Barnum Festival Cookout celebrates its volunteers

Tyler Ely of Bridgeport sings Frank Sinatra's song, "New York, New York" during the Barnum Festival Cookout at Z-Topia in Monroe Thursday.

MONROE, CT — Barnum Festival Royal Family members sang and danced by the stage under the roof of the Beer and Wine Garden at Z-Topia on Monroe Turnpike Thursday evening, and volunteers, seated around tables, dined on a buffet of sausage and peppers, grilled chicken, burgers, hot dogs and salads prepared by Vazzy’s Canteen.

The annual Barnum Festival Volunteers Cookout, a celebration by all of the organizers who make the storied festival with a series of community events possible, was well underway.

Sameeha Yara Malak Shaik, 17, of Monroe dances during the Barnum Festival Roadshow.

This year’s festival had a strong Monroe presence with Sameeha Yara Malak Shaik, 17, who will be a Masuk High School senior this fall, serving in the role of Barnum Queen and Rafael “Rafa” Gonzalez, 8, who will be a Monroe Elementary School fourth grader, starring as Tom Thumb.

Shaik attended the cookout and performed traditional Indian dances during the Royal Family Roadshow.

“I loved it,” she said of being part of the festival. “I was so sad when it was over. I would give anything to wear the crown and hang out with everybody again. It really became a family.”

Members of the Barnum Royal Family, who are students from different schools in the region, got together for festival events once a week in June and July.

Barnum Festival Ringmaster George Estrada addresses guests during the annual cookout at Z-Topia in Monroe Thursday.

“Suddenly you don’t see them anymore,” Shaik said. “I’m excited to see everyone at the cookout. We spent the entire days together singing on the bus and having fun for three days in July when we visited assisted living homes for the Roadshow.”

On Thursday, most of the Royal Family was back together. Ringmaster George Estrada, of Bridgeport, and his wife Rita were among the featured guests, along with the festival’s executive director, Charles Carroll, and his wife Lisa.

“The year actually was a phenomenal success,” Estrada said. “Coming out of the COVID era, it was wonderful for the community. I consider us a family of volunteers from all walks of life throughout the region.”

Estrada and his wife have been Barnum Festival volunteers for over 30 years.

“You only get to do it once. It’s special,” he said of serving as ringmaster, adding it is an honor to follow in the footsteps of the community leaders who came before him.”

Estrada was 32-years-old when he first got involved with the festival, and his two children grew up with it. “It’s been a great opportunity for our family to get together and volunteer,” he said.

George Zwally, owner of Z-Topia Entertainment, said it was the first time he has hosted the event at the former Stevenson Lumber property at 1545 Monroe Turnpike. It was also the site of the Barnum Car Show for the past two years.

Zwally attended the cookout with his wife Paula, as well as friends, Greg and Peggi Gnandt, co-chairs of the car show committee.

“The Barnum Festival Volunteer Cookout is a great celebration,” Peggi said. “Bringing all the volunteers together who participated throughout the year and celebrating their hard work. It truly takes a village to bring all these wonderful events to the surrounding communities and we’re so proud to be part of it.”

The Gnandts are already planning a car show and concert night for May 31 and June 1, 2024.

“We had an unbelievable year and look forward to 2024,” Peggi said.

During the cookout, Estrada awarded plaques to some of the 2023 festival’s outstanding volunteers including Tyler Ely of Bridgeport. There was a tie for Volunteer of the Year. Those recognized were Megan Murphy of Trumbull and Tom McCarthy of Bridgeport.

Family ties

Rafael “Rafa” Gonzalez, of Monroe, was chosen as the 2023 Barnum Festival’s Tom Thumb.

Throughout the festival, Estrada spent a lot of time with the Royal Family, especially during the three days of bus rides to perform the Roadshow for residents of assisted living facilities.

“Our Royal Family has become more than that to my family,” he said. “We gathered for several occasions after the festival events concluded. They are wonderful representatives of our youth. It’s a wonderful future for us, because they are our future.”

In addition to Shaik and Gonzalez, the Royal Family includes King Owen Bull of Trumbull High School, Prince Dillon Durante of Shelton High School, Prince Baeram Alfreh of Bunnell High School, Princess Kendra Mitacek of Notre Dame Fairfield, Princess Anastasia Stanis of Derby High School, and Catherine Emely Sather of Trumbull, a student at Discovery Magnet School, as Lavinia Warren.

Shaik said everyone exchanged phone numbers and Instagram information, texts each other and has group chats with adults and kids. She said the kids hope to get together during Christmas break.

“It was an unforgettable experience,” she said of the festival. “It was amazing. I don’t think I would be the same person I am today without it. It made me more confident in myself and whenever I have an issue at school I can come to them for an honest second opinion without bias.”


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