most tumultuous years in its history.
“It’s really strange,” she says. “I mean, it’s all virtual, we’re not having the actual festival, but I’m still busy.”
In fact, Bekah may have been busier during her presidency than those who served before her.
“We’ve had a lot of conversations about finances, about the future. We’ve made a lot of difficult decisions.”
Just as the rest of the state was beginning to grapple with increased COVID-19 infections, leadership for the National Cherry Festival was deciding whether to hold their annual Leapin’ Leprechaun 5k, scheduled for March 14.
“I spoke to our Executive Director the Thursday morning before the 5k and we were both still pretty confident that it would happen. Hours later, the Governor announced that schools were closing and Kat (National Cherry Festival Executive Director) came to my office. I talked to her in between patients and we made the decision to cancel the race.”
Days later, Governor Gretchen Whitmer would announce that bars and restaurants would close, and a week later, the state began a stay at home order that would extend through May.
“We had no idea what would happen once the executive order was issued. We saw that the state’s cases were rising, but our local numbers were staying low.”
Despite the low case numbers locally, Bekah knew that canceling was the responsible decision to make.
“This is a national festival that draws half a million people to our community. We knew we had a responsibility to our attendees, our volunteers and our community.”
As the community grappled with the absence of the National Cherry Festival, Bekah and the rest of the Foundation Board were meeting frequently to focus not only on the festival’s current financial state, but the future of the festival.
“I started the Preserving the Tradition committee for that reason. I wanted to explore a fundraising arm for the festival, which is somewhat foreign to us. Our entire budget comes from sponsorships and events. We have concert and sponsorship revenue that allows us to sustain the festival. We can get away with a bad weather day here and there, even with canceling concerts due to weather. But, when the pandemic forced us to cancel the whole festival, I knew it was important that we make a plan for the future.”
The Grower’s Program, which allows festival fans to make monthly donations, came from the Preserving the Tradition committee.
“Sustaining the festival became my focus. I feel committed to that, and I hope my legacy is this committee.”
Despite the surprising abnormalities that have occurred during her year as president, the role was always something she wanted,
“The presidency leads to a past presidency, and that’s a pretty exclusive club. As a past president, no matter where I go in the future, I will always have a connection to the festival. That’s important to me.”
Still, Bekah says missing some of the traditional activities a president enjoys is disheartening, “I would be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed to miss my festival week as president. Honestly, I will miss riding in the convertible during the parades the most, I was really excited about that convertible” she laughs, “but, we have a virtual parade this year, and I think that will be really fun to see all of the decorations on the lawns and porches of local festival fans throughout the area.”
While passing the torch to the next president is definitely bittersweet for Bekah, looking back she smiles thinking about the major life events she’s experienced during her time with festival.
“I got married, we sold a house and then bought a new house, and moved into that house, and, we had two children… I bought my optometry practice (Full Spectrum Eyecare)…that’s a lot of life to live!”
“The festival is an incredibly important part of our tourism economy. It’s been really a blessing to see that impact and to have had a small part in growing this tradition. But, I think I am ready to focus a little more on an individual impact instead of a regional impact. I am very interested in mentoring kids. I’m excited about focusing some attention on one kid at a time, maybe becoming a Big with Big Brothers Big Sisters.”
Bekah credits her husband for her newfound interest in child mentoring,
“My husband runs two schools, one in Mancelona and one in Bay City, and many of his kids need caring adults in their life. During the pandemic, while I might have been bummed about not going to my favorite restaurant, my husband and his staff were serving over 26,000 meals to kids and families who had relied on school lunches. That was just so eye opening to me.”
But, it’s Bekah’s own kids who serve as her inspiration to maintain the tradition of the festival.
“I grew up going to the festival, and my kids will grow up going to the festival, and their kids will grow up going to the festival. At least, that’s what I hope. I hope that I have done everything in my position on the Festival board to make sure the tradition continues for another 94 years.”