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Sonshine is more than just music

Bethany Hanson, left, and Hannah Gomes, both of North Branch, work together Wednesday at they erect a tent ahead of the Sonshine Festival on the grounds of the Willmar Civic Center and Senior High School in northeast Willmar. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

WILLMAR - Before the music started Wednesday evening, dedicated fans were setting up their campsites in Sonshine Music Festival's Tent City.

Campers could officially start setting up their tents and parking their RVs at 10 a.m. Wednesday, but many had arrived Tuesday to get the best spot and get settled in long before the music started playing.

Located on the grounds of the Willmar Civic Center and nearby Willmar Senior High School in northeast Willmar, Sonshine is a Christian music festival that draws thousands each year. Music on multiple stages will be featured today through Saturday, and there are various other activities and vendors as well.

On Wednesday afternoon, Mandy Flores and Samantha Eyck of Winkler, Manitoba, Canada, were putting up their tent, even though they had just arrived in Willmar after a six-hour drive.

"We camp because it's more of an experience," Flores said. "It's a great way to make friends, plus you're closer to the action."

This is their fifth time coming to Sonshine, and the two friends have their reasons for continuing to come back.

"There's just so many awesome bands," Eyck said. "Camping here gives us a good chance to meet the bands too."

Tim Bode, of Chanhassen, was busy setting up his tent for his eighth Sonshine experience, though his crew is considerably smaller than last year, bringing only his 12-year-old son, Lane, and his friend Johnny Erdman, 13.

"My oldest son was the one who was originally interested in it, and he said we should come, and we've been coming ever since," Tim Bode said. "Now I'm down to only having one son here. This is actually the first year without my middle son."

Lane Bode said it felt lonely without his older brother and all his friends camping nearby them, but even without the additional people, he was still looking forward to all the music.

"There's always a few bands I'm really excited about, but I also look forward to discovering new bands," Tim Bode said. "This is a great way to find new bands to listen to."

This is Erdman's second year coming to Sonshine with the Bode family, and he said he was looking forward to meeting new people again this year.

"Last year we had a lot of fun in the Civic Center when it got really hot," Erdman said. "We probably spent too much time in there."

Anita Youderin, of Duluth, and her daughters Mindy and Kelsey were putting the finishing touches on their large campsite for the 15th year in a row Wednesday afternoon. Kelsey Youderin called it their annual vacation.

"For us, it's all about the heat and the bands," Anita Youderin said. "I'm a youth minister, and we started coming because I brought the youth group, but now they all grew up."

But the Youderins still come, bringing with them other family friends, including Alli Roner, 15, and Maddie Urrutia, 14, both of Duluth. This year is Roner's first time at Sonshine and Urrutia's second time.

"I came this year because all my friends told me it was fun, and I came for the music," Roner said.

Urrutia came back again because she had fun last year, but the first few hours of this year's Sonshine were testing the teenagers. Temperatures on Wednesday reached 93 in Willmar according to the observations recorded at the airport, and the southern third of the state was under a heat advisory that the National Weather Service has issued through 9 p.m. today.

"It's hot, and we're trying to get the tent set up," Urrutia said. "But I love hanging out here with all my family and friends."

Anita Youderin said she still sees Sonshine as a chance to relax and listen to some more well-known bands.

"The experience just wouldn't be the same if we were staying off-site," she said.

Her daughters Mindy and Kelsey said staying in a tent for the week was just part of the experience and they consider staying in a camper as cheating.

"There's always the storm that comes through every year," Mindy Youderin said. "We spent hours at the laundromat a few years ago when a tornado came through, just trying to dry everything out."

Glen Middendort, of Fridley, said he has come to Sonshine for about 10 years with various groups of people, but this year he came alone.

"I love outdoor Christian music festivals," Middendort said. "I'm sure I'll know people as the week goes on."

Middendort said he'll continue camping as long as he can.

"I'm only 65," he said. "I've stayed in a hotel a few times, but it's just not the same, so I bring my airbed and camp stove and cook out here."

The Bodes offered some advice for Sonshine first-timers.

"Drink lots and lots of water," Tim Bode said. "One year, one of the girls in my youth group got very overheated on the first day, so you need to be careful of that. Sleeping can be a challenge because people stay up late, playing games and talking, so earplugs are a must."

Lane Bode stressed drinking water and also suggested bringing entertainment.

"Sometimes there aren't any bands you want to listen to, or you just want to hang out at the tent, so we always toss a frisbee or football around," he said.

Tim Bode also encourages first-time attendees to take in all the music.

"Listen to as much music as you can stand," he said. "That's why I come. Sometimes I would bring youth groups and they would just sit at the tent the entire week. You didn't pay $85 to sit at a tent, so take advantage of all the music around you."