Multistake Youth Conferences Build Character, Community, Testimony
By Ian M. Houston, Jacalyn Stanley, Steven McAllister, and Liz McAllister, Church News and Events contributors
On July 21, 2012, 1,300 youth from seven stakes in Virginia—Annandale, Ashburn, Centreville, Fredericksburg, McLean, Mount Vernon, and Woodbridge—gathered on the stadium stage at Patriot High School in Nokesville for the finale of their three-day Youth Celebration, which included three performances of a powerful dance festival sponsored by the Church.
Youth held flashlights and white flags while full-time missionaries from the region—accompanied by a medley of “True to the Faith” and “Onward, Christian Soldiers”—came onto the field waving to a cheering crowd of thousands.
Prior dance numbers ranged from Bollywood and hip-hop to the “Cupid Shuffle” and the waltz. Some youth auditioned to learn and perform smaller specialty numbers that expressed faith in Jesus Christ, told the story of America’s history, or showcased cultural dances.
“One of my dances taught us to be strong and firm and never give up. We not only need to do this while dancing but also through our whole lives while living the standards of the Church,” said 15-year-old Suzette W. of the Centreville stake before joining several hundred other youth on the stage.
The performances were part of a unique regional youth celebration inspired by President Thomas S. Monson's oft-repeated encouragement for large youth events that “enable our youth to participate in something they truly find unforgettable” (“Welcome to Conference,” Ensign, Nov. 2008, 6).
Across the world, Church leaders have taken that counsel to heart, and many are seeing the blessings of engaging youth in wholesome activities with others who share their standards.
Youth from four stakes in Vancouver, Washington, along with the Longview Washington, The Dalles Oregon, and Salem Oregon Stakes, provided more than 5,500 hours of service on Friday, June 29, during their three-day youth conference held at Skyview High School in Vancouver, Washington.
The 1,400 14- to 18-year-olds descended on southwest Washington, fanning out in groups of 50 to 300 to preassigned locations spread throughout the county, and went to work. They painted, weeded, sorted, washed, raked, planted, mowed, and hammered.
One home in Salmon Creek, owned by 85-year-old Walter Remme, needed some maintenance. In four hours, the youth painted a detached garage and a large shed a cheerful red, washed vinyl siding, and pulled weeds.
Another group of youth visited a nonmember home in need of a new backyard deck. An elderly woman who lived in the home had fallen through the old deck a year before, injuring herself. When her daughter, who is disabled and lives with her mother, learned that the youth were coming to her home to build a new deck and clean her yard, she was amazed. “People don’t do that kind of thing anymore. . . . They used to, when I was young . . . , but you just don’t see that anymore,” she said.
Seven of the projects were for the Vancouver Parks Department. Jarin M., 16, who was helping to clean up a local park, said that as he worked, many people walking through the park commented how grateful they were for the work being done. When the youth were asked how they felt about their service, they responded, “It felt good,” and “We loved doing it.”
Youth described the conference overall—which also included a talent show, performances by choirs, Book of Mormon reenactments, and special speakers—as “wonderful,” “huge,” and “life-changing,” and local leaders pointed out that the service was a blessing to the community.
Such detailed planning—including organizing multiple stakes, transportation and food for hundreds or thousands of youth, and multiple days of activities—inevitably creates community building between stakes, between participating youth, and between community members.
Organizers of northern Virginia’s 2012 Youth Celebration invited local community leaders to the youth dance festival and used social media in creative ways to increase exposure to the event and share information.
A few weeks prior to the celebration, a little more than 100 youth in Fredericksburg, Virginia, gathered at a local shopping mall to take part in a “flash mob,” performing a cha-cha for surprised and excited customers.
As the youth dancers melted back into the crowd, they passed out flyers for spectators to learn about the celebration’s ticketing and events, all of which were free of charge. Several hundred bystanders watched, and one observer referred to it as a “Mormon microburst,” while others praised the teenagers' being engaged in wholesome activities.
Elder Jack N. Gerard, Area Seventy, emphasized inclusion and unity as the eight-member priesthood oversight committee (staffed by stake presidency members from each of the seven participating stakes) and the 30-member regional planning committee worked together to create a rich and faith-promoting experience under the banner “Arise. Stand. Shine.”
The senior priesthood organizer, Centreville Virginia Stake president Steven L. Hilton, worked with hundreds of volunteers from each of the stakes. “This event required significant planning and practice over many months, and we encountered obstacles and logistical challenges all along the way,” he said. “But it has built faith, developed talents, and fostered lasting friendships.”
At the opening ceremonies of northern Virginia’s Youth Celebration, President Hilton addressed the crowd of youth participants and their supporting cast of adult leaders: “We have gathered to celebrate your youth, your goodness, the Restoration of the gospel, the Savior’s Atonement, and His invitation to you as you live in a telestial world to abide by celestial law,” he said.
The first night, the youth prepared by listening to talks from leaders including Mary N. Cook, first counselor in the Young Women general presidency, and Elder Jack N. Gerard.
“Arise like President Thomas S. Monson and be a leader,” Sister Cook said. “Have courage to stand for truth and righteousness by living the standards and being virtuous. Through the Savior’s Atonement you will shine. You are shining. You will change this part of the world.”