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Lend an ear to Alison Caron and she’ll make a powerful case for volunteering at this year’s North Branford Potato and Corn (POCO) festival, where she’s been a dedicated volunteer since 2007. You’ll find her among the supervisors in the Potato and Corn tent at this year’s 15th anniversary edition of POCO, which runs Friday, Aug. 5 to Sunday, Aug. 7. (Photo by Pam Johnson/The Sound | Buy This Photo)
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Back in 2007, a friend asked Alison Caron if she’d like to volunteer at the Potato and Corn and Festival (POCO), and the experience sparked an enthusiasm in this North Branford resident that has her positively pushing to bring in more POCO volunteers.
Right now, Alison’s helping to spread the word that volunteers are still needed for POCO 2016, set for Friday, Aug. 5 to Sunday, Aug. 7 at Augur’s Field on Route 22. Interested volunteers can learn more at www.nbpotatofest.com or call 203-484-6017.
Once someone signs on to help out, they’ll want to come back, says Alison.
“The first year I volunteered, I met a lot of nice people—some people I knew, some I didn’t know,” says Alison.
Alison’s second year took her under the big tent where customers clamor for North Branford-grown corn, roasted to perfection, as well as temptingly topped hot baked potatoes (scrubbed and wrapped in foil by a the town’s senior citizen ranks).
“That year, I spent the entire weekend shucking corn,” says Alison. “I shucked until my fingers were raw and I ended up getting the shucker award! But just like the year before, I met so many nice people, I had to come back again the next year. You kind of get addicted to helping at POCO.”
Upon becoming supervisor, Alison joined the POCO committee three years ago. Working together year-round, these dedicated folks help run the festival, which is celebrating its 15th anniversary this year.
The Caron family kids (now ages 21, 23, and 25) pretty much grew up with their mom helping at POCO and Alison drew them in to help, too, as well as her husband, Mike Caron, who’s known to many in town for another reason.
“Mike’s been coaching with the North Branford [High School] football team for 13 or 14 years. So the team got involved as volunteers, too,” says Alison. “They started with the boys parking the cars. Mike would wander over our way, and I’d say, ‘Throw an apron on that man!’” says Alison, laughing.
Alison’s daughter, Kimberly, 25, was “a reluctant participant” at first, says Alison.
“One of the reasons I wanted her to volunteer was she was really obsessed with social media, and I thought it was getting to be an unhealthy obsession,” says Alison.
Then, just a couple of years ago, POCO Coordinator Roseann Krajewski floated the idea of finding a volunteer to join the committee and oversee POCO’s social media.
“I said ‘I think I know somebody!’” says Alison. “So she’s been on the committee for the past two years doing social media for POCO. She’s posting on our Facebook page, tweeting, doing snap chats—she goes through it all and has been doing a lot to help get out the word for us.”
Seeing her daughter’s POCO participation blossom helped Alison to see the value in encouraging other kids to get involved, too.
“She’s met people that I know she never would have come across in her regular social circles. And I think it’s great to make those connections,” says Alison.
The Carons’ 23 year-old son, Robert, will be back to help at POCO again as will their youngest son, Christopher, 21. Even though Christopher’s entering his senior year playing football with Salve Regina College in Rhode Island and spending his summer in Newport, he’s coming back to volunteer at POCO, Alison notes. For her part, she’s forgoing her 35th Guilford High School class reunion because it falls on POCO weekend.
“I had to turn them down! I said I’ve been with ‘fest so long, if anyone wants to see me that night, come on down to the festival—I’ll be in the Potato booth!” Alison says.
While volunteers of all stages and ages are encouraged to come help out during POCO (for a minimum four-hour shift), Alison especially suggests new residents give it a try. When Alison was a new resident in 1993, there was no POCO, but she still found ways to get involved in her new community through volunteering. From the church where her kids were christened to the schools they attended and the sports and activities they loved, Alison was involved as a volunteer.
“I started by joining a committee at our church and then, when the kids were at Northford Community Nursery School, I was on committees there, and then I became president of the nursery school board. And then from there, as they got older, I just moved with them.”
From years spent supporting the Touchdown Club to signing on with a local Girl Scout Troop to helping out with three NBHS Project Graduations and beyond, Alison made time to volunteer just about everywhere.
“I actually had to cut it back,” she said. “I picked and chose what I wanted to do instead of saying ‘Yes’ to everything!”
In addition to sticking with POCO, Alison remains dedicated to serving her town as a member of the North Branford Hazardous Waste & Recycling Committee, which she joined last year.
“I just thought maybe I could make a difference and help people in town learn about recycling and why it’s important to recycle,” says Alison.
On Earth Day, she engineered the successful return of a town-wide clean-up day, and hopes to see it continue to grow each year.
“I got in touch with a lot of the coaches at [NBHS] and the athletic director and so I had a lot of young people come out to help,” says Alison.
The group of about 40 also included a handful of adult residents joining in cleaning up public areas and parks around town. Alison says quite a few of the adults are the same folks you see volunteering in many other areas of North Branford. For some of the kids, it may have been their first volunteer experience.
“If you tell them why you’re doing it and there’s a good reason behind it, I think that’s how you can get a lot of young people involved as volunteers,” says Alison. “It makes them feel good and hopefully they continue it as they get older. And you also get the young people connected with adults.”
Pulling kids away from their phones and assorted apps for a while is a good thing, she adds.
“I see so many kids attached to their devices. That to me is kind of sad. If they can put down their devices for a while and come out and volunteer, it could have a big impact on them.”
Alison says she loves volunteering with POCO and has no plans to leave the Potato and Corn booth, which is packed from opening bell to closing time.
“There are certain times when it’s just incredible, like when everyone wants to get their corn and potatoes and get their spot for the fireworks [on Saturday, Aug. 6 this year]. We’ll just look out and there’ll be this sea of people,” says Alison. “Luckily the music is playing and so they get to hear some really nice bands while they’re waiting.”
For young people growing up in North Branford, there’s something especially satisfying about volunteering at POCO, Alison adds.
“This year we’ve seen some repeat young people coming through, which means they were impressed and happy enough to come back and give us a hand,” she says. “There is work involved, but for the most part we try to make it light and fun and get the people fed and happy and hopefully have a great festival.”
Like Alison, many supervisors and committee members spend just about every waking minute at the POCO site in the days leading up to and during the festival.
“It just takes a tremendous amount of work and it’s all volunteers. It’s amazing to see what goes into it,” she says. “But we have a good time, and fun people to work with.”
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