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As the only woman among 15 men on the 16-member Board of Directors for the Florida Strawberry Festival® and the first to serve as an officer, Sandee Sytsma is very comfortable. Since 1995 when she was elected to be an Associate Director, she has “always been on lots of committees,” including a nine-year term as Tram Committee Captain, with oversight responsibility for 35 volunteers. She also coordinated the annual event’s Fashion Show for nine years and served with Pec McGinnis, Sherrie Mueller, and Carolyn McMullen to organize the annual Strawberry Ball. Before moving last year into her newest role as the association’s Treasurer, she served as Coordinator for the Queen and her Court. These days some of the directors’ wives and former queens also help to chaperone the young women for their many appearances. But “Ms. Sandee,” as the girls call her, will always be a mentor.

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The 2013 Queen, Kelsey Fry, explained why: “I could talk about Ms. Sandee all day long! She has such a youthful spirit, she always makes us girls smile with her witty comments and jokes, and she knows how to command an audience. We all look up to her, and we really do act like she is our second mother. She is so caring towards the Strawberry Festival and she works non-stop to make sure everything is perfect!” Enjoy this month’s visit with “Ms. Sandee” and learn of her love for our homegrown Festival. Focus: Tell us a little bit about your background and family, Sandee. Sytsma: I moved here with my family from Pennsylvania in 1957 when I was in fourth grade. I’m the second of five children born to Roy and Helen Parke, and I worked in our family’s Parkesdale Farms business until I graduated in 1965 from Turkey Creek High School. I attended business school for two years with a goal to become an airline stewardess. That plan changed when Hank phoned with a marriage proposal after 18 months of dating. In June, we will celebrate our 44th anniversary. Focus: So how did you become so involved with the Florida Strawberry Festival? Sytsma: I can’t remember not being involved with the Festival. I worked in our family’s booth when it was only a three-day event. In 1960, attendance was approximately 15,000 in three days. Now, more than 600,000 visit us during the 11-day run. My father saw the potential way back then and helped to organize a structure that would allow the Festival to grow well. I’ve always loved this event. Focus: It’s pretty obvious you love coordinating the Queen and her Court, too. When did that begin and what’s involved now? Sytsma: I accepted the position 12 years ago when Robert Trinkle was the association’s president. The only guideline for the Queen and her court members was “Be good and represent us well,” which was too vague and open to misinterpretation. When I realized no one was teaching them the basics of ladylike behavior, etiquette and the social norms for public relations work, I knew it was time to establish some rules and boundaries for everyone’s best interest. I also suggested that swimsuits no longer be a part of the pageant and asked for a clothing budget for ten outfits for the five court members, since it is very important they dress tastefully and in matching outfits. Focus: So what are some of the “rules?” Sytsma: To enter the scholarship pageant competition presented as a Lions Club fundraiser, a young lady must be between the ages of 16 to 20, live within the geographical boundaries, and have a 3.0 weighted GPA minimum. She must also not have any negative or inappropriate behavior in person or online. We explain the rules at the early November orientation, to which the girls must bring one parent, because we want everyone to understand the important role image plays when one is selected to represent an industry.

I’m as open as I know how to be because they deserve to know what to expect. And it’s important that those who watch us know that there is still that kind of girl out there—one with class and taste, deserving of respect. Focus: Is it true that you don’t attend the competition itself? Sytsma: Yes, I stay home that night and find out who the new Queen and court members are after everyone else does because I can’t bear to watch the disappointment some feel. It matters not to me who wins but simply that the judges did their job of selecting those they feel would best represent us. The night before the pageant I encourage the contestants with a pep talk. I explain that ultimately only one will be ecstatic, four will be happy and the remainder will feel like they “lost,” like they should have done something different or worn something else. I want them to know life goes on after this competition and that theirs can be successful regardless. Focus: How do you respond to negative comments that the selection favors those whose family name carries weight or influence in the town? Sytsma: Thank you for asking this question, because I would like to put it to rest once and for all. First, the judges are from out of town and sometimes even out of state. I explain to them that the winners are expected to be confident, well-spoken, pretty, personable, and have a basic knowledge of our city, the Festival and the strawberry industry. We want the “whole package” and sincere young representatives. Second, the judges know nothing of contestants’ backgrounds other than a brief bio detailing GPA and community service information. They have no idea who is who or whose family has position, money or influence. Third, the judges score each girl in the categories of personal interview, evening gown and public speaking, with the interview carrying the most weight. Obviously confidence is very important. I assure the families that if money or influence had mattered, then I might have fared better way back when 120 girls competed and there was no interview. Focus: We have heard that many girls stay in touch with you. Sytsma: Yes, that’s true. We become close because we spend so much time together. I guess I’m like a second mother to them for the year of their reign. When I consider that

over the 12 years, I’ve coordinated 60 girls, I think it’s wonderful that almost not a day goes by that I don’t receive a text or phone call from at least one of them. They call me with good news and bad, and they love Hank, too. I think it’s important as well that they see our sound marriage. I’m very happy to know these young women. Focus: Tell us something you love about the Festival. Sytsma: I am so proud of our 2,200 volunteers who serve on 68 different committees that make the event an annual success. Our volunteers take ownership of their responsibilities and they represent Plant City so well. Many even take vacation time from work to serve during the 11 days here. Each year, we host 20-30 Chamber of Commerce presidents from surrounding areas for lunch and shortcake and they cannot believe how responsive folks in this community are to serve visitors. Focus: What should people do to get involved in the 2014 Festival? Sytsma: We have something for every gender and every age. They would simply call or come by our office on Lemon Street to apply. For their service, each receives a small token of our appreciation and free admission via their worker pass. Focus: Explain what you love most about Plant City. Sytsma: It’s the feeling of “belonging,” of people caring. Plant City feels safe and warm and people will share their emotions with you. When friends visit, we like to take them to our favorite places to meet our favorite people. We have something very special in this town and I hope folks appreciate it as much as Hank and I do. Focus: OK, one last question: How do you two spend your spare time? Sytsma: I enjoy doing interior decorating for friends and container gardening, especially of red and yellow blooming flowers. Hank likes to build and repair. We both serve at our church (Evangelical Presbyterian). I’m a deacon and Hank is an administrator on staff and former elder. We love people, our home and this wonderful community. Focus: Ms. Sandee, in closing, we thought our readers might enjoy this salute to you offered by one of the former queens, Katie Sharer Butson. “Ms. Sandee views this program as more than just part of tradition or attending events on behalf of the festival. She knows the impact the queen and court can make in our community and that drives decisions she makes regarding the program. She also knows the personal impact she can have on the five young women each year, a role she does not take lightly. Ms. Sandee has had a positive influence on just about every area of my life - from my faith, to my family, even in my career. Not only is she an encourager and fan of her girls, but she also wants to see each grow into young women who love the Lord and serve Him with their lives. That is what a true mentor is and that is exactly what Ms. Sandee is to me and countless young women in this community.” FOCUS MAGAZINE PLANT CITY MARCH 2013

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