Bill and Sarah Bishop are being honored this week for their contributions to the Mountain Harvest Festival, and for their "undying love of this valley." While they are humbled by the honor, much of the annual festival's success is owed to the Bishops. In fact, some would say it wouldn't have survived to become an award-winning community-wide festival without them.
Mountain Harvest Festival began in 2001 when a small group of musicians held a street party to celebrate the release of a locally-produced CD. That little street party turns 17 this September. From its humble beginnings it has grown into a major multi-day celebration of the arts, agriculture, the environment, business and community.
The Bishops have supported the festival from the beginning. For them, philanthropy is as much a part of life as earning a living. Over the last 30 years they have invested countless volunteer hours, valuable knowledge and experience, financial support, and a great deal of energy into making the North Fork Valley a better place. "We're pathological volunteers," said Sarah.
After serving 14 years on the MHC board, the Bishops announced that they will step down. "It was time to hand it over to the next generation," said Sarah. The Mountain Harvest Creative will recognize their contributions to the festival from 4-6 p.m. Thursday at The Cirque Cyclery.
"They are so important to us and to everyone," said Rick Stockton, a local musician and festival co-founder. He recalled when they celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary at the 2013 festival. They played music, brought a cake, and bought everyone in the park a drink. "They're just so down to earth on top of it all," said Stockton. "They aren't there for themselves."
The Bishops first arrived in Paonia in 1987, and with them a strong sense of civic duty. They had years of experience in nonprofits, governmental agencies, and had both testified before Congress. Both earned their doctoral degree at Ohio State University, Sarah in romance linguistics and Bill in chemistry. They spent much of their early professional years in Washington, D.C, where Sarah founded Partners in Parks, a nonprofit partnering public lands managers with students seeking educational and research opportunities. By bringing college students to Mesa Verde National Park she witnessed how young people can bring new energy and enthusiasm to organizations.
Bill had served on the National Science Foundation advisory committee, was a vice president at the Desert Research Institute, and was the first nuclear waste expert for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the 1970s.
Through involvement with the Cave Research Foundation, of which Sarah was president, they participated in a first descent in Mammoth Caves with an all-volunteer group. Being the first human beings in thousands of years to step through a portal of the cave was really exciting, and that brought everyone together. That's one of the great things about volunteering, they said. It allows people opportunities to do things that not everyone can do.
In 1986 they decided they didn't want to stay forever in D.C., and pulled out a map of Colorado. They were familiar with the Front Range, but quickly headed west. Coming over Grand Mesa they found KVNF on the radio and headed to Paonia.
In D.C., they said, if one isn't in the "Plum Book" of who's who in Washington politics, one isn't worth talking to. But in Paonia they immediately felt welcomed. "We got to know people in a hurry," said Sarah.
They checked out Durango, but were back by winter, purchasing a piece of land with sweeping views of surrounding mountain ranges. Standing on the lot the first time the view was blocked by juniper trees. Bill climbed on the roof of the only structure, a chicken coop, saw the view, and told Sarah to get up there. They shared a bottle of wine, and put a contract on the land.
They immediately began supporting the community, the arts, the environment and KVNF. A founding subscriber to Paonia-based High Country News, Bill renewed his subscription.
He also designed their house, which they built while continuing to work. On July 3, 1994, the house was completed, and on July 4 it narrowly survived the Wake Fire that blew up during the Cherry Days parade.
The Bishops continued pouring support into the community and helping the Mountain Harvest Festival grow. It took a lot of work, said Stockton, and by 2008 the board and the director were burning out. Some suggested they put the festival off for a year, but everyone knew that if they did, it would die. Recognizing its value to the community, the Bishops offered to step in. A board was elected, bylaws adopted, and the festival went on.
"Having somebody on the board with their knowledge and experience saved the festival," said Stockton. "If they hadn't come on board it may have gone away."
The organization has worked hard to keep its promise to the community, said Sarah. Today they fund numerous programs and partner with nonprofits, artists, farmers, ranchers, musicians and others to provide educational opportunities for youth in the North Fork area. To separate the festival from its philanthropic component, in 2012 the Mountain Harvest Creative was established to support the organization's mission.
A good example of partnering, said the Bishops, is Arts for All, an after-school/summer program for elementary students founded last fall in partnership with the Blue Sage, The Learning Council and MHC. They also help support Teens on Farms, The Marimba Project and other educational and musical projects.
The Bishops are stepping down, but they aren't retiring. They will remain active with Rotary Club of the North Fork, which was a part of the festival from the beginning, and of which they are long-time members. At last week's Rotary meeting Bill said he'd been involved in about a dozen not-for-profit organizations in the county. Of them, "The best one is Rotary."
They also will help with the festival if needed.
Sarah is currently board secretary/treasurer for Solar Energy International, which also recently elected a new board. She recruited Marla Korpar, a former VISTA member and now development director at Solar Energy International, to the MHC board. The outgoing board is working with new members to make the transition a smooth one, said Sarah. They believe everything is in good hands.
"It's so important to expose young people to service," said Sarah, who first experienced volunteerism at a hospital while still in high school. The skills she learned, she said, helped her all the way through graduate school.
The Bishops said they are going out on top. Last fall the festival received the Governor's Award for "Best Events, Festivals or Recurring Activity in a Small Community." In presenting the award to the Town of Paonia, the Bishops said the festival "is aimed at uniting the community around the single idea that the North Fork Valley is a pretty wonderful place to live. It is a celebration of all harvests and talents of our area."