BRANDON — Imagine being tasked with the overall responsibility of purchasing, preparing and feeding more than 100,000 people at nearly a nonstop pace over the course of five days.
Also envision doing all that with precision, without being paid a penny, and always with a smile on your face.
It's doubtful many of us would even consider taking on such a commitment, but Sherry Stewart — Novemberfest's longtime volunteer food chairman — is said to tackle the job every year with a can-do spirit and an energy level that belies the number of candles on her recent birthday cake.
For the past 37 years Stewart, 71, has been lending a huge hand toward the highly successful event that began as a small scale semiannual one-day carnival and has mushroomed into a much larger five-day affair.
The 48th annual Novemberfest opened Wednesday and will continue through Sunday (Nov. 19) on the campus of Nativity Catholic Church in Brandon.
While one of her two boys was a student at Nativity Catholic School, located adjacent to the church, she remembers being a "basic" volunteer and helping with the presale of tickets and tending to other assigned duties associated with Novemberfest.
And 10 years ago she took on a major leadership role, one she cherishes and devotes about 1,000 hours of her time to every fall.
"All my life I've enjoyed volunteering — I feel so good with all the good things that come from it," Stewart said. "And I think I owe God an awful lot. I'm working for a stock market I'm not going to be losing at."
Every year, together with her team of co-chairs and multiple other parish volunteers, she is charged with purchasing more than 30,000 pounds of food — including some 1,400 pounds of meat – at a cost of about $25,000.
The festival's annual food sales total close to $150,000, about half of the $300,000 Novemberfest generates on average each year. All proceeds aid the school and youth ministry programs.
"Nothing I do can be accomplished without all the other people's help," said Stewart, applauding many of them for even taking time off work to do their part.
Dozens of her team members gather in the church's social hall on the Saturday prior to the event preparing and packaging some of the specialties to be offered in the 15 food fare booths under the big tent. Polish, Indian, Cuban, Mexican and American are among the diverse assortment of treats.
Other parishioners assist in unloading food deliveries from outside vendors and by manning the various food stations. And, in a team effort, all who are able help clean up the booths at the end of the festival.
"Sherry is the glue that holds it all together," said food co-chairman Vicki Sommer. "I'm really drawn to cooking and helping her."
Practically everyone at the church knows Stewart, Sommer added, and they feed off her energy and positive spirit.
Sam Calderon said when he and his wife moved from the Northeast to Brandon and joined the church in 2006, he manned a wings booth. What he noticed was that while most of his fellow volunteers opted to do their four-hour shifts and leave, he enjoyed what he was doing so much that he stayed with it all day, every day of the festival.
Stewart took note of his actions and the following year enlisted him as a co-chairman.
"Sherry is the backbone of the food service operation at Novemberfest and if not for her tenacity and dedication, it wouldn't be the success it is," said Calderon, who every year takes two weeks of vacation from work — one week prior to and another the week of the festival — to lend a hand.
"But I don't look at it as service. I have a lot of fun," he said.
Longtime Novemberfest director R. J. Brauneker, 47, has watched Stewart in action since his childhood years as a student at Nativity.
"Sherry is a mom to the entire Novemberfest volunteer team, always being there to help," he said. "She has such a connection with the parish and the community in that when new booth chairs are needed Sherry has a line of people ready to go into the position."
And like most any mother looking after her flock, she won't rest easy until her entire brood is well fed and fully satisfied. Visit nativitycatholicchurch.org/novemberfest or call (813) 681-4608 for more information.
Contact Joyce McKenzie at email@example.com.