Annual festival in Ypsilanti raises money for education

Patrick Dunn
Special to The Detroit News

The Mittenfest music festival and fundraiser started small in 2006, bringing in just $1,000 for its beneficiary, Ann Arbor-based children’s writing education nonprofit 826michigan.

But 826michigan executive director Amanda Uhle, who had just come on board that year, says that was “a major, major portion of our annual budget at that point.”

“It was just this superb thing that brought together the community in this creative way and helped us,” Uhle says.

Mittenfest will celebrate its 10th anniversary at Ypsilanti’s Bona Sera Café this year, marking a decade of major growth for the festival and the organization it benefits. In 2006, 826 had a staff of two, offering writing tutoring services to 450 students primarily in Ann Arbor. Today, the organization’s nine staffers and 500 volunteers tutor more than 3,200 students a year in Detroit, Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor.

While the original fest took place in a single day, featuring 14 folk-oriented acts, the event has become increasingly robust. This year’s fest will have a six-day run, Dec. 29-Jan. 2, at Bona Sera, featuring 35 Michigan-based indie-rock and folk bands with a few punk and electronic acts thrown in.

Fred Thomas, a former Ann Arbor-based musician who now lives in Montreal, played the first Mittenfest. Thomas will return for the opening night, along with Detroit rockers Frontier Ruckus and several other artists who played the original event. Thomas says it’s “strange” to realize that this is the festival’s 10th anniversary, because even the inaugural Mittenfest felt like a long-running event.

Mittenfest has become something of a standing engagement for Thomas, who has played the fest five times, and Ypsilanti musician Matt Jones, who has played all nine years and will return this year. The lineup this year includes 19 bands that have never played the festival before. Jones says the fest “isn’t just about one band or one group of musicians.”

“It’s definitely not a popularity contest,” he says. “I like to watch older, more veteran musicians as they watch younger bands.”

The event has continued to be a boon to 826, having raised $125,000 for the organization since its inception. 826 allocates Mittenfest funds toward its tutoring efforts in Ypsilanti schools, where the organization currently spends the majority of its time and money (although Uhle says Detroit operations are growing and will eventually surpass Ypsilanti).

“It’s pretty great that they have a fundraiser every year that is pretty much guaranteed a large payout,” Jones says. “I can’t think of many other causes around here that I would do it every year for.”

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer.

Mittenfest X

8:30 p.m.-2 a.m. Dec. 29-Jan. 2

Bona Sera Café

200 W. Michigan, Ypsilanti

$10 donation per night

(734) 340-6335