CROWN POINT -- The same setting for this story has been there for the past 13 years.
The repeating organ shouting out sounds as the horses go round and round. The wonderful smell of elephant ears and corn on the cob. Screams of joy at the "Mouse Game" as a child wins a goldfish in a plastic bag.
A beast that will be dead in a day or two as the joy turns to sadness.
Somewhere on the fairgrounds Kankakee Valley girls basketball coach Doug Nelson is riding around in a golf cart giving instructions to high school student athletes proudly wearing their orange safety vests.
As summer starts its slow fade, Nelson and most of his family are a part of a tradition welcoming back the new school year and all the games that are to come.
“There are so many positives for the kids here,” Nelson said on Friday morning at the Lake County Fair in Crown Point. “It’s been great watching the kids through the years and seeing them grow. The first year, with cars coming at them all over, some kids will hide behind a tree. But a year later you’ll see the same kid in the middle of it all making a tough decision. You can find out who your leaders are at something like this.”
For 13 years Nelson and his brother Dustin, the girls hoops coach at Griffith, have allowed Region student athletes work at parking cars at the event at the Porter County Fair.
And this is the 10th year the same kind of thing has happened in Lake County.
Students work to earn money in order to pay off their athletic fees for high school ball and make a few dollars for their own pocket.
Around 50 students will work the fair in C.P. this week representing schools such as Calumet, East Chicago Central, Griffith, Hammond Academy, Hanover Central, Hobart, Kankakee Valley and Washington Township.
This fundraising effort has raised over $300,000 dollars in Porter County in 13 summers and over $250,000 for kids and programs in Lake County in a decade.
Doug Nelson’s sons, Kale Nelson and Nathan Ramian, a coach at Portage, were there along with Washington Twp. baseball coach Randy Roberts, who had a few of his Class A state runner-up players with him.
“For many of these kids this is the first job they’ve ever had,” Doug Nelson said. “It’s really cool watching them grow up right in front of your eyes.”
E.C. girls basketball coach Eric Kundich had nine Cardinals at the fair on Friday. He said this work helps his program pay for all the summer basketball events they participate in. The girls had a lot of fun doing their jobs and meeting other athletes from the 2-1-9.
Senior Latricia Thomas went on a ride with Griffith players Marisa and Ariel Esquivel during a break in the day.
“I don’t know what it was called but I was upside-down a lot,” Thomas said of the ride. “It’s fun meeting players from other schools. We had fun, too, with our team. We were dancing and making each other laugh.”
“There were no jokes, we were just dancing to have fun,” E.C. freshman Cierra Battle said. “It was a long day and this helps build character. We got tired here but we had to step up. It’s like in a game. What are we going to do in the fourth quarter when we’re tired. This will help us all step up.”
Doug Nelson said when he was coaching baseball and girls hoops at Hanover Central he was able to buy new uniforms for both teams every year because of the work his Wildcats did guiding vehicles to the right spot.
He credited the Lake County Fair Board for working with the kids and programs at all the schools to make donations to ease the cost of sports.
“We are so proud of what these kids are doing to help their schools and themselves,” Nelson said. “It’s awesome to see so many of them grow.”
Marisa Esquivel, a sophomore at Griffith, and her sister, senior Ariel Esquivel, said the friends they’ve made in the summer parking cars has carried over to when each is competing during the season. Instead of being super competitive or angry after the final horn, they talk to foes and remember the fun they had in the sun.
“This is a lot of fun,” Marisa said.
“And it’s for a good cause,” Ariel said.
The Nelson coaches should be proud of what their venture has turned into. So should all the kids who have done and are doing the right thing. There are some great things going on around here.
So if you go to the fair this week and get angry at a teenager who is paying more attention to the funnel cake they’re munching on instead of pointing in the right direction, please don’t honk your horn at them.
Smile. Tell them they’re doing a great job. This is important.
These kids are our future.