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Sonshine in Willmar, Minn., expects 12,000 to 'rough it' in Tent City

Roxanne Bates and her son Diago, 12, set up their tent Tuesday afternoon in front of the Willmar Civic Center along Arena Drive in preparation for the Sonshine Festival that begins tonight. (Tribune photo by TJ Jerke)

WILLMAR -- The first signs of Tent City could be seen Monday afternoon as Sonshine Festival attendees began to stake their tents that will cover the Willmar Civic Center and Senior High School areas.

Karen Oberg from Alexandria was helping set up her grandson's tent Monday afternoon as they took a lunch break in her camper.

The 61-year-old has been attending Sonshine since 1991, missing only two years.

"I love it," she said. "And I'm probably one of the oldest ones," she joked.

The 30th annual Christian music festival is slated to begin at 7 p.m. today and continue through Saturday night with an expected 12,000 to "rough it" as they camp during the four days on the edge of Willmar.

Oberg was creating a landmark at their site, with a bird chaser connected to a swimming noodle on a flower stand that would be staked into the ground to help guide her two grandsons and their friends to the area.

While setting up, she said she use to pitch a tent alongside her grandkids but "got older and decided I liked to sleep."

Oberg was heading back to Alexandria to work a few more days until the festival starts tonight. She said she took the time to bring her grandkids out on Monday because she simply enjoys it.

"It's a way for them to meet a God that's not boring," she said. "It's in a good environment and if you want to make a change for the better, you can. Even if you don't, a seed is planted."

Jeff Lexvold of Burnsville was also setting up Monday afternoon. Preparing for 20 high school students from Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, Lexvold staked out a large area with caution tape and was unloading his U-Haul full of tents, sleeping bags and totes.

While his two sons were helping set up the main stage, Lexvold was unloading as well as mapping out the large area for the 20 high school campers. With the men's tents on one side and women's on the other, he was going to create a central area, "to see what God is up to."

Lexvold holds a prayer session with his group every night following the last artist on the main stage.

"We come for the Kingdom of God," he said. "We want to be a part of building God's kingdom and do all we can to serve others in Christ's name."

Lexvold also serves as the spiritual care chaplain for the Sonshine Festival, setting up the prayer tent that gives festival-goers the opportunity to stop and pray for a moment.

By Tuesday, the grounds were noticeably filling up as many tents went up close to the main stage and vendors began setting up outside.

Roxanne Bates and her son, Diago Bates, of Ashland pulled into Willmar on Monday night and by Tuesday afternoon had their tent ready to go.

Diago, almost 12, has been attending the festival since he was pedaling a tricycle at 3 years old. The two set up camp right by the Civic Center along Arena Drive.

"It's like Christmas to him," Roxanne said about her son.

"I think it's cool," Diago said. "I like the bands like Skillet and the Newsboys."

A short distance away, Becky Bobo of Owatonna had her three tents set up and was relaxing in the shade. This year will be the third year Bobo has come by herself, leaving her two children and husband at home who, "isn't really into Christian music."

"I come for the music," Bobo said. "I just like to listen and I enjoy the words and what the music has to say."

Bobo's setup along Arena Drive includes one tent to sleep in, one tent for her cooler and another to cook in.