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Sonshine Festival in Willmar, Minn., officially begins

Chicago-based band We Are Leo performs Wednesday in Willmar. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

After the first ever Sonshine Circus, We Are Leo took the main stage, the first act of this year's Sonshine Festival. Young people slowly began to congregate in front of the stage. Others sat further back on tarps and lawn chairs. The crowds thickened throughout the night for performances by The Lost Colors, Love Out Loud and Third Day.

Sonshine, the annual four-day Christian music festival, draws nearly 20,000 people to the Willmar Civic Center and Willmar High School grounds.

But there's more to Sonshine than just music.

Many in attendance Wednesday agreed the event is fun and friendly, and provides a place for people to just be themselves.

"Everybody accepts everybody else," said Jenny Sharp of Pella, Iowa. She has been coming to the festival for six years and said her only complaint is that it's not long enough.

"We love it," she said. "There's all this music, and it doesn't matter what vibe it has, it's all worshipful."

Sharp comes to the festival with her husband, Tom, and two sons Seth, 10, and Sam, 13.

They've started their own tradition of going to Grizzly's on Willmar's South First Street the night before the festival begins. Sharp said this year one of the restaurant's staff members even recognized the family and remembered their order.

The family says it also enjoys Sonshine traditions like signing couches. Each year people bring couches to Sonshine and people sign them as they wander around Tent City.

This year, Tyler Lexvold of Woodbury got a couch from a local thrift store. Lexvold encouraged everyone to sign the couch as they walked by, but he asked them to leave the cushions blank because he would actually be sleeping on it.

Ronda Fredericks of Amery, Wis., said she saw someone hauling an old couch and thought, "oh, I bet they're going to Sonshine."

The tradition is so popular it's even on the official Sonshine website. Others have added to the tradition by bringing bags and t-shirts for people to sign. One group even encouraged people to sign their tent.

"It's a way to get a few good laughs," said Laura Johnson of Ham Lake. She brought a bag to Sonshine last year and wandered around asking people to sign it. She planned on doing the same this year.

Another tradition is the mannequin head, which travels around Tent City for photographs with campers.

"We brought her to Sonshine six years ago, and she ended up with a mullet," Alyana Gallegos of Lakeville said.

Each year Gallegos carries the mannequin head, known as Courtney to her friends, around the area for people to take pictures with. Last year, she added another mannequin head. His name is Seth.

"People just like to be silly and goofy," Cara Dimitroff of Minneapolis said.

One year, Dimitroff was walking along one of the main paths and about 20 people came rolling out in sleeping bags.

"It's like a 6-year-old slumber party with adults," said Rachel Johnson of Ham Lake.

And the fun doesn't stop when the music is over.

At night, everyone gets out of their tents and walks around.

"They have like walking parties and there's like 1,000 people walking around," said Jesse Andermann of Fairfield, Iowa. "I don't really understand it, but it's fun."

He said the atmosphere at Sonshine is very friendly. When you have secular mosh pits and people fall they just keep going, but when you have Christian mosh pits and people fall everyone stops and makes sure they're okay.

Many parents said they don't have to worry about their children because everyone is so friendly and helpful.

"We trust that if our kids need help someone will help them," Sharp said.