Each year, more than 400,000 revelers head to the three-week-long Cedar Rapids Freedom Festival, taking place June 14 to July 4, to see Iowa’s largest fireworks display and enjoy dozens of family events. The nonprofit provides a vast array of entertainment and educational opportunities for those living in the Cedar Rapids metropolitan area. Karol Shepherd, executive director of the Cedar Rapids Freedom Festival, discusses how this year’s festival might look different than past events and how the pandemic and 2020 derecho has made the 2021 happening more important than ever.
What is the mission of the Freedom Festival? Our mission is to celebrate the quality of life in Eastern Iowa by providing safe, affordable and fun annual events that embody the spirit of patriotism and a sense of community and family.
How did the festival get its start? The idea of the festival started back in 1983. In 1984, the idea was presented to the city council, and that year hosted the city’s first-ever fireworks display in Downtown Cedar Rapids on Mays Island. Over the years, the festival has grown to host additional programming in the weeks leading up to the 4th of July. Signature events in recent years include the Tribute to Heroes Ceremony, Balloon Glow, DockDogs, the 4th of July Parade and the Celebration of Freedom Fireworks.
What is the greatest reward in being involved with Freedom Festival? If you asked this before the pandemic, my answer would be different. This year’s festival is so important to me because I feel like it comes at the perfect time as we start to see the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel. 2020 bares witness to the number of heroes in this community, and I love that this festival pay tribute to those heroes in our programming. I love this community, and I’m honored to be able to share in the celebration.
What is the biggest challenge the nonprofit faces? We all have our challenges, but probably the biggest is funding. Some might not realize, we are a separate entity from the City of Cedar Rapids. While the city is a huge partner and supporter, we are our own nonprofit 501c3 and fund all of our programming through the support of sponsors, button sales and registration fees. And 2020 has been a hard year for all of us—through pandemic and derecho.
How will the festival differ this year than in the past and what can event-goers look forward to? Due to those budget constraints and not really knowing where we would be in the pandemic/safety timeline, we decided to cut down quite a bit of our normal programming and focus on our signature events. We also will be incorporating some hybrid programming like livestreaming, so if someone doesn’t feel comfortable about being around large crowds, they can still experience some of our events from the comfort of their own home.
What are your goals for 2021? To survive. Ha! And make sure that every one of our events are safe and enjoyable. Planning isn’t done in just a few months. And this year has been challenging because things were (and still are) changing on a daily basis. Perfect example, our parade. We initially planned for a drive-thru parade like the SaPaDaPaSo Parade; it then moved to a walk-thru parade like the downtown farmer’s markets. And just one week ago, it switched to a traditional parade in Downtown Cedar Rapids. Talk about whiplash!
How can readers help? Buy a button! Volunteer! Attend our events! Stay positive and understanding. Some of our events are going to look different. It’s not because we wanted to change; we had to change. Safety is our No. 1 priority. And we hope that you enjoy the show!