LaVonne Williamson has been involved in the St. Elias Lebanese Food and Cultural Festival since planning for the first event started 20 years ago. LaVonne’s love for St. Elias Maronite Church and the Lebanese Food and Cultural Festival runs deep, and she says both the church and the festival show what can be accomplished when people work together as one big family. Just as the parishioners work together to keep the church strong, they come together each year to host a successful festival, which last year drew more than 8,500 people. As LaVonne prepares for the 19th annual event, taking place April 21 and 22, 2017, her passion hasn’t wavered. We chatted with LaVonne about what makes this festival so special, and we’re excited to introduce you to today’s FACE of Birmingham, LaVonne Williamson.
How did you first get involved with the St. Elias Lebanese Food and Cultural Festival?
My first involvement was in the field of publicity — getting the word out to the community about the festival, our Lebanese culture, who we are and what we stand for. Having been a volunteer in many organizations around the city and having a few contacts with some radio and TV personalities, I had no problem getting the news of our Lebanese Food and Cultural Festival out there. And they were so excited when we would bring the food to the station and leave it with them. Everyone jumped on the chance to have us on the radio and TV. We knew then we had it made.
Since that time, I have participated in setting up the cultural room, silent auction, delivering food to businesses and, what I love most of all, photographing the events and food of the festival.
Why are you so dedicated to this event?
Having been a part of St. Elias Maronite Catholic Church from birth, and my grandparents and parents having played a huge part in encouraging me along the way, has instilled my love of this church and its growth.
The one thing that really struck a chord with me and pushed me to take an active part in this event was that a certain percentage would be given to various organizations in the city, as well as helping our church. To date, approximately $425,000 has been donated to the various charities, including St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Birmingham Children’s Theatre, Jimmie Hale Mission, Pathways, The Bell Center and dozens more.
Last year’s event drew over 8,500 people. Why do you think this event is so popular here in Birmingham?
Its popularity has been growing and growing each year. We serve healthy, delicious food that everyone has come to know and love. They tell others, and they spread the word. We have parishioners who perform the authentic Lebanese dance, a band travels here to play and entertain everyone outside under the tent every evening for all to dance, a silent auction with incredible items, church tours and, recently, a 5K run to aid the SUKI Foundation. There is so much to do when you are at the festival, and it’s free admission.
What’s the key to making this event a reality each year?
What makes this event a reality is the enthusiasm of our parish coming together to help others in the community, and the community’s realization of what we are doing and their support in turn by attending the festival. Observing the blending of our culture with all others is euphoric!
In your opinion, why is cultural exchange so important?
Cultural exchange is so important because that is how we learn to live together and understand one another — in particular, their traditions.
What are some of the Lebanese traditions you hope attendees learn about and better understand after attending the festival?
The people who I talk to are so ecstatic when they leave. I think they love how we all come together and we’re all warm and welcoming, and they feel that, and they take that away and want to portray that to others. And with the way the women work together. It’s like one big family and most of them have big families.
So many people when they attend the festival walk away with the feeling that they have been in a whole new culture, as if they’ve been to a foreign country, but right here in Birmingham.
We just love to see people come and enjoy the festival and eat the food. They will take some of the food home and freeze it. They want to keep our culture in their house!
What’s the most challenging part of working on the festival?
The set-up prior to the event and hoping and praying for good weather!
What’s the most rewarding part of working on this event?
The most rewarding part of working on this event is seeing it all come together and the multitude of people flooding the grounds. Just being a part of this event each year and being able to give 25 percent of the proceeds to various organizations in town is very rewarding.
What are some of your favorite places in Birmingham and favorite things to do?
I love discovering new places to eat around town and exploring Edgewood, Homewood, Mountain Brook, Vestavia and Avondale.
Do you have any favorite restaurants?
What do you like to do in your free time when you’re not busy with festival planning?
I love to help friends with planning parties, especially weddings. I am not a professional, but I love doing flowers and photography. I like swimming and dancing, and I love to tour and travel to small cities like Cullman and Anniston. And I love volleyball. I’m 70 years old, and I can still go out there and whack that ball if I want to!
What’s the best piece of advice you have to offer?
Love with all your heart, even though the love is not always returned. Do for those less fortunate, and do not expect anything but a heart filled with joy.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
My mother was a peacemaker, and these are her phrases: “Always weigh your words before you speak.” I try to think about that a lot before I open this big mouth of mine.
And I always tended to worry a lot, and the one key she always told me — because I would stress out and want to make everything perfect — she would say to me before going to bed, “Don’t worry your pretty little head; God will take care.”
What are three frivolous things you can’t live without?
My land line, an occasional massage and facials.
Thank you, LaVonne! To learn more about LaVonne’s work on the St. Elias Lebanese Food & Cultural Festival, visit stelias.org/festival.