The 17th annual Freedom Fest kicked off with the Posting of the Colors and the National Anthem Saturday morning.

Disc golfers, bicycle racers, families, businesses and soldiers celebrated active and veteran members of the military.

Kansas Army National Guard member Steve Harmon and Emporia Main Street coordinated the event as a way for the local community to get involved with raising funds for the All Veterans Memorial, scholarships for active duty and veteran soldiers and their families and launch a soldier care package program for Kansas soldiers deployed overseas.

“If you’re the founding city of Veterans Day, you need to go above and beyond,” Emporia Main Street Director Casey Woods said. “This is one of those activities where you can actively give back.”

To donate materials or money for the care packages, visit emporiamainstreet.com or visit the Emporia Main Street office.

“We started doing this right after 9/11, because we wanted to make a difference, make an impact and show our appreciation,” Harmon said.

Included in the event was the world’s only civilian Spur Challenge, which includes a 40-mile bicycle race, a 5K and a PT challenge. It is the fifth year the spur challenge has been offered, and those who have participated each year had the opportunity to win a trophy made from tank parts by the Flint Hills Technical College’s welding program.

The Freedom Ride and Dynamic Discs Open competition were also major attractions at the event. Altogether, more than 300 participants were registered for these various events. Freedom Fest also offered face painting, a rock climbing wall, a live veteran-composed band, military robotics, food trucks and more. The Emporia High School Choir hosted a fundraiser for its trip to Carnegie Hall next year.

Woods said his favorite thing about the event is watching the older veterans gather with other veterans to swap stories.

“It becomes an active gathering point for them,” Woods said about the local All Veterans Memorial. “So often, we have veterans that are so hesitant to share their stories; they don’t want to act like they’re being braggadocious. But during Veterans Week activities, we encourage that communication and sharing, both so people in the community understand what being a veteran really means and can recognize those people that not only gave during their military service, but oftentimes came back to Emporia and continued to give as community leaders.”

Local competitor Stephanie Lanter said the event is “unifying.”

“It’s something that brings everyone together, no matter what you think about whatever, and I really like that,” she said. “I think it’s really empowering for everyone involved.”

Lanter’s first bicycle race was at this event two years ago. This year, she participated in the Spur Challenge, too.

“It’s a great day to support the community and vets and kind of see what you’ve got,” she said.

Harmon said this year “exceeded all expectations.”

To further Harmon’s positive response, there were special surprises at the event — a proposal, a 100-year-old World War II veteran and one of the youngest guests led everyone in the Pledge of Allegiance.

“I don’t think I could ever say thank you enough to the veterans that came before us,” Harmon said. “I think this is a great way for the city of Emporia to continue giving back to those that gave to us.”

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