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Teen volunteers keep Merced County Fair humming along

Junior Fair Board memebers Kristyn Cowie, Sarah Reel and Trevor Surrock work the table at the Cutest Cowgirl/Cowboy contest at the Merced County fairground in Merced, Calif. Thurs. June 16, 2011.
SUN-STAR PHOTO BY BEA AHBECK Junior Fair Board memebers Kristyn Cowie, Sarah Reel and Trevor Surrock work the table at the Cutest Cowgirl/Cowboy contest at the Merced County fairground in Merced, Calif. Thurs. June 16, 2011. Merced Sun-Star

Not many teenagers know what it's like behind the scenes of the Merced County Fair. But 16 who do now have a lot more appreciation for all the work it takes to put on such a grand event.

"I can't believe all the little things that go on here," said Annie Saetern, a 16-year-old Merced resident who serves on this year's Merced County Fair Junior Fair Board. "I had no idea."

The board is made up of 14- to 19-year-old Merced County residents who are interested in leadership, community service and spending a lot of time at the fairgrounds.

On Thursday evening, Annie was working in the fair's information booth, answering fairgoers' questions about various events and locations. "The most popular questions are about the bathrooms," she said. A simple point across the walkway usually answers that one, she added.

"We've all signed up for different hours for working here," she said. Other responsibilities include giving morning tours to groups of school-aged children and adults with disabilities, what the fair calls the "Friends Helping Friends" program.

The group was also put in charge of the fair's community stage Thursday night. They were asked to put on a contest for fairgoers. "Sticking with the 'Saddle Up for Fun' theme, they chose a cutest cowboy and cowgirl contest," said Teresa Burrola, the fair's business assistant and adviser to the junior fair board.

The fair has had a junior fair board since 2004, Burrola said. But this is the first year they have increased the board membership to 16. In year's past, they only accepted 12 members. "We've grown because they're such a good group of students with such good hearts," she said.

One of those good hearts is Farren Moreno. A 15-year-old Merced resident, Farren applied to the board back in September. "I wanted to be a part of junior fair board because of Ashley," Farren said. Ashley Hiser is Farren's best friend and was also applying for the junior fair board.

"My cousins were in it, so they told me about it," said 15-year old Ashley. "It just sounded like fun."

Ashley's cousin Kristyn Cowie is something of a legend with the group. "She served on the junior fair board for several years," said Burrola. When she became to old to do so, she took a year off and came back as a volunteer junior fair board adviser, helping the new fair board with their duties.

"I started as a freshman so I could have a silver cord for graduation," Cowie said. Silver cords are worn at high school graduations by students who have earned a certain amount of community service hours. "It grew into a really big love affair."

Cowie says it is enjoyable watching the new members get comfortable in their positions and take the leadership role. "I remember when I was them," she said. "Watching them experience all I had to experience is great."

Seeing her cousin succeed in the role has added to the experience, Cowie said. "She's all right," Cowie joked. "She's doing a great job."

Like Ashley's cousin before her, she and Farren filled out applications for the junior fair board and went through an interview process before being offered positions on the board.

Throughout the year, the junior fair board met to discuss what they thought teens would like to see at the fair, created a schedule for the information booth and tours and planned the cutest cowboy and cowgirl contest. This is only the second year the group has been in charge of a fair event, Burrola said, but the junior board members really took to the challenge.

"They came up with the categories," she said, which were the 10-gallon hat prize, the best boots and the fastest meltdown. "It's great watching them all come together."

By the end of signups, the contest had 32 entrants from infants to kindergartners, dressed in their rodeo best for the standing-room-only competition. Three of the junior fair board members served as judges while others handed out registration forms and organized the crowd.

Because of the success of this competition and all junior fair board activities, Farren said she plans to apply again next year. "I was hoping this would help me be less shy," Farren said. "When we did the school tours, I used my loud voice," she said. Before the board, she said she would have never been able to speak up to the youngsters.

"I'm glad Ashley made me do it," she added.

And just like her cousin, Ashley isn't ready to give up on junior fair board either. She said she plans to do it all again next year. "All the years that I can," she said.

Sounds like a legend in the making.