Holiday fairs light up with community support

Get ready because this is the week — the week when holiday cheer becomes socially acceptable for the season. Holiday songs will start flooding the radio waves, twinkle lights will coat evergreens and homes, community meals will fill bellies and warm hearts, and the shopping begins.
Some will flock to the box stores on Black Friday to fight crowds, lines and grab some deals, while others will sample the area craft fairs and artisan markets to look for handmade gifts and support local artists. If you like to keep it local, you’re in luck, because Addison County has its fair share of holiday craft shows.
The Vergennes Union Elementary School Winter Holiday Fair is one example. Lisa Sprague has organized and led this event for the past 17 years. This year, the Holiday Fair will be held on Saturday, Dec. 2, from 9 a.m.-3:30 p.m. at VUES at 43 East St., which coincides with the Holiday Stroll in Vergennes (also Saturday from 8:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m.) and Breakfast with Santa at the high school (from 7:30-10 a.m.)
Sprague has been working at VUES for the past 26 years. She started in food and custodial services, and now manages food service. So how did she end up as point of the Holiday Fair?
“I have a deep love for children and crafts,” the Addison resident said.
It all started in the mid-1990s, when Sprague started working for the after-school program. She took over heading the program after Rosemary Mueller retired from VUES.
“At the time, the budget for doing activities after school was very limited,” Sprague said. “Janet Seaburg (a now retired art teacher from VUES) and I felt that with a little effort on our part, we could do and offer so much more for the students than just simple crafts.”
So, as crafters themselves, they decided to launch the first VUES Winter Holiday Fair, with all proceeds benefiting the after-school program.
After the first year’s success with over 50 vendors, the event quickly became an annual tradition and a way for the community to show their support of the after-school program.
“As the show progressed over the years it became apparent that it was an important community event,” Sprague said, who took over for Seaburg after she retired. “We created a venue for community crafters to come together to sell their products, as well as a place where students could help to raise funds to give back.”
Four years ago, VUES received a 21st Century grant (federal funds administered through Vermont) which boosted the after-school program.
The program, now called VUES Fusion Expanded Learning Program (or Fusion for short), is run by Director of After School and Summer Services Tara Brooks. It serves the elementary and middle school.
“Before, the after-school program wasn’t school or center based,” said Brooks, a mom herself with three daughters in the Vergennes school system. “There used to be about 15-20 kids in the program… now we are able to have enrichment activities for kids after school 29 weeks of the school year, five days a week, with four to five different activities per day… Last year we served 99 percent of the elementary school.”
“It is a great program,” Sprague agreed. “It provides multiple, daily classes for students, ranging from sewing, dance, art classes, cooking, commercials, GEO Bee, Rock Band, Animal Craft, Jazz Band, Dungeons and Dragons, yearbook and much, much more.”
Sprague still helps with the after-school program and runs a weekly BRAT class she started back in the late ’90s. No, she’s not insulting the kids… BRAT stands for Buddies Really Awesome Together.
“It started with a group of about 10 fifth- and sixth-grade girls,” Sprague explained. “This class allowed the girls to do more involved projects like cooking, sewing quilts and time consuming projects that little ones couldn’t accomplish. It was very successful as it let the girls work together, bond and relax after school and have fun.”
This year the BRAT class has nine students (boys and girls) and a few BRAT alumni who come to help out. Each year, the BRATs play a big part in the craft fair.
“They help set up, some take down afterwards and act as elves during the craft fair, selling raffle tickets, being servers and running food for the vendors who can’t leave their booths, and they’re the meet and greeters at the front door,” Sprague said.
“I like being with a group of kids who like to do the same thing,” said Brody McGuire, a fifth-grader and first-year BRAT.
“I love helping,” said Tryphene Miguel, also a fifth-grader and first-year BRAT.
Cooking, creativity, hanging out, learning while you’re having fun and crafts, were other things fellow BRATs listed as their favorite parts of the after-school class.
Along with the BRATs/elves and Seaburg (who still volunteers every year), Sprague has the help of Millie-Jean Castillo.
Castillo, a Vergennes resident who’s been working at VUES for the past 16 years as a para educator and has worked alongside Sprague in the after-school program, isn’t a crafty person. But she started helping Sprague as soon as the Holiday Fair started.
“We’ve been friends for years, she lets me know when she needs something and we get it done,” said Castillo.
“We work well together,” Sprague echoed. “She does all the little things, and we all know you can’t do something like this alone.”
Sprague starts in August lining up vendors and planning for the first-Saturday-of-December event. She recruits volunteers like Pam Dodge (a retired school teacher) who has been helping for many years in the kitchen. Dodge accepts food donations, prepares the hot lunch and manages the concession stand.
“Even though I have been doing this for years, it is always a breath-holding thing until it is completed,” Sprague said. “It takes many hours (and countless volunteers) but in the end it is all worth it.”
So mark your calendars for next Saturday, Dec. 2, and get into the holiday spirit at the annual VUES Winter Holiday Fair. Don’t forget a non-perishable food item for the Vergennes food shelf or animal shelter as your entry fee. 

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