By Lauri Hennessey
For The Beachcomber
As islanders slowly creep out of their socially-distanced homes and look to rejoin friends in community traditions, some things are certain.
Concerts will begin to happen again. Families will gather in Ober Park again on summer evenings. Strawberry Festival will return, albeit a localized version.
And somehow, Pete Welch and Allison Shirk will have a hand in all of this.
Welch and Shirk run Vashon Events, an artistic and event engine that has hummed for the past decade. They’ve put on concerts, organized a community calendar, thrown fundraisers for nonprofits, run the music stages at Strawberry Festival, and created a free music library so kids and adults can learn to play instruments … among other things. And they have many plans coming together for the coming months.
Welch and Shirk are truly a duo act, each with complementary skill sets. He books the acts and works behind the scenes. She sings and hosts. He does social media. She writes grants and consults with nonprofits. Somewhere along the way, they’ve become a team with a combined huge heart.
And after the quiet of the pandemic, they have a busy summer ahead. To celebrate the return to a new normal, they are now working on two “Welcome Home” concerts, to be held June 26 on the lawn of Open Space for Arts & Community. There will be room to spread out and socially distance, for people to bring picnics — plus a very low ticket cost (only to track attendance). Welch said the concert was Open Space founder David Godsey’s idea — a celebration of the return of music.
Next, on July 17, they will spearhead a day of live music at this year’s scaled-down Strawberry Festival. Vashon Events’ lineup, set to play in the IGA parking-lot-turned-music stage, will include Publish the Quest and a Fleetwood Mac tribute band, as well as many other performers. New acts are being added all the time — check vashonevents.org to find out more. More information about the entire Strawberry Festival, to take place July 16 to 18, can be found at vashonchamber.com/strawberryfestival.
But wait, there’s more.
Concerts in the Park — long curated by Vashon Events — will return in August on Thursday nights at Ober Park, with local bands. The concerts have long been a favorite of islanders young and old.
“It’s really wonderful to stand at the top of the hill at Ober Park and look down,” Welch said. “You see kids running around playing, parents having picnics. It’s special.”
Both Shirk and Welch said managing these events for the summer has taken a lot of effort in this time of social distancing, but they are thrilled to bring the music back to the island this summer. And it will all be done safely.
The pair has long brought music to islanders in another way, too, with a musical instrument lending library that began in 2015. The library is free of charge, and during the pandemic, it saw explosive growth in use. In 2019, it had 105 users. In 2020, 156 users. Forty-two percent of those who borrow the instruments are low-income and 22 percent of people of color, said Shirk. Eighty-five percent are youth.
For Shirk and Welch, dedication to youth runs through all of their work, from the library to their past efforts to organize youth stages at Strawberry Festival and youth performances at the old Red Bike venue.
“I feel like we are growing musicians on the island,” Welch said
Shirk described Vashon Events as a “connector”.
“Our idea is lifting all boats,” she said. “We want all of the arts organizations to be included in what we do.”
Vashon Events’ website also includes a music teacher directory, a musician directory, a youth resources page, a list of summer activities and much more. Welch and Shirk have also hosted multiple “showcases” for local musicians, raising money for local nonprofits and giving people a chance to sign up for open mic events. They also have a popular newsletter, The Skinny, which highlights all of the events.
In the last year, the pair helped promote dining and delivery options for local restaurants and pushed out information on social channels that promoted local activities and vendors. They also tracked the latest on COVID-19 and the Vashon BePrepared announcements on their website. And recently, they partnered with Dig Deep (at the old Dig Nursery) for a Mother’s Day event with JD Hobson that they said moved some people to tears, after so long with no music.
Shirk said this has been a tough time for artists and she hopes audiences show up, give tips and buy music, which is vital to artists.
Welch first started booking acts at the Red Bike more than a decade ago. He said initially it was the only place on the island where he booked live music, and then that grew over the years to include music all over town.
“The amount of musicians who are incredibly talented on the island is mind-boggling,” he said. “There is plenty of room for everybody.”
Shirk had a career in human services and social work before becoming a grant writer and nonprofit consultant. As the two of them started working together, they saw a need for a new website and a convening place for the island.
“We realized it was a way to do a lot of charitable work. It is a labor of love for us,” said Shirk. “…People see our company and us as individuals as resources. This is what community-building looks like, the interpersonal connection, helping youth find instruments, helping businesses find musicians.”
Shirk said Vashon Events survives as a nonprofit with the support of its board as well as volunteers who constantly help.
Local musician Gus Reeves calls himself a big fan of the pair.
“I think the thing that best exemplifies where their hearts are at is the combination of their music teacher directory and free instrument library,” Reeves said. “Learning an instrument can change your life and they get that. And they want you to have access to that.”
Welch said sometimes it’s all a lot and he dreams of the day when he will be “sitting on a beach somewhere with a Mai Tai in my hand and that’s all I have to worry about.”
Shirk quickly jumps in with, “He says that, but he will not half-do anything. It would drive him nuts.”
Welch said he is hopeful that the community will see better days ahead.
“I want to encourage people to keep hope alive in terms of getting back to some sense of normal, being able to enjoy the arts again,” he said. “I feel like at some level we all will be back soon.”
As for Shirk, when asked what Vashon Events is about?
She looks at Welch and says, “It’s two people here to help however we can.”