Every October, a 140-student school in Michigan throws a party for a thousand people.
With no indoor festivities available for children, cold weather used to dampen the Halloween spirit in Otsego, Mich. But 15 years ago, a parent at St. Margaret School suggested putting on an indoor carnival.
“A lot of times in this part of the country, the weather is not that great around the weekend of Halloween,” explains current PTO president Angi Hoess. “The PTO thought we should host an event indoors where the kids could wear their costumes and everybody could eat good, warm home-cooked food when things were getting cold and nasty outside.”
As word spread, the carnival grew. Today, tiny St. Margaret’s—with only about 140 students in prekindergarten through 8th grade—attracts about a thousand people each year to what has become a local tradition. “The community has come to expect it,” says Erin Bush, who ran the carnival for two years as a PTO leader before becoming the school’s principal. “They know it’s a safe carnival for their children to come to and a fun family activity.” In fact, she says, several parents who brought their children to the carnival ended up enrolling them in the school.
“We’ve definitely become better known,” says Hoess. “People might not have known we existed if they didn’t come over for the carnival. It’s blossomed from a school to a community event.”
Members of the community are an integral part of the carnival. The judges for the children’s costume contest are always local celebrities, from firefighters to the mayor, who walk around to view getups rather than bringing activities to a halt by gathering everyone onstage. Many of the games are run by area teens earning service hours required for high school graduation. Local business owners used to pass out candy, and grocery store employees distributed balloons. Now they are asked to sponsor different stations instead, and parents and teens distribute the goodies. “We changed that because we wanted to emphasize the need for parent involvement,” says Anna Dennany, the school secretary, a parent volunteer, and the person credited with starting the carnival.
The community also benefits. Half of the proceeds from one of the raffled gift baskets are designated for the St. Vincent de Paul charity, while leftover soup goes to the nearby senior citizens center and pies and other uneaten food to a group called Christian Neighbors.
Hosting a party for a thousand people the Saturday before Halloween isn’t easy, so planning gets started in November for the following year’s event. There’s also a May meeting, and individual committees get together a few times during the summer. Solicitations for raffle donations don’t begin until August to avoid competing with other events.
Lots of advertising is key. Flyers are sent to area elementary schools three to four weeks ahead of time and are distributed in grocery bags at local stores. Then ads go into the local newspaper and the diocesan paper. The carnival is also announced on a free radio listing of upcoming events, and it’s prominent on the school marquee.
School decorations appear two weeks ahead of time, but decking out the gym and setting up the games can’t start until Friday night bingo wraps up. Finishing touches are applied on Saturday morning, which is also when the cooking begins.
A prime factor in the event’s success is its spirit of innovation. New volunteers continually bring fresh ideas. The carnival originally included a hayride on a tractor wagon. Another attraction was a haunted bus ride for trick-or-treating at the senior citizens home. When new parish safety rules and the quadrupling of attendees made these attractions impractical, others took their place.
The current highlight for many youngsters is the Trick or Treat Village, a mazelike creation of tunnels erected with metal frames and PVC pipes at the Knights of Columbus Hall. Volunteers create 21 themed stations that differ from year to year, decorating them in the style of the ’70s, an aquarium, Star Wars, a tropical beach, the Detroit Lions, and the University of Michigan, among others. Games are set up inside the gym around the perimeter, leaving the center available for tables at which families can eat.
Food includes pretzels, cotton candy, shaved ice, caramel corn, and candy apples in the gym. In the kitchen, there’s a cafeteria line with heartier fare like soup, stew, and sloppy joes. Under a tarp in the breezeway patio area, hamburgers and hot dogs are grilled and served. “This spreads the crowd around,” Hoess explains. Parents prepare and donate the food, including cupcakes and cookies for the popular cakewalk.
A raffle has always been part of the carnival although it, too, has evolved. At first, prizes were donated; now they are purchased or sponsored by families or classrooms. One of the first big prizes was an American Girl doll. Two trips to Chicago have also been given, including one with tickets to attend the Oprah Winfrey Show.
The event requires about 200 volunteers, a fourth of whom come from the community. High schoolers are recruited through their school’s announcements, parish members from the church bulletin. “We always have enough volunteers,” Hoess says. The carnival raises about $10,000 by raffling 18 gift baskets, selling tickets for food and games, and charging $3.50 to enter the Trick or Treat Village.
Although the entire community eagerly anticipates the event, excitement runs highest at St. Margaret School. Students festoon hallways and classrooms with orange and black paper chains, and they enjoy the charged atmosphere and the involvement of their parents. “Everybody has to help for this carnival to be a reality,” says Hoess. “It’s the one event where everybody is contributing in some way.”
The result is a spirit of camaraderie. “It brings our parents together at the beginning of the school year to work on an important event,” says Bush, the school principal. And parents are more likely to get involved in future PTO activities when they have had a previous fun experience. “Because you’re working with people, you might get to know somebody you didn’t know or get to know somebody better, and it builds community,” Hoess says. “If you know someone from making cotton candy with them in October, then when the PTO has a Ladies Night Out [a murder mystery night] or Vendor Blenders [a shopping bazaar with home party vendors like Tupperware and Pampered Chef], parents are more likely to volunteer.”
Year after year, the carnival continues to deepen the sense of teamwork and school spirit at St. Margaret. “After you’ve seen it one time, you think it’s a really neat event,” Hoess says. “But after you help, you get a sense that it wouldn’t be Halloween without the carnival.”
Big Event: Halloween Festival
Here are some of St. Margaret School’s ingredients for a successful Halloween carnival.
Have a core group of about four leaders who will be in charge of different elements (food, advertising, donations, games) for several years. Have them each recruit another parent to shadow them before eventually taking over.
Begin planning a year in advance. Committees need plenty of time to brainstorm, gather materials, recruit volunteers, and make community connections.
Encourage new ideas, especially for games and food. This helps prevent new parents from feeling left out and keeps the carnival fresh for regulars.
Recruit volunteers from nearby middle and high schools, especially if your area has a community service graduation requirement. Recruitment becomes easier as your event becomes a tradition because kids who attended when younger might want to remain involved.
High attendance can mean a lot of people traffic. Spread out activities, ticket sales, and food as much as possible, and keep hallways clear.