Brandi Cadding is in her second year working the fair circuit. She loves what she does – serving up funnel cakes and other concessions – and has visited cities she had never been to before.
The 24-year-old has formed close bonds with fellow fair workers, cultivating a family on the road. She even found a boyfriend who operates the haunted house ride.
But living as a nomad miles away from her home in Buffalo, N.Y., can be lonely sometimes, she acknowledges.
“I left my whole entire family at home,” she said.
For N.C. State Fair workers such as Cadding, as well as locally based contractors who commute daily to the fairgrounds, an extensive network of chaplains and volunteers are committed to filling the void. They provide workers with free home-cooked meals, hygiene products, clothes, barbers, a dental clinic and, most of all, prayer.
The N.C. State Fair Ministry includes services provided by the Raleigh Baptist Association and the North Carolina chapter of Campers on Mission, which sets up its camp of RVs behind the historic chapel on the fairgrounds.
This is the 25th year Campers on Mission has come to the State Fair; it has a pantry, picnic tables and a small kitchen, where Marsha Powell and her team whip up her brand of comfort food. The group relies on donations and volunteers, with three barbers giving free haircuts and local businesses contributing crackers, pastries and more.
The Baptist Association brings in 40 chaplains and recruits area dentists, hygienists and assistants to run the clinic, which is housed in a state-of-the-art bus near Gate 4.
“A lot of things we take for granted, I suppose, being in a stationary, static community,” said Travis Williams, who is on the pastoring team at Treasuring Christ Church in downtown Raleigh.
Williams is the lead State Fair chaplain and coordinates the volunteers and dental clinic. The chaplains’ services sometimes extend beyond fair workers, in what Williams refers to as a “spiritual EMS.” They help panicked parents who have temporarily lost their children or a kid who may have had an encounter with a horse’s hoof.
But working in such a mobile atmosphere can be stressful, he said. Fair workers may leave home, but they’re not leaving their troubles behind. Away from their support system for seven to eight months of the year, the workers need to find someone to turn to, or they may want to fill a spiritual void.
“It’s very routine for us to talk to someone whose child is going through something at home, and they can’t be there,” Williams said. “Another one had a mother dying of cancer. ... We’ll cry with them. We’ll listen with them.”
The State Fair is the main project of the year for Campers on Mission, and the volunteers take pride in it. Their goal is to spread the word of Jesus Christ through prayer breakfasts, Sunday church services and informal conversations away from the food line.
They say fair workers, or carnies as the workers refer to themselves, sometimes are looked down upon. Williams, who has been a chaplain at the fair for about eight years, said he once counseled a woman who was appearing as the World’s Smallest Woman. She was happy to have the job, he said.
“On the other hand, her whole day was spent with people gawking at her like she’s a freak,” he said. “She’s not a freak. We get a lot of stories like that.”
Betty Wilson of Greensboro said fair workers deserve to feel good when they come to their workplace. She is co-chair of the State Fair Ministry for Campers on Mission with Bill, her husband of 53 years. Betty, dressed in a long flowered skirt and ivory cardigan, has the type of comfortable personality that encourages strangers to confide in her. She’s happy to be there for anyone who wants to pray, or who needs a hug.
“We try to meet their physical needs, but also their emotional and spiritual needs,” said Betty Wilson, 74. “Some of them don’t get many hugs. To be an encouragement to them, that’s our joy, to see them with a smile.”
The ministry got its start with L.D. and Carroll Flowe of Campers on Mission. They gave one bowl of soup to a worker who looked tired and hungry, Betty Wilson recalls.
Workers say they sometimes see similar setups at other county and state fairs, but they say the North Carolina ministry seems to cover a lot of ground. The volunteers say State Fair officials see the value in providing the services to the workers. Happy employees make for a better experience for everyone, they said.
The camp area behind the chapel is sandwiched between the Village of Yesteryear and Neomonde’s bread-making demonstration tent. It’s in the shadow of the midway and a tall, looming Ferris wheel. It gives workers a break from the cacophony of Katy Perry music blasting from rides and the disembodied voices of fair workers trying to guess the ages of passers-by.
They can eat savory chicken and dumplings and listen to strands of live gospel-folk music seeping around the corner of the chapel. Prayer pamphlets are scattered on the tables in both English and Spanish. A Bible verse of the day is posted on a sign labeled “Today’s Good News.”
Teresa Demar, who has worked fairs for 22 years, has become well-accustomed to the nomadic lifestyle. She became a fair worker so she could provide for her children. Every year starting in mid-April, she hits the road, crisscrossing fairs heading north along the East Coast before turning around and doing the same heading south.
A drawback of fair-hopping, Demar said, is forming intense bonds with co-workers and fair personnel, only to never see them again. She has enjoyed coming to the Campers on Mission area for lunch and prayer every day since the fair started.
Even when she’s far from home, Demar said, she needs to have fellow Christians in her life. The prayer helps her feel “supercharged,” she said, and ready to work.
“When you find good people in life, you really want to get to know them,” she said. “You don’t know when you’ll see them again.”
‘I can talk to God’
There are about 500 workers on the midway, a State Fair spokeswoman said. Many of them stay overnight in RVs on the fairgrounds property.
That number doesn’t include the local food vendors, exhibitors or maintenance staff, who come to work at the fair from the immediate area. Some may be otherwise out of work or homeless and just need a job to pay the bills.
Sharon Chamblee, who lives near Zebulon, took a job at the goldfish game so she could earn enough money to buy a gas stove. She wants to be able to cook for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Chamblee, 56, lives with her husband, sister, brother and son, many of whom have mental disabilities.
Chamblee, who said she also has disabilities, helped raise her 13 siblings when her mother died years ago. Without help, sometimes she just feels overwhelmed, she said.
“There’s nobody to turn to, no mom, no dad, no more,” she said. “I just look up, and I know God can’t talk to me. I can talk to God.”
Last Sunday at the fair, she felt especially troubled. She was stranded at the fair Saturday night after work and had to stay in a bunk on the property. When she got up, she ran into one of the workers with the ministry, who offered her a toothbrush and soap to freshen up. The woman then invited her to the church service at the chapel. For Chamblee, the timing couldn’t have been better.
“They picked my spirits way up,” she said. “They gave me hope. They gave me hope that it’s going to get better for me.”
The fair is a lot of work, she said, but she does get a thrill of seeing the children smile when they win a fish. On Thursday, she said she hadn’t been able to return to the chapel area yet, but she hopes to be at services Sunday.
“I want to thank them for praying with me,” she said. “They helped me better mentally and spiritually.”
Feeding stomachs, souls
Last year during the fair, the ministry served more than 10,000 bowls of soup and almost 1,300 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
Powell, the head cook of the Campers on Mission operation, jokes that she spends more time in her RV than she does at home in Kannapolis. She has a precise routine, rising at 6 a.m. to make sure the 26-quart pots are quickly simmering with beef stew, southwestern chicken soup or whatever is on the day’s menu.
Lunch starts at 11 a.m., and if four pots aren’t already done by then, they’ll soon run out. On chicken and dumpling days, she’ll go through 15 pots, she said.
Powell, a former wedding caterer, said the fair ministry works because volunteers are showing service, not just preaching it. You can tell people something all day long, she said, but showing compassion is more effective.
“First we feed their stomachs, then we try to feed their souls,” she said, standing barefoot in her crowded RV as the smell of chicken and dumplings filled the space.
Powell and her husband, Butch, travel to two other state fairs, and she runs into some of the same workers who remember seeing her at an earlier fair. They seem happy to see a familiar face, she said.
She glanced at her yellow legal pad, where she tallies the number of soup pots and sandwiches cooked each day. At the bottom is a note reminding her to pray for a woman, a returning worker who sought out Powell the first day of the fair and returns daily so they can pray together.
“That’s a special thing to me,” Powell said. “Because she looks for me. That makes me feel like I’ve touched her.”