With his love of baking and hands-on helping, a love for his church, and a family tree that makes him a great-grandson of a founder of North Guilford Congregational Church (NGCC) Country Fair, Christopher Hollenbeck has many of the ideal ingredients desired in a volunteer who’ll help promote the fair and carry on its traditions. As a young man on the autism spectrum who earns top grades despite a speech/learning disability, Christopher’s actions on behalf of NGCC make a statement for the power of positivity and welcoming diversity to enhance any community.
This year’s 54th annual NGCC Country Fair and Auction takes place Saturday, Aug. 20 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the iconic white church atop Meeting House Hill (159 Ledge Hill Road). Admission, as always, is free. The fair features a live auction, a white elephant sale, live music, an antique tractor show, food (including famed NGCC peach shortcake), children’s games and rides, farm animals, basket raffles, a silent auction, quilt show, plant sale, linens sale, handcrafts, vintage tools, toy sale, gifts and vintage tools and a book sale among its many offerings.
As a member of the Hollenbeck/Sorensen family, Christopher is part of a long line of family volunteers who have been pitching in to help make the fair pitch-perfect since it was co-founded by his great-grandmother in 1962. From bringing the family sheep and his own chickens to help build the fair’s Farm Animal exhibit, to helping his grandfather set up the Live Auction, and especially in whipping up delicious baked goods to sell to fair-goers, this teenager does his part to help out.
Christopher’s grandfather on his mom’s side, Bill Sorensen, is the fair’s long-time auction chair and an even longer-time member of the NGCC congregation.
“My father helped build that addition on the church in ‘57; and my mother helped get the fair started,” says Bill of his parents, Bob and Nancy Sorensen,
“It’s basically the same fair it’s been since [Bill’s] mother’s time,” says his wife, Hallie, nicknamed “YaYa” by Christopher when he was a tyke.
“With his speech development, when he was young, he couldn’t say ‘Grandma,’ so he came up with his own name, YaYa, which actually is Greek for grandmother,” says Bill. “So that was unreal.”
“And it didn’t sound so elderly to me,” adds Hallie, laughing.
Now a student at Guilford High School (GHS), Christopher has consistently earned high honors in his learning category in middle school and high school. At GHS he’s a member of the Life Skills class and enjoys extras such as participating in Unified Arts programs (photography is a favorite). The Life Skills classroom is also equipped with a kitchen.
“I learned to bake at school,” says Christopher.
“They put on a turkey dinner last November, and of course, he baked the brownies,” adds Bill.
Christopher’s mom, Jennifer (Sorensen) Hollenbeck, has always enjoyed baking and she’s delighted to see her son pick up the same interest, and excel.
“He loves to bake,” says Jennifer. “He’s got his own baking kit, and every day, we have something new.”
Christopher is currently filling a binder with both his tried and true recipes and those he’d love to try. Like any great baker, he tests each recipe and sometimes alters it to make it better. For his potato chip cookies, for example, “I do one less egg, because it said two and that made it sticky,” he explains.
A true perfectionist in the kitchen, Christopher likes to use local ingredients whenever he can, such as rhubarb from a neighbor’s garden for rhubarb bread and fresh zucchini from his family garden for zucchini bread. He’s planning on making loaves of both types of breads to contribute to the Country Fair. In addition to baking for the Country Fair, Chris regularly shares his baking talent with NGCC members, providing goodies every other week to add to Sunday coffees at the church.
Christopher also uses fresh eggs in his baking, provided by his clutch of chickens. He says new eggs are just beginning to arrive from six chicks he’s recently raised, together with two Muscovy ducks.
“We bring the chickens to the fair, too,” says Christopher.
His family resides in North Guilford on land that was once a turkey farm, just up the road from the small dairy farm where Bill’s parents raised their family.
For his part in contributing to the NGCC fair each year, Bill spends months pulling together a huge array of items collected from individuals, estates, and other areas to populate the Country Fair’s popular live auction. Right now, items are still welcome for the auction (call 203-457-0581 to learn how to donate). All proceeds from all areas of the fair benefit program efforts and maintenance needs of NGCC and its historic church building, constructed between 1812 and 1814.
In addition to the draw created by the fair’s spectacular New England setting at the church, the event draws big crowds each year because people simply love it, says Bill.
“People love the fair, and I think a lot of it has to do with the white elephant and the auction. We’ve had people who’ve passed away, and through their family have donated things to the auction because that’s where their family loved to go to,” says Bill.
On fair day, the auction draws dealers, collectors and plenty of bargain hunters looking for antiques, furnishings and other one-of-a-kind finds that will leave the premises at the crack of a professional auctioneer’s gavel.
Like his mom and dad, Bill and his wife also settled in North Guilford and raised their family with NGCC as part of their lives. Jennifer still remembers riding “Little Toot” as a little girl attending the NGCC Country Fair as one of several little passengers aboard a trackless “train” car, hauled by a tractor-turned-train engine. Little Toot is still a big draw.
As the weeks tick down and fair day approaches, the entire family is busy helping prepare. In addition to efforts undertaken by Bill and Christopher, Hallie is overseeing the fair’s Jewelry Booth and Toy Booth and Jennifer helps in a variety of areas while her husband, Jason Hollenbeck, is introducing and overseeing a pig roast that will be shared by church members after the fair ends.
“We kind of make it our focus. We plan our vacation around the fair,” says Bill. “We have a small congregation, but we are lucky in that we have quite a few people who are helping. Especially through our new minister and youth educator, we’re getting a lot of involvement.”
There’s no doubt NGCC is an important part of Christopher’s life. In a PowerPoint presentation he created about himself in school last year, “church was one of his biggest focuses,” says Hallie.
Christopher has also shown an interest—and a talent—for stage management, after he contributed back stage during a recent camp experience.
“He was changing scenery and assisting with tech,” says Hallie. “They loved him because he was just such an eager beaver and he loves to help organize. That’s his strength. Like at church, when there’s a dinner or we have brunches once a month, when it’s time for taking it down, he’s right there. He’s not afraid to help out.”