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by Lauren Greco, Cheat River Festival Director
The Cheat River Festival, Friends of the Cheat’s annual kick-off to summer, was started by paddlers and river stewards to raise money to restore the Cheat River’s waters polluted from a century of coal mining. It’s now a celebration of two and a half decades of successful clean up efforts, essentially a family reunion, and importantly, a fundraiser supporting continued stewardship.
This year was different. The 26th annual Cheat River Festival was cancelled in the name of public health and safety. Cheat Fest is the largest fundraiser which contributes to the annual operating budget of Friends of the Cheat (FOC), and the organization, along with so many, didn’t know how this might impact their financial stability. However, in the days after this difficult and unexpected decision, community members showed their unwavering support and continued to buy pre-sale tickets even though the festival was no longer happening. And, as the new world reality settled in, many folks reached out with ideas about how the community could still celebrate pieces of the festival from afar. The 26th Cheat Fest was going virtual.
Virtual Cheat Fest was a week-long homage to the Cheat River Festival. The festival team shared as much Cheat Fest magic as possible. Many aspects of the fest were transformed – the music, educational presentations, the 5K, silent auction, and even some fun for the kids – with hopes of sparking some joy and a sense of connection within the extended Cheat River Family.
In so many ways, the virtual festival was a true, if not a little bit unexpected, success. In terms of fundraising, the silent auction, raffle, ticket sales and t-shirt sales all exceeded our expectations. Through the membership drive, FOC welcomed 24 new and 31 renewing memberships, and had as many as 2,700 folks engage on “Festival Friday” through social media. There were over 60 runners in the Virtual 5K, many sharing heartening and funny reflections about their run. FOC would like to share a big congratulations to Lowell Cerbone of Albright, WV for winning the race! A true Cheat local; nice job Lowell! Almost all of the musicians scheduled to play the festival shared recorded sets from their homes, and dozens of song shares were sent in from the community. For a party where no one gathered, a sense of togetherness prevailed.
FOC invites anyone who didn’t participate to explore the virtual content which is all free and accessible through the website cheatfest.org. Learn about fishing on the Cheat in Garrett Richardson’s Ed Eddy talk, enjoy Joel Wolpert’s mini-movie Deep Breaths, and for those with extra time, tune in to the full seven and a half hour livestream of Saturday’s music on the Cheat River Festival Youtube channel. There are still opportunities to donate to support Friends of the Cheat, all of which are accessible through cheatfest.org.