Winter light: Youth conference combines growth with charitable actions

Showcasing the holiday spirit, an upcoming conference will lead high-school youth from across the country through guided self-assessments while engaging them in hands-on work to benefit migrant farmworkers.

Now in its 35th year, the Winterlight conference “is Episcopal in nature, basically,” co-coordinator Dee Zeller explains. “Kids come together, and we do a conference on a theme.” Winterlight 35’s theme is “Decisions for Life,” she notes.

Participants will talk about past decisions — how they made the person feel, where each person wants to go in life and what prior decisions they might have made differently.

“So the final one is, ‘What decisions are you going to make now?’” Zeller notes. “And who do you need to put in your life for that — whether it is God, the right people, or how do you make decisions that get you where you want to be and that keep you humble?”

Kanuga, a nonprofit conference center with a 1,400 acre campus near Hendersonville, is affiliated with the Episcopal Church, though its programs are open to everyone.

Zeller and colleague Scott Jeffries are both coordinating Winterlight for the first time, though Zeller worked at Kanuga as a student and Jeffries has attended the conference for years.

“It’s a little exciting, a little unnerving, but at the same time, it’s definitely an honor, and I can’t wait to see what we can come up with when the kids actually get there,” says Jeffries. “A lot of them know each other, so they’ll catch up [first]. And then that evening, they’ll kind of get introduced to the overarching theme of ‘Decisions for Life’ — what our plan is for the week and what we expect them to learn.”

Each day, the youth will tackle a specific topic, building toward the final day, when they’ll consider their future decisions and how everything fits together, he explains.

The coordinators decided to break up the teams to expose participants to a mix of personalities and points of view, Jeffries reveals.

“So it’s just a really great, open environment for the youth to kind of get a positive influence on their life,” he says.

A blanket statement
In between grappling with key decisions, conference participants will also assemble fleece blankets for distribution to migrant workers, in partnership with Blue Ridge Community Health Services, Zeller reports.

“So this is a way for us to impact our local community,” she explains. “And deal with what impact we can really make, and also how can we partner so that, one day, we can even go out into [migrant workers’] world to take a look at this.”

Blue Ridge, a nonprofit based in Hendersonville, works with “about 2,500 farm workers each year,” says Milton Butterworth, the agency’s director of community relations. “That’s through both our outreach program and those that are seen here in the clinic.”

There are two main categories of migrant farm workers, he notes: single men who travel around in crews and more traditional family units consisting of a mother, father and three or four kids.

“But in many cases, these families and the single men travel from work area to work area,” Butterworth reveals. “Let’s say from Florida to North Carolina and back, with literally the clothes on their back and a few basic belongings. They really, because they’re mobile, are not afforded the luxury of being able to take a lot of things with them.”

Besides helping these workers keep warm, Blue Ridge Community Health sees the partnership with Winterlight as a way to educate conference participants while boosting community awareness, says Butterworth.

Accordingly, youth from these migrant families will come to Winterlight to give a presentation and lead a discussion about migrant work, says Zeller. “And then we’re going to learn a little bit about migrant work. What it means, what it does to families, why is it necessary, and then how can we as a population pay attention to that?”

“So that’s what we try to do,” she concludes. “Get the kids to open their eyes to what’s around them.”

Winterlight 35 runs from Monday, Dec. 27 through Saturday, Jan. 1 at Kanuga, near Hendersonville. The conference is for students in grades nine through 12. For more info, go to kanuga.org/conferences/2010/winterlight.shtml.

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2 thoughts on “Winter light: Youth conference combines growth with charitable actions

  1. James Richards

    I had a blast at Winterlight years ago and am glad to see the conference remains vibrant.

  2. D.W.

    I’m not the church-going type, but this seems like a positive-impact program, broadening the horizons of young people.

    Good writing too.

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