Every July the Par-a-dice Hotel Casino is flooded with readers and bestselling authors coming in from all across the United States.
They’re there for the books, but Writers On The River is more than just an event, it’s “like going home,” said Amazon bestselling author JM Walker. The New Mexico-based writer has attended the book signing every year. “Besides supporting a wonderful charity, this event has it all. Books, friends, authors, family.”
“Writers On The River is a fabulously well-organized event in the heart of the Midwest,” said Independent Publisher Book Awards (IPPY) medalist and USA Today bestselling author Genevieve Jack, a 20-year resident of central Illinois. “The love of reading is always a reason to celebrate, and the readers I’ve met at WOTR and see year after year never fail to inspire me with their passion for the written word.”
It was that love of reading that brought four friends together to create a book event unique to Peoria. Since 2016, Writers On The River — WOTR for short – has raised more than $43,000 for survivors of abuse, addiction, trafficking and prostitution. Run through the not-for-profit Healing With Words, the event brings together authors, readers and survivors to celebrate how the written word can provide entertainment and escape for anyone.
“Essentially eight years ago, Angie (Stanton-Johnson), Anya (Breton), Melinda (Bones) and I sat at a table at the Par-A-Dice Hotel and formulated Writers On The River,” said Event Coordinator Jillian Jacobs. “We work on the event every day… and honestly, we’re proud of what we’ve accomplished. We’ve been an amazing team.”
The first year, Writers On The River had just 225 readers and $1,500 in donations. Last year, the event reached 300 readers and $13,000 in donations. Some of those donations come from ticket sales. General tickets to the public event are kept at $10, with VIP, Early Access, and After Party tickets available at an upcharge. The 90 or more attending authors are announced every October. Tickets go on sale in November, with VIP and Early Access tickets often selling out in as little as a month.
But attendees don’t just splurge on upgrades for a few extra minutes with a favorite author. Thistle Farms, the primary beneficiary of Writers On The River donations, has become a beloved charity for the event’s authors and readers. For 25 years, the Nashville-based not-for-profit has provided a support and healing for women survivors, while boasting a 75% success rate, defined as women living healthy, financially independent lives more than five years after graduation.
One hour before the doors open to VIPs, Writers On The River welcomes readers, authors and the general public to hear from Thistle Farms’ Director of Events Dorris Walker-Taylor. Along with explaining how Thistle Farms helps women going through the program, Walker-Taylor shares her own survival story after 26 years of addiction and trauma.
“The first time I heard Doris speak, I was a puddle. I was crying,” shared three-year Writers On The River attendee Pam James. “I am just a reader. I sponsor this event because Thistle Farms is so worthy. WOTR is such a fun event. Knowing that the proceeds go to Thistle Farms makes it mean that much more!”
Ticket sales are only a small part of the overall funding effort. Most of the money comes from the highly anticipated raffle. In 2021, the number of baskets overwhelmed their usual space in the hallway and had to be moved to their own conference room. Special offerings such as the homemade book quilts stitched with attending author names have become coveted items. Cheers and applause can be heard as each basket is awarded.
Reader Carrie Bottrell has been attending the event for four years. “I think once attendees learn about the mission of Thistle Farms, they are completely excited to not only purchase the items but to support Writers on the River year after year.”
“Romance readers have so much passion for the stories and characters they love,” said Sara Whitney, a Peoria-based contemporary romance writer who won the inaugural RWA Vivian award for mid-length contemporary romance in 2021. “This is an amazing way for them to translate that passion into action.”
2022 will be Whitney’s first year attending the event as an author instead of a reader.
Ultimately, Jacobs and her fellow organizers sum up the event this way: “We feel the best way to spread love is to share the love of reading.”
Writers On The River will be held from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday, July 16 at Par-a-dice Hotel Casino. Tickets are available online and at the door. Visit writersontheriver.com for more information.