Jane Diaz knows it’s not “natural” in this day and age to welcome a stranger into your home.
But she’s confident you won’t regret the experience.
The Pontiac native did just that when the Walldogs came to town in 2009.
“It’s a leap of faith. ‘What do you mean I’m taking a stranger into my house?’ I get that,” Diaz said of most people’s initial reactions. “But it’s going to be something you’ll be so happy you did after the fact.”
The traveling artists are planning their trip to Streator this summer and the Walldogs committee is looking for host families to house some of the artists as they paint a number of murals on the city’s walls.
Diaz has a unique perspective as both a host as well as a traveling artist and said the events tend to feel like a family reunion of sorts.
A reunion that adds to the family every year with many host families then becoming a part of the festivities.
“It’s such a good thing for the towns,” Diaz said. “If you get behind it and engulf yourself in it, you’ll have so much fun because it’s a fun group of people.”
Meet people from different walks of life
Former Pontiac Mayor Mike Ingles and his wife, Dee, were some of those residents that engulfed themselves in the event.
The couple hosted one family and a single painter. The family even brought their teenage grandchild.
“We had a wonderful time,” Dee said. “They are just fabulous people to host and we remain friends and communicate with the artists.”
Dee said there was a minimal need to prepare the house and while they didn’t need to feed their guests, as main dishes are handled during the event, they offered breakfast and stocked up with some extra snacks and drinks.
The group got along so well the couple offered the artists to invite some friends to an after party following the murals’ completion.
Dee said the party was a huge hit and they were able to meet a number of people from different walks of life as far away as Canada and Germany.
“They had so many different life stories and enjoyed our history with Pontiac,” Dee said. “I highly encourage people to open their homes and learn from these people.”
Mike agreed, noting while many of them came from a sign painting background, it was easy to find common ground in conversation.
“I guarantee the people of Streator will enjoy not only the work but also the people themselves,” Mike said.
Since then, the couple has kept touch with the artists via email and they routinely send Christmas cards to each other.
Marilyn Shields also spoke highly of her experience as a host family.
A kindergarten teacher rode all the way from California on a motorcycle to paint with the Walldogs group in Pontiac. Shields said she loved getting to know her guest and took pleasure in seeing her local area from new eyes. The traveler complemented the flat landscape of the Midwest as well as Shields’ rural home.
The two also still keep in touch and Shields hopes to meet her in Streator.
“I think most of the people we met that are Walldogs are a good group of people,” Shields said. “It’s a lot like a family.”
Diaz said the same is true for most host families and their visiting guests and added most of the bonding takes place in front of a mural.
“You really don’t see much of them,” Diaz said. “They come the first day and you kind of check them in and show them where everything is such as towels.”
Diaz said residents in Pontiac were so excited there weren’t enough artists for all of the host families, leaving some dismayed not to receive a guest.
Streator looking for host families
Chairwoman Tara Bedei of the Streator Walldogs Committee said Streator currently has 15 host families signed up, but with an expected number of more than 150 artists that number will need to climb to around 50 to 60.
“If we could get some more that’d be great as we’d like to have a couple extras too,” Bedei said.
A number of the artists will be camping or seeking hotels, but host families can offer a cost-effective and close option for those returning to the festival numerous days.
Bedei said she’s working with the Walldogs to “line up some personalities” so residents can be matched with artists that fit their personality.
“There’s a lot of lasting friendships,” Bedei said of the process. “It’s a fun thing.”
Bedei will be hosting an artist she’s met before from Barbados and is excited about taking part.
Diaz said she was proud of the number of people that stepped up in Pontiac and expect Streator residents will be just as satisfied with the experience.
Her own boys were hesitant to the idea when they went to the first event at Allerton, Iowa, but were easily won over upon taking part. They’ll now act as a couple of the leaders of Streator’s effort.
She expects the reunion will grow in numbers following the Streator event.
“It’s a big family reunion,” Diaz said. “I betcha there will be some people at the next one from Streator because they had such a good time.”
Where can I sign up?
Streator residents and those in nearby communities can sign up to be a host family at streatorwalldogs.com and click on “Help Us” and “Host a Walldog.” They can also register by calling Cindy Wheeler at 815-672-9838.
The Streator Walldogs celebration will be held Wednesday, June 27 through Sunday, July 1.