In the distance we can hear voices descending through the mountain trees. Looking up the rocky slope, we see three Italian girls, arm in arm, singing and walking toward us. Gradually we recognize the song—a favorite among LDS young women—“I Walk by Faith.” As Iris Cartia, Annalisa Brandonisio, and Stefania Ferrazzano come closer, they all begin talking at once—part in English, part in Italian, and part in French, with a lot of hand gestures. Then Stefania starts to sing a popular Italian song for us, accompanied with dancing and good-natured laughter. Soon, the girls get serious again and sing several LDS hymns. These girls, who range in age from fifteen to seventeen, come from widely different areas and backgrounds in Italy, but it is obvious that they enjoy each other.
It was the summer of 1990, and the occasion was Torchlight 90, a multi-stake LDS Young Women camp in Italy. More than 130 girls attended this week-long camp in the rugged mountains near L’Aquilla, about fifty miles from Rome.
Quite by accident, we just happened to be in Trieste, Italy, the day before the Young Women of the ward there were to leave for the camp. Rita Schina, the Young Women leader in the Trieste Ward, invited us to accompany the group. We had other plans, but a whisper in our hearts told us to go to the camp instead, so we heeded the prompting. We have been thankful ever since that we did.
There was something about the girls we met at the camp that touched us spiritually. Perhaps it was their vibrant glow and the excitement they expressed about their ideals. Or maybe it was their respect for their leaders. Certainly, much of it was their love for each other, which grew deeper every day they were together.
As the years have passed, we have corresponded with some of the girls that were part of Torchlight 90 to see if the extraordinary spirit we witnessed had continued in their lives. We have been pleased to find that it has.
The camp was divided into seven individual campsites, each representing one of the seven Young Women values. At every campsite, the girls were mixed from several stakes or districts so they could develop friends from other areas of Italy. The campsite was located on Rocco di Mezzo plateau, surrounded by rugged mountains and dotted with scattered tents full of talking, laughing girls.
Three short whistle blasts—the call to supper. The three girls hesitate for a moment, but supper can wait while they finish sharing expressions of testimony and friendship. After a few more songs from these unpretentious girls, we all reluctantly and slowly return to camp.
Every morning, all the girls gather for a flag-raising ceremony, then engage in games. This morning, there are clouds overhead and the mountain winds blow cold. The girls make a semicircle in front of the flags. As the sun gradually blossoms over the mountain peaks, everyone stands quietly for the opening prayer. The sounds of birds and crickets lightly pepper the soft whisper of the wind. This is a special morning, because Brother Christian Euvrard, a regional leader in the area, is speaking to the girls. He talks about the Young Women program as a guide for planning the future. When he finishes, he picks up a stick and breaks it as a symbol that the ceremony is over. Now it is time for games. And that’s when something unusual begins to happen.
As the girls join together in various groups, one of the groups appears isolated from the others. It is a small group of American girls whose parents work or are stationed temporarily in Italy. They don’t speak Italian, and they are not familiar with some of the everyday customs that come naturally to the Italian girls. They feel awkward. The Italian girls huddle together, then walk over to the Americans and tell them about an experience they had at a Church-sponsored event in Florence last year. “One of the members of our group did not speak Italian, so we decided to go through a whole day without speaking, using only hand signs. When the day ended, we all felt much closer to each other.” Soon both Americans and Italians are talking and singing together. It is a beginning.
The American girls’ Young Women leader, Linda Black, still lives in Verona, Italy. She wrote to us that several of the American girls became close friends with some of the Italian girls and have continued to write to them.
Annalisa Brandonisio, from Venice, wrote us, “Even though our language and customs were different, I felt united to the American group because of the strong influence of the Spirit of the Lord that was with us.”
Telling us about the camp, she said, “It was often hard for me to sleep at night, because my heart was so filled with emotion and feelings for that special week in the mountains. Torchlight 90 helped me to realize that I can get closer to God by having the right kind of friends.”
Annalisa is nineteen now. She is a stake missionary and a visiting teacher in the Modena Ward, in the Venice Italy Stake. She plans to serve a “mini-mission” this summer and a full-time mission when she is old enough.
Sonia Plescovich, from the Genoa Third Branch, Torino Italy District, wrote: “Torchlight 90 will remain in my heart for the rest of my life. Though we were many girls from many places, we all had the same ideals, the same thoughts and beliefs. Even though we had never seen each other before, it was as if we were friends from birth. I learned to love those girls as much as my own family. Because of the example of some of them, I learned to read the Book of Mormon every night. Being there and feeling the love of everyone in the camp, I felt closer to God than I have ever felt before. It seemed that the veil that divides us from God didn’t exist for a time.”
Sonia, now twenty, is the first counselor in the branch Relief Society presidency, a visiting teacher, and the branch choir director and organist. She is planning to begin a full-time mission sometime this year. In her most recent letter, she commented: “I saw some of the girls I met at Torchlight 90 at one of our latest Young Adult conferences, and we talked of the wonderful memories we have of the camp. I still have special feelings for the girls I met at Torchlight 90.”
Iris Cartia from the Vimercate Branch, Milan Italy Stake, wrote about her feelings toward the girls she met at the camp: “The Church is not spread widely in Italy yet, and even the members within a branch or ward often live far from each other. So I cherished the opportunities to get together with girls who share my beliefs and feelings. Those were special moments in my life. And from them I drew the strength to go on and be different from the world, to be a light for those around me. I know that neither time nor distance can prevent those who love the gospel from meeting together with joy, no matter where they come from.”
Shortly after the camp, Iris had written to us, “This experience helped me concentrate on the important things, like planning my life so I can go on a mission and get married in the temple someday.”
Three years later, those goals are still important to Iris. She is now nineteen and serves as the branch organist, director of the Relief Society choir, and a visiting teacher. She served a “mini-mission” in Torino, Italy, and corresponds with a 73-year-old woman she contacted as a missionary there. She plans to go on a full-time mission.
Iris continues to feel the influence of the camp in her life: “Torchlight 90 gave me an ideal and example that still lives in my heart. The example set by the leaders at the camp guides my leadership style considerably.”
Stefania Ferrazzano from the Foggia Branch, Puglia Italy District, wrote about the camp: “Being in the mountains without modern conveniences made me realize how much I took for granted and how much the Lord has blessed my life. It helped me to know that my life depends on God and that the gospel is my anchor and my guide. At the camp I learned that we have to work for the things we want to achieve, but if we do our part, the Lord will do the rest.”
Stefania is twenty now and is ready to go on a full-time mission when she turns twenty-one. Her sister is currently serving a mission in Milan. Stefania is the first counselor in the branch Relief Society presidency, branch librarian, and assistant clerk. She has also served as a Sunday School teacher for young people from twelve to eighteen. She tells us, “Even after three years, Torchlight 90’s influence on my testimony is still present.”
The Young Women gather in a “campfire circle” that has no fire—it is not lawful to have a large open campfire in these mountains. The excited conversations race back and forth, and there is vivid hand-waving as one girl or another tries to emphasize a point. All this is mixed with smiles and laughter and an occasional tear of understanding.
The girls continue to laugh and talk noisily until Sister Adele Peloni, a Young Women leader from the Venice Italy Stake and one of the camp leaders, stands, ushering in a stillness that amplifies the soft sounds of the mountain breezes. “Remember the standards of Young Women. … Be true to yourself,” she tells them.
The camp theme, “From the top, upward,” and the camp theme song, “I Walk by Faith,” reflect the ideals of the Young Women program all over the world. The girls have heard these concepts before, but somehow, in this setting, with the mountains so near and new friends by their sides, the girls feel exhilarating energy in the words that instill deeper feelings of love for one another and a greater desire to be close to the Spirit.
As the sun sets behind the towering mountains, leaving a gray cold, the girls huddle in their tents and talk about their experiences at the camp—putting up tents in the wind, making tables from wooden poles and ropes, and cooking without modern conveniences. They laugh about the games and the tricks they played on each other. Then, as the night closes in, they get more personal, and the girls share their feelings and hopes. Often these thoughts turn toward the gospel and what it means in their lives.
We had to leave the camp before the final night, so Tiziana Rossato, one of the leaders from the Venice Italy Stake, wrote to share with us that night’s experience: “In the final testimony meeting, the girls and leaders formed a big circle, hand in hand, and sang a goodbye song. They started with strong voices, but ended in tears and sobs, then total silence for a long time after the closing prayer.”
We attended the camp to see if such an experience could change the lives of young LDS girls. Now we realize that the experience changed our lives as well. The joy the girls felt in living simple gospel standards, and the unpretentious love and respect they showed to us and to each other, have been lasting influences in our lives.
We still receive letters from the girls, and they often recall for us their special feelings for the camp and for the people they met there and how their lives have been changed because of Torchlight 90. One of the girls summed up the feelings of all who attended the camp: “The Spirit of the Lord works like magic in our Young Women camps; it can touch your heart for a split second, but change your life forever.”