With people pouring into United Way of St. Charles’ 14th annual Battle for the Paddle competition last Thursday, it’s no surprise that one of the parish’s largest fundraisers drew a record 7,356 people and 135 teams.
“It’s a fun event that allows some of our favorite things in South Louisiana,” said Melissa Manning Frederick, UW campaign and marketing manager. “As more people are aware of the event, what a great time the event is … it just continues to grow. It’s $5 for all you can eat jambalaya and gumbo, which is truly what causes the event to grow so much.”
The cook-off started and remains the kickoff for the United Way’s yearly campaign, as well as fun for the family, helping the community and remaining affordable, especially when children 10 years old or younger eat free.
Last year’s campaign generated $2.8 million.
“We are so amazed at the generosity of the community,” Frederick said. “Every year, with the Bridge Run, Battle for the Paddle and campaign, they step up and support UW. It’s a testament to our community’s generosity.”
The goal reflects “zero kids going hungry or zero senior citizens not receiving the care they need,” Frederick said. “Until all the needs of the people of St. Charles Parish are met our goal is to continue raising money.”
Frederick also attributed the growth to Event Coordinator Tamara Plattsmier, a home grown girl who passionately brainstorms ways to grow the cook-off. Last year, she directed the addition of a free kiddie carnival that resulted from UW’s partnership with Destrehan High School’s Destiny careers students who planned, developed and manned the carnival.
“We are ecstatic over the growth over the last couple of years,” Plattsmier said. “The problems that we have are great problems to have. When you’re problem is where to put the people, that’s a great problem to have.”
This year’s crowd is up from last year’s 7,000 and there were more teams from last year’s 123. A considerable amount of the event growth came in the last two years, particularly in 2013 when they registered 109 teams and saw ballooning attendance at 3,800 people.
Plattsmier said they’re already getting calls from people who want to register a four-person team next year.
“It’s kind of unexpected,” she said of the increased attention the cook-off is getting. “It seems it’s getting more buzz this year as more people find out about it.”
She also praised the more than 200 volunteers who help make an event this size happen. Among them was the Satellite Center’s Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism class students who helped separate and distribute supplies including 15,000 bowls and spoons to the teams.
Also, nine judges helped choose the team winners from among 85 jambalaya teams and 50 gumbo teams. She also praised area residents for supporting the event.
Heralded as the parish’s largest single-day event, Plattsmier said they’re discussing growing pains.
In 2001, the Battle for the Paddle started with six to seven industry leaders who had a meeting at Dow.
“We basically asked each other what we could do to raise awareness for UW and celebrate the campaign season,” said Ricky Cheramie, one of the founders and an oil movements operations superintendent with Valero Energy Co. “We came up with the idea of a jambalaya cook-off as some of the plants were doing this internally anyway.”
The first cook-off was held in the parking lot of the West Bank Bridge Park with 17 teams mostly from local industry, including Valero (then called Orion), Cornerstone (then called Cytech), Monsanto, Entergy and Dow.
“We grew to 25 teams the next year and, in the third and fourth years, we held it at the Mule Barn at Destrehan Plantation,” Cheramie recalled.
By 2005, the gumbo category was introduced to the competition to celebrate the parish’s bicentennial.
“Gumbo was such a large part of our heritage and we were supposed to add it for that year only,” he said. “It never went away since 2005. After that, it kept growing into the event you see today and has been in the large parking area at the West Bank Bridge Park since.”
Cheramie said the cook-off has been traditionally held on Thursday to draw the cooking teams.
“No. I never dreamed it would ever get as big as it has,” he said. “It has truly exceeded my expectations and brought this community together in ways that are indescribable. I am very proud of the volunteers that have helped to make this event happen every year, and I have made some lifelong friends along the way.”