State College

‘We work together as a family.’ For volunteers, Central PA 4th Fest is more than a celebration

The fireworks show at the Central PA 4th Fest is the largest in the nation set up only by volunteers, and for many of those volunteers who come back year after year, the celebration has also become something of a family reunion.

“You’re not going to find a fireworks show remotely close to this size done by volunteers,” State College resident Matt Lindenberg said. “It just doesn’t happen anymore.”

Lindenberg has been volunteering at 4th Fest for over two decades, but his lengthy contributions are not unique among the 100-plus pyro field volunteers. Many return year after year from across the state to help set up the fireworks show.

Pyrotechnic volunteers Robert Downey, Bob Mathewson and Rik Harris work together to place firework shells in their respective tubes on June 27 in preparation for the Central PA 4th Fest fireworks show. Abby Drey

As they sat down for lunch in the middle of a sweltering late June afternoon, their endless supply of jokes, laughs and playful jabs made them look like a family — a sentiment shared by the veteran volunteers.

Bonnie Mayhew from Bellefonte has been volunteering with 4th Fest for 27 years, and she oversees quality control for the show alongside Pittsburgh resident Heather Benigni.

“We’re not related at all, but she’s family,” Mayhew said of Benigni. “I think that’s what it is, we work together as a family. When we’re sitting out there and we’re watching the fireworks, we go, ‘We did that, we made this happen.’ ”

Benigni has volunteered for over a decade with her family who, like Mayhew, uses vacation time from her job to volunteer for 4th Fest.

“It’s incredible to look at this, we take two weeks to set up and that somebody would go and take two weeks vacation, come out here and spend it with us, there’s gotta be something more than ‘hey we’re coming out for a fireworks show,’ ” Lindenberg said. “It’s the family and it’s this atmosphere that we’ve created over 20 plus years that a lot of us have been working toward. Every year, side by side again and again.”

While the team of volunteers has helped light up the skies in State College every Fourth of July, they’re also looking to add members to their family.

“We’re always looking for new volunteers because — what’s a polite way to put this — some of us are getting older and we’re aging out,” said State College resident Val Updegrove, who has been volunteering for 21 years. “We really need this younger generation, the 20-year-olds and 30-year-olds, stepping up and learning from us while we’re still here to teach them, because I would love to see this continue 10, 20, 30 years down the road.”