Director, Navy Staff, Steffanie Easter helped kick off the 2019 North Carolina Azalea Festival with the coronation of the queen April 3.
Washington, April 05, 2019.- Easter, currently visiting North Carolina to celebrate Navy Week, crowned Wilmington native Briana Venskus, signifying the beginning of the 72nd Azalea Festival.
“It’s so clear that this is a big deal for the city of Wilmington,” said Easter. “And so, to integrate that with the Navy and Navy Week, it basically says that the Navy is a big deal for Wilmington.”
She added that everyone she has met with has been very welcoming to her and to the Navy.
“It’s reassuring to know that outreach like this is reaching people; not only the people that don’t know about the Navy, but people who already have a connection and it brings them a sense of pride and that’s exciting,” said Easter. “I see the excitement on everybody’s faces when they talk about their loved ones and their family members who serve, and that’s just amazing.”
Venskus has fostered a ten-year career as an actress and production assistant, while also becoming a beacon of support for the LGBTQ community in the industry. Having grown up in Wilmington, she recognizes the strong military presence that exists there and the role it plays in her hometown.
“The military is a vital part of our nation and our local community,” said Venskus. “Especially in North Carolina, the population is so populated with military personnel, it’s crucial they attend events and are a part of the community. With everything they’re willing to sacrifice for our country, I just think it’s the best that they can attend local events and this festival and not only participate, but be celebrated.”
Jonathan Hedge, president of the Azalea Festival expresses similar sentiments. Hedge’s father served in the Navy and is a Vietnam veteran.
“I think that all the armed forces give us our freedom,” said Hedge. “It’s bought and paid for by our service people. But for them to be engaged in every activity within all of their communities is probably more important – not just because of their accolades and their acknowledgements – but that it is a volunteer organization. And we all talk about volunteerism in our communities. The ultimate volunteers in our world is our United States military. They’re all there voluntarily. They give more than everybody else, and they should be recognized for that.”
The festival, holding its inaugural event in 1948, attracts approximately 300,000 people to Wilmington each year and generates a revenue of over $51 million for the local economy.
“I’d just like to let everybody know in the city of Wilmington and the state of North Carolina that the United States Navy is ready to protect and defend them anytime, any day, and we’re happy to be here,” said Easter.