Thanks to Major Sponsor Cedar Point Federal Credit Union
Early in the morning, on what sometimes feels like the hottest day of the year, Solomons Island awakens to the sounds of friendly competition on the Patuxent River. Tents pop up, camp chairs are set out, and spectators begin gathering on the riverwalk. As the sun begins to climb, the dragon boat races commence!
The festival takes place over several parking lots with brightly colored team tents. The lawn of Our Lady Star of the Sea Church plays host to a vendor village full of craft and food vendors.
“My favorite thing about this event is watching Solomons Island come to life,” said Kristin Kauffman, the festival’s 2021 Chair.
The Solomons Dragon Boat Festival is now in its fifth season, put on each year by Southern Maryland Community Resources (SMCR). The festival’s origin begins with one woman’s passion for helping those with special needs, leading to the founding of SMCR. Bonnie Elward had a dream, and she was good at making dreams come true!
Elward began SMCR as a personal mission. “I had the joy of being able to pick my own board of directors, and it’s usually the other way around,” Elward said.
Once she had the key players in place, she immediately began creating events and opportunities for Southern Maryland residents with developmental differences. SMCR’s staple programs included bowling night, movie night and game night, as well as special events like dances and fashion shows.
“I knew we needed funding to support all of these programs, and I am an event planner at heart,” Elward said.
After witnessing the success of the dragon boat event in North Beach, Md, a team of good-hearted folks from Our Lady Star of the Sea Church got to work to bring a dragon boat fundraiser to Solomons on behalf of SMCR.
The Solomons Dragon Boat Festival had its inaugural races in 2016, with a large team of volunteers supporting Elward’s efforts. After that first successful year, Elward set out on a mission to find a high-dollar presenting sponsor. Where better to look than your local financial institution?
Elward approached Cedar Point Federal Credit Union’s Board of Directors, explaining SMCR’s important mission of inclusive opportunities for those with developmental disabilities. Immediately, the credit union jumped in to support with $8,000. Additionally, Cedar Point’s Chief Marketing Officer Kristin Kauffman joined the planning committee and SMCR board, assisting Elward and her team in 2017.
Together, Elward and Kauffman convinced the credit union to increase its sponsorship to $10,000 in 2018 and again in 2019.
“This partnership has become invaluable both for SMCR and for me at a personal level,” said Kauffman. “I have always had a passion for helping people with special needs. Even in middle school, I spent my lunch breaks volunteering in classrooms to help my classmates with developmental differences with math, spelling and building social skills.”
As the Solomons Dragon Boat Festival continued into its fourth successful year in 2019, Elward decided it was time to announce her retirement.
“Bonnie gave us a year to plan for her retirement,” said Kauffman. “We were so blessed she gave us so much time to make sure the succession plan was in place.” SMCR had only existed with Elward at the helm, so the board had big shoes to fill.
Just as the global pandemic descended on Maryland, SMCR hired Therese Thiedeman of Charles County to manage its various programs and Sandra Norris of St. Mary’s County to focus on outreach.
But as the pandemic began reshaping events, all of SMCR’s programs had to be rethought, and the 2020 Dragon Boat Festival was canceled.
Elward retired in the summer, and SMCR’s programs went virtual in the fall. At this point, however, the Solomons Dragon Boat Festival was without a chair, and SMCR board elections were approaching. So, armed with a passion for the work and event planning experience, Kauffman stepped up to chair both the organization and the festival in 2021.
“We updated our bylaws, and we built out our business plan,” Kauffman said. “And, of course, we got to work planning the 2021 festival!”
Kauffman previously co-chaired the Solomons Plein Air Festival alongside artist Carmen Gambrill, owner of Carmen’s Gallery in Solomons.
“The administration of the festival was a bear!” Kauffman explained. “We brought in artists from all over the world to paint in Solomons for a week.” No stranger to strategic execution, Kauffman also hosted several festivals in Pennsylvania, where she was raised.
“I may be heading up the festival now, but we have a mighty team of volunteers who make this event successful,” Kauffman emphasized. “As a leader, you need to play to your strengths and recognize that you have people to lean on for everything else. That’s what makes our event so strong.”
That, she says, and a good foundation to build on. Under Elward’s leadership, the festival grew and thrived for four years. Kauffman believes that the festival will be bigger and better this year because of the solid foundation Elward left behind.
Plans for this year’s festival include a maximum of 33 teams paddling the Patuxent for bragging rights. The festival has new teams this year from businesses like Thrivent Financial, Rowhouse SoMD, High Tide Games and Community Bank of the Chesapeake. The roster also includes veteran teams from businesses like AMEWAS, Century 21, Personalized Therapy, Patuxent Presbyterian Church, Kingfishers and major sponsor Cedar Point Federal Credit Union.
“My HOA even decided to get in on the action and sponsor a team,” Kauffman laughed. She indicated that the festival has also been contacted by several club teams from other states. “This is a big step for us because we can bring more tourism to Solomons Island and show our partners in Calvert County how much our festival contributes to economic development in the area.”
The festival recently formed a partnership with Rowhouse SoMD in St. Mary’s County. “When Rowhouse heard about the work our festival does for community members with special needs, they approached us with an idea,” Kauffman said.
The partnership allows paddling teams the opportunity to take group rowing classes at the Rowhouse gym. These classes teach synchronization and listening as well as conditioning the body to prepare for race day. Learning to work together is really what gets a dragon boat across the finish line!
A dragon boat team consists of 16 paddlers and a drummer. “It is fun to be the drummer because you get to be the boss,” Kauffman joked.
Each team paddles in two qualifying heats and one final race for ranking placement. The top three teams are recognized in a small awards ceremony following the races. Most teams like to dress according to a theme. The festival has seen Minions, Trolls, Night Furies, pirates, and all sorts of other fun outfits through the years.
Rowing Classes teach synchronization and listening as well as conditioning the body to prepare for race day. Learning to work together is really what gets a dragon boat across the finish line!
“We are always looking to form new partnerships, take in new sponsorships and, of course, sign up new teams to paddle,” Kauffman said with a smile.
The Solomons Dragon Boat Festival will accept new team registrations through late July, with the event itself on August 21, 2021. Teams can register at somdcr.org/registration. Other sponsorship opportunities also exist for businesses that aren’t able to physically paddle.
Volunteers, sponsors, teams, and photographers are welcome to join the Solomons Dragon Boat Festival crew. Contact the festival by email at [email protected]. Learn more about the Solomons Dragon Boat Festival at SolomonsDragonBoatFestival.com and follow the event on Facebook and Instagram. Paddles up!