Wing Fest About Much More Than Wings

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Wing Fest attendees sample chicken from a variety of local eateries.
Wing Fest attendees sample chicken from a variety of local eateries.

by Gene Marrano

Sure, it was about wings and beer – but it was about much more than wings and beer … even if that was lost on some of the thousands who showed up last Saturday at Elmwood Park for the second annual Roanoke Wing Fest to benefit Brain Injury Services of Southwest Virginia. Founded by a couple who were frustrated at not finding the right therapies for their young brain-injured son, Brain Injury Services helps connect people to the right resources when someone needs therapy, and also offers mentoring for in-house life skills as well.

Wing Fest was one of about ten concepts pitched to executive director Helen Butler by Sponsor Hounds a year ago when the non-profit agency was looking for a fundraiser to replace the annual golf tournament, an event that had run its course. Butler liked the Wing Fest idea, especially since many more people could participate in helping to raise money.

About 75 percent of the agency’s funding comes from the state, according to Butler, but private donations and events like Wing Fest help bring in the other 25 percent. “It’s a partnership,” said Butler of the relationship with Sponsor Hounds and Wing Fest.

Despite somewhat iffy weather that may have been influenced by the outer bands of Hurricane Irene, Elmwood Park was jammed with people trying wings from more than a dozen local eateries, all of which were also vying for the People’s Choice Award. Corned Beef & Co., Martin’s, Blue’s BBQ and Thelma’s Chicken & Waffles were among those offering samples of their wings, be it spicy, sweet or just plain hot, as were those made by Allsports Café, which took home People’s Choice honors. There was also beer, smoothies, pizza and plenty of live music to round out the festivities.

Last year, 4100 people showed up, helping Wing Fest net Brain Injury Services about $30,000. “We hope [to do as well this year],” said Butler. Her organization, now based on Franklin Road near U.S. 220, helps people who have suffered a brain injury “get their lives back together again when they get out into the community.”

The assistance each client may require can vary, but Brain Injury Services tries to connect each person with the programs they most need. “The idea is to help them to live as independently as possible in their home community,” said Butler.

The life skills training offered by Brain Injury Services involves going to the home, helping people relearn how to dress, bathe and feed themselves, “relearn how to do things [routinely],” noted Butler as she took a break at Wing Fest. “It’s [often] pretty intense in the home.” Brain Injury Services of Southwest Virginia covers 11,000 square miles in southwest Virginia, from Allegheny County in the north, south to Lee County.

“Wings and beer – that’s what it’s all about,” chuckles Butler, who has been with the agency for seven years. Before that she worked for Carilion. “It’s a smaller organization and allows me to do all kinds of [things, without] a lot of bureaucracy.”

For the record, Butler liked the Jamaican Jerk wings she sampled on Saturday, although she didn’t know which vendor they came from. Judging by the first two years, Wing Fest looks to become a long-standing tradition for local festival-goers. “We were really overwhelmed by the response,” Butler admitted.

See bisswva.org for more on Brain Injury Services.