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Road Trip: Behind the Scenes at a Homeschool Convention

By Rhonda Barfield
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #52, 2003.

Rhonda takes us there.
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Lisa and Rhonda Barfield

It was Tuesday, around 3:00 in the afternoon, May 7th. For the past hour Michael, the kids, and I have been driving under an expansive gray sky with horizon-to-horizon farmland passing by.

Following hastily written directions, we turned off the county highway onto a gravel road that wanders toward a cluster of houses and outbuildings. As we pulled into the parking lot of the largest structure, we were met by three huge, baying dogs, tails wagging in a guarded greeting. A sign on one of the vans validated my hopes. At last, we had located the Rainbow Resource Center.

Inside the 11,000-square-foot building, I found someone to lay out the plan of action for our road trip. My son Eric (15) and I were hitching a ride east to the Christian Homeschoolers Association of Pennsylvania (CHAP) convention, my first time speaking and selling books there. We unloaded my books and our bags from the van, then waved goodbye as Michael and our three youngest headed back to St. Louis.

Conventioneering is still a new and relatively unexplored venture for me. Rainbow Resource Center, on the other hand, is thoroughly experienced. From April to June each year, both owners and employees are on the road to homeschool conferences all over the United States, taking along some of the 17,000-plus products stocked in the warehouse. Even now, employees finished loading more than 200 18-gallon Rubbermaid totes with 4100 different products - 23,000 items total - to be sold at the CHAP convention.

By evening, the whole crew was on the road. Eric and I were slated to travel with Zach (20) and Genevieve (23) Smith, employees, in a 15-passenger van. Jerry Sanderson, business manager, his wife Karen, and their boys, Zach (13) and Jordy (11) were following in a Ford pickup. Heading the pack, Bob and Linda Schneider, owners of Rainbow, shared a custom-made camper with their three youngest children, Mark (12), Janine (8), and Stevie (5), plus John Steinbron (19), a good friend of the family. The three vehicles each pulled trailers loaded with books and supplies.

About two hours out, we took a short dinner break at Steak 'n' Shake in Champaign. This was a chance for the Schneiders to visit with their two older daughters, Jessica and Stephanie, who are students at the University of Illinois. Another few hours down the road, we turned into an Indiana hotel for the night.

Next day, we traveled steadily. Drivers communicated via cell phones, and sometimes we stopped more often than planned. After pulling over at two consecutive rest areas, Jerry asked, "Didn't we just do this?"

Between breaks, Eric and I learned more about Genevieve and Zach. Both are homeschool graduates from New Zealand, where their parents head the nation's homeschooling organization. What a social studies lesson - discovering, for instance, that New Zealand's high schools are the equivalent of America's colleges, and that natives prefer roasts and a variety of vegetables for their meals. I loved to listen to Genevieve's delightful New Zealand accent as she told us about life "down under."

Between conversations about culture, favorite cartoons, and the five points of Calvinism, we filled the time with reading and watching the scenery roll by. After a long day of driving we arrived in Harrisburg and checked into a Days Inn. "Be ready tomorrow by 8:30 AM, sharp," Bob reminded us.

May 9th, Thursday, was the official set-up day for vendors at the 16th annual CHAP convention. Our caravan arrived at Harrisburg's Farm Show Complex and waited for a place to park. The next few hours we spent maneuvering around other vendors and their trailers, carrying in the heavy displays, and arranging tables. Zach had to leave to find an office supply store and buy two more tables, replacing the ones that were accidentally left behind. Then came the job of hauling the totes, some very heavy, especially the ones filled with Saxon math books.

Rainbow's "booth" was actually a large, open, table-filled area on the southeast side of the enormous Farm Show complex. My own booth was simple: one table with a curtained backdrop. Eric and I set up the Lilac Publishing display, featuring my three book titles on the table plus four boxes of back stock below it, in exactly half an hour. We decided to spend the rest of our day helping our friends at Rainbow.

Author Rhonda Barfield helps set up a booth
Everyone, including the children, continued to work fast and hard. As boxes were unloaded, Janine and Stevie carried them to a curtained area reserved for vendors' empty cartons. Zach helped set up the last of the tables. Jordy screwed in clamps to help hold displays in place. During lulls in the action, Stevie delighted in scaring us all with little mice puppets in a box. Both children and adults labored together to arrange the vendor area just so.

Surprisingly, the most involved work was still ahead. Once the stands, book holders, and displays were in place, we began to follow Linda's detailed hand-written maps in assigning books to their proper places. Karen and I tackled the history books: "Here's the one on castles; no, wait, we need Castles by Kingfisher." Though there was room for improvisation, I learned to follow the map as accurately as possible and rely on Linda's time-tested knowledge of book arranging.

The morning hours soon slipped by, and we lunched at a nearby McDonalds. Then we went back to work. It took all of us - Bob, Linda, Jerry, Karen, Zach, Genevieve, John, and the children (plus Eric and I volunteering part of the afternoon) - ten hours to set up the complete display. Dinner and bed were welcomed that night.

On May 10th, Friday, the Rainbow Resource Center crew and guests were in their places at the Farm Show complex before 9:00 AM. Jerry told me this was his second trip to Pennsylvania. "The first time, it was hard for me to visualize the number of attendees, between 8,000 and 9,000," he said. "When the doors first opened, I told my wife, 'I guess it's going to rain; I hear thunder.'" The sound turned out to be the pounding of a few thousand feet on the Farm Show Complex's concrete floors, echoing on the roof far overhead.

9:00... 9:15... 9:30... Eric and I, in the Lilac Publishing booth, experienced a trickle-down effect as more than 370 volunteers and special guests browsed the big vendors first, then meandered our way. We soon learned the fine art of drawing in passersby, standing at the outside edge of our booth near the table and passing out free recipe cards.

Meanwhile, the Rainbow Resource Center area, with 28 six-foot-long tables crammed with products, was overrun with customers. I took a break and checked in with the Schneiders. Several women were waiting in line to ask questions and to make purchases, so I left to explore.

The Farm Show vendor hall was a giant, crowded maze, and walking through the building was like taking a Who's Who in Homeschool tour. I stopped by Diana Waring's display to say hello to her husband Bill, and told him how much our family had enjoyed their materials. Eric met Steve Demme of Math-U-See; Steve commented that it was rare for him, at 6'5", to be able to look a 15-year-old in the eye. Joyce Herzog, Debra Bell, Amanda Bennett, Barry Stebbing, and many other names caught my attention.

Then there were the smaller vendors, not as well known but just as intriguing. Fran, a former teacher who had written her own English curriculum, sat immediately to the south of us. On the opposite side, a local college invited passers-by to learn about their program for high-schoolers. Around the corner, a homeschool family sold handmade harps, and the daughters took turns playing them. With nearly 170 vendors, there was plenty to see.

One young couple, Katie and John Newton, had set up their Corps of Re-Discovery display two booths down from ours. Their three children (10, 8, and 15 months) kept busy, sometimes in a portable play yard, sometimes back of the curtained show area just behind their booth. "My husband and I sold our home and bought a 32-foot motor home," Katie said. "We're going to see if we can make a living as vendors this summer." And what if it doesn't work, I asked. "Then my husband will have to get a regular job," she said, smiling. "But so far, we're doing OK."

By noon, Eric and I were running on empty and needed refueling. In a nearby curtained area, designated the vendors' hospitality room, waiters had pushed aside breakfast doughnuts and started serving pasta with sauce, lettuce salad, and cookies. Not that there was much time for eating, done in shifts and in a hurry. The crowd size was steadily growing.

At 1:00 PM I gave my first workshop, on cooking systems, while Eric distributed handouts. An hour and a half later, we were back at the booth. Someone had opened the large freight-loading doors on the northwest side of the hall, and a refreshing breeze blew in from the overcast day. "Good thing it's cool this year," Genevieve had told us earlier. "Last year, with no air conditioning, we baked."

3:00... 4:00... By 5:00, quitting time, I was tired. Bone tired. Aching-feet, sick-of-smiling tired. One homeschooler, waiting for her daughter to finish work at the Tobin's Lab booth, lingered in casual conversation. I tried to focus on her words, but my mind had left the building. Diana Waring dragged past, head hanging. When I asked how she was, her answer was one word, "TIIIIIRED."

One day down, one to go.

May 11th, we all reassembled early at the bustling Days Inn lobby for breakfast. We checked out and loaded our suitcases into the vehicles. By 7:50 AM, Eric and I were at our booth and ready. Saturday at the convention promised to be even busier than Friday.

My second workshop, "Cut Your Grocery Bill in Half," was scheduled for 9:00. Afterward, three young couples cornered me to get more information. I asked them if they had children, and all laughed. "No," one woman answered, "none of us are parents yet. We're just planning ahead for when we will homeschool."

Around noon I ate a quick lunch in the hospitality room, then hurried back to our booth. There were some great conversations with people asking questions about my cooking system and grocery budgeting. More books sold. The clamor and the activity were energizing.

By 3:00 I was beginning to fade. As much as I had enjoyed selling, quitting time looked good. I walked the vending floor one last time, thinking about my own homeschooling needs for next year. Eric looked over Fran's English book, and she browsed through 15-Minute Cooking.

4:45. The loudspeaker announced, "Ladies and gentlemen, the CHAP convention will be closing in 15 minutes. Please make your final selections."

4:50. A few last-minute buyers made hurried purchases. One lady, who'd visited our booth at least three times, decided to buy a book.

5:00. The convention had officially ended. The whirlwind of activity, the unloading and arranging, the thrill of the sale, the satisfaction in knowing your materials may help a homeschooling family, all finished. Time for little Lilac Publishing to count the money and pack up, a ten-minute task.

Over at the Rainbow Resource Center, thousands of books had sold. They'll have an easier go of it as they pack the totes for home. Still, it will take longer than our ten-minute pack-up.

Staring out into an aisle-empty hall, I found myself reflecting on the unique occupation of the homeschool vendor. The exhaustion of long-haul travel, fast food, lugging boxes, strange motel rooms, long convention hours, and yet... there was definitely a lure to this lifestyle.

Nada Rothgaber, speaker coordinator for the 2002 CHAP convention, told me this: "Our experience is that the vendors who last on the homeschool convention circuit are the ones who are not in it for the money, but are there because God has given them a servant's heart. They provide the homeschool families materials or services that make the parents' job of educating their children easier."

The crew from Rainbow Resource Center certainly fit that description. Bob and Linda Schneider, as veteran homeschoolers of 16 years, have carefully researched to find the best materials for both their own children and their customers. "We want to bring as many different items as possible to conventions," Bob says, "so people can see the materials and make informed choices about curriculum. And we want to offer our materials at discounted prices where possible because we know many homeschool families are making financial sacrifices in order to homeschool."

These are worthy goals, ones I saw fulfilled in many of the vendors at the CHAP convention. It gave me a deeper appreciation for homeschool vendors. Still, I've decided that I would never want the lifestyle for myself and my family: too hectic, too demanding, too risky.

And yet...

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