In 2006, Kevin Rieck was chatting with travel agent Jen Palka about a trip when Palka asked a question that wound up starting a movement.
“Do you like the Dave Matthews Band?” she inquired, referring to the hat Rieck was wearing, which was decorated with the band’s album artwork.
Yes, he answered. He and his wife, Christine, were super-fans who went to several concerts a year.
Well, said Palka, so did she and her boyfriend (now husband), Justin.
Laughing, she asked Rieck: “Did we just become best friends?”
Next thing you know, the two couples started organizing a tailgate party to precede a Dave Matthews Band concert at the BB&T Pavilion. They invited a couple of dozen friends and partied on the rooftop of the Camden Aquarium parking garage.
After six years of successful tailgates, they asked the growing number of attendees to donate money to cover the cost of the food, craft beer, and wine everyone enjoyed.
And the next day, a few hundred dollars were left over.
“We didn’t feel right pocketing that money,” says Rieck. “So we found a local food bank and donated it.”
When they posted on Facebook what they’d done, and thanked those who’d kicked in, they were taken by how excited everybody was about the donation.
“We sat back and were like, ‘This could be bigger, it could be something kind of cool,’ ” says Rieck.
And thus was born the Tailgate Caravan, an organization of friends who have raised more than $17,000 for charity at tailgate parties they host before concerts (primarily by the Dave Matthews Band). Last year alone, the group did six events, raising more than $12,000 for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), the Philadelphia FOP Survivor’s Fund, and Feeding America.
The group’s motto?
“Do good and feed people — while having fun and feeding people.”
Participation in the events has swelled since that long-ago first tailgate. About 230 people attended the Caravan’s most recent bash on June 15, prior to the Dave Matthews concert at the BB&T Pavilion. Party-goers paid $40 apiece in exchange for color-coded wristbands good for food, drinks, and a live performance by Rhyme and Reason, a local Dave Matthews tribute band.
They also posed for selfies in front of a sign printed with the caravan’s #PartyWithaPurpose hashtag. Bought raffle tickets (Palka’s employer, Apple Vacations, provided a trip for two to Punta Cana). Purchased caravan merchandise (like license plates, stickers, and T-shirts). And chowed down on the cheesesteaks, sausage, and “signature fries,” made by Rieck, who manned the griddle for five hours.
All told, the event raised $8,000 for charity.
One of the attendees was Nick Emeigh, director of outreach and development for the Bucks County office of NAMI, one of Tailgate Caravan’s designated charities. (He came dressed as “NAMI man, "a superhero “who crushes stigma, which is the biggest barrier to treatment.”)
Tailgate Caravan’s donations really have had an impact on NAMI, he says.
“We offer [our services] at no cost, so it’s a huge help,” he said. “A thousand dollars is like a million dollars to us.”
The Tailgate Caravan presented NAMI with a $2,000 check last year, which had a profound effect on Palka.
“Giving them the money is one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done in my life,” Palka says. “I get choked up when I talk about it. The office was so small we could hardly fit into it. Everyone was in tears. Through our help [and others], they were able to get a bigger office this year.”
The Tailgate Caravan has garnered mentions on the social-media accounts of the Dave Matthews Band’s official fan club. But the biggest thrill came when Stefan Lessard, the band’s bassist, met Christine and Kevin Rieck before a show.
“I was like, ‘Oh, my life is complete now. Stefan knows who we are!’ ” said Christine.
The Camden event was the first of five that the Tailgate Caravan has planned this year — two in New York state, one in Virginia, and another in Camden. The group hopes to raise at least $10,000 by the end of the summer.
But long term, they would love to grow their fund-raising ability, possibly with an official connection to the band.
“If we’re able to do what we did last year with a 250-person tailgate, imagine how much good we could do with a 3,000-person tailgate," Kevin Rieck said.
Meantime, the group is searching for other super-fan communities for whom they can stage events, in case the Dave Matthews Band scales back its touring schedule. Those groups would have big shoes to fill, since the Dave Matthews Band’s most passionate followers have proven to be an especially philanthropic bunch.
“It’s something in our heart and our soul, because we’re so inspired by everything the band does,” Palka said. “Part of the lyrics from the song ‘You Might Die Trying’ say, ‘If you give, you begin to live’ and ‘To change the world starts with one step.’ So we wanted to take that one step."