PAWTUCKET — Pink and yellow were the colors of the day as the third annual Cherry Blossom Festival got underway on Saturday along Roosevelt Avenue.
Pink — the color of cherry blossoms — has always been the symbolic hue for an event originally designed as a fundraiser to maintain the more than 100 rancho cherry trees that were planted along Roosevelt Avenue in 2009.
This year, the pink theme was expanded to include a companion fundraiser sponsored by Storage America to benefit the Gloria Gemma Breast Cancer Resource Foundation.
Yellow also came into play in a big way, as Storage America and the Gloria Gemma Resource Foundation partnered to host the first Rubber Duck Race. As a crowd watched and cheered, 5,000 yellow rubber ducks were launched from the bridge on Roosevelt Avenue, just over the Central Falls line, and they floated down the Blackstone River along an established raceway.
Three lucky winners took home cash prizes, while the rest of the proceeds went to benefit breast cancer research.
Kicking off the day-long event were three road races held in the morning: a Blackstone Valley Half Marathon, Kids 1K and Kyle Coutu 5K in honor of fallen U.S. Marine from Pawtucket. In addition, there was Latin music, rock music, Chinese dancers, a vegetable plant give-away, a health fair and plenty of ethnic and American food.
Further down Roosevelt Avenue, across from City Hall, was a carnival with rides and games.
Bob Billington, executive director of the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council and one of the events' main sponsors, said the annual festival “celebrates the ongoing revitalization of the Pawtucket and Central Falls “mill district” along the Blackstone American Heritage River. Today, we celebrate cherry trees, plants, the river ... as well as 5,000 little rubber duckies,” said Billington, giving a nod to the newest event. He also noted how much the festival, now in its third year, has grown, and said that plans are underway to bring even more events to the stretch of road that links the communities of Pawtucket and Central Falls.
Surveying the crowd that was enjoying a Chinese lion dance by the Rhode Island Kung Fu Club in the parking lot of M-Residential, Pawtucket Mayor Donald Grebien said the festival events and road races “bring energy and life to the city.” The mayor's wife, Laureen and daughter, Alexa, had participated in the Kids 1K, and he said he had parked near Crown Collision, whose owner commented about how nice it was to see all of the people coming to Pawtucket. “Events like these connect Central Falls and Pawtucket in a positive way,” he said.
Sunny Ng, who, along with business partner Louis Yip, came up with the original concept of planting the cherry trees along Roosevelt Avenue, spoke enthusiastically about how much bigger the festival had gotten. He said he hopes to add an art and antiques exhibit and sale to the festival next year, to offer even more events along Roosevelt Avenue.
Sandra Cheng, a longtime friend of Ng and Yip, had recruited some friends and family members to help handle the giant cherry blossom helium balloons that were borrowed from Washington, D.C. “We have such fun at this!” she said. “Whatever Sunny and Louis do, we come out to support them. They are working to make the community a better place to live,” she said.
Among the festivities, there was a short speaking program that featured the Consul General of Japan to New England, Takeshi Hikihara, and his wife, Hammi Hikihara, along with U.S. Congressman David Cicilline and Mayor Donald Grebien.
A memorial brick was laid in front of a cherry tree to honor the victims of this year's deadly earthquake and tsunami in Japan and a donation from part of the festival's proceeds will be sent to Japan.
Hikihara, spoke of the many people of Japan who are still suffering from the devastation, but said that what has been heartening is the support that came from all over the United States. Closer to home, he noted that Billington had called his office to offer help from the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council and said that Cicilline had also called to offer condolences as soon as he heard the news. “That was very strengthening for us,” he stated.
Hikihara said the cherry blossom is “a beautiful flower” that, in Japan, is symbolic of the revival that spring brings following the winter season. This year, he said, the cherry blossom should stand as a symbol of the revival of Japan “and a strengthening of friendship between New England and Japan.”
In the Storage America parking lot, Rhonda M. Hiltz, Area Project Manager for the company, said she was very pleased with how the first Rubber Duck Race had been received. “It was very successful, and we had a great time doing it,” she said. “I am going to do this every year.”
Hiltz said she wanted to credit Cindy Clark, Donna Lemiere-St. Germain, Sandra Arnold, Nat Phillips, Paul Fernandes and Bill Toth for their help, as well as Anneke and Richard Pilavin, the owners of Precision Harley Davidson. Many other local businesses also contributed by agreeing to sell the ducks.
Also helping out the breast cancer research and awareness cause was Connecticut author Eileen Kaplan, a breast cancer survivor who penned an inspirational book called “Laughter is the Breast Medicine.” Kaplan, a keynote speaker on the topic of breast cancer survival, was there to sign copies of her book, which she described as “my adventure through the garbage,” and to support the Gloria Gemma fundraiser.
The Rhode Island Chapter of the Pink Heals had brought two pink police cruisers and a pink fire truck to the event to also draw attention to the battle against cancer. Ted Dion, a West Warwick firefighter who is president of the local chapter, said the group's purpose is to reclaim “pink” as being a positive color for women and which the link with cancer has “kind of taken away.” He said the four-year-old national Pink Heals effort helps raise money for cancer-related programs and services.
The Seiden family, of North Attleboro, said they came to the event mostly “to get the kids out of the house, and to take part in the vegetable plant give-away that was sponsored by New Urban Farmers. Emily Jodka of New Urban Farmers said the organization gave away 5,000 bean, pea and cucumber plants as a way to encourage more gardening among city dwellers and sustainable living practices.
Hilda and Edward Barlow, of Rumford, had come to the event with their son Peter, who was visiting from Connecticut. “We were looking for something to do to get out of the house and we didn't want to go too far,” said Hilda. “The music is great and the food is excellent. I never had this kind of food before,” she said, of some of the Hispanic dishes that were available.
Otto Garcia, of Central Falls, brought his three children, Jenasis, 7, Pedro, 11, and Caroline, 10, to see the duck race and also the Chinese dancers and Latin musicians. “I like my kids to see different cultures and music, and just to have fun,” he said. “It's better for them to be out than sitting and watching TV.”
Thomas Mann executive director of The Pawtucket Foundation, who also took part in one of the race events, said “There's a lot of investment that has happened on Roosevelt Avenue, and it's great to have an event to showcase this to the community.”
The 1 p.m. Rubber Duck Race drew a large group of spectators and race hopefuls to the bridge at the intersection of Charles Street and Roosevelt Avenue. People “ooohed” and “ahhed” when a metal box suspended from a large crane dropped the 5,000 bright yellow rubber ducks into the Blackstone River, and watched with interest as the flock floated toward the finish line. Spectators cheered when a “race official” in a canoe plucked the top three finishers from the river and declared them as winners.
Eight-year-old Rebecca Block watched excitedly, along with her six-year-old brother, Benjamin, as the duck flotilla made its way downstream. “Let's go, duckies, let's go!” she chanted. Ken Block, of Pawtucket, said he had just stumbled across a notice of the event on a website and thought it sounded like something his kids might like to see.
The lucky ducks to win the race were Triple P's bar in first place for the $2,500 prize, Felicia Smith, the second place finisher for $1,500, and Jeff Hall, who took third for $500.