Anatomy of a Youth Conference


A youth conference can be a lot of fun when you plan it yourself—especially if there’s an island nearby.

It all started when President Searle called me into his office and asked me to be the chairman of the youth conference. He asked if I would accept the call, and I very quietly said yes. He and his counselor set me apart and gave me a blessing. I remember coming home and telling my parents. Then I sat on the couch just crying. Mom asked, “Why are you crying? This is a neat thing.” I just cried and cried. It felt so good to be needed. I hope each one of the kids realize how needed they are.

Charmaine Moncur poured out her feelings and frustrations in her journal as she and a dozen other youth leaders assigned to head a variety of committees worked to make the youth conference for the Los Angeles and Inglewood Stakes a reality. This youth conference was different than those held in past years. This youth conference would be planned and carried out by the youth themselves. They chose fellowshipping as the theme. Susan Cowley and Steve Young, the youth representatives invited to the first meeting about the youth conference, asked their leaders if the youth could take charge of the conference themselves. “I don’t think we knew what we were getting into,” said Charmaine.

The Inglewood and Los Angeles stakes in southern California have an interesting and diverse mixture of people. There are several Spanish-speaking wards, a Tongan ward, and wards from both the well-to-do and poorer sections of town. How to bring all these young people together? Where could they get to know each other and appreciate each other’s talents and personalities? Plus the youth conference must be located close to home. The youth looked west, off the coast just 20 miles, to an island visible on the horizon—Catalina Island. A ferry makes the trip several times a day. Other than one small town, the island is rugged and essentially unpopulated. They found an old school at a spot called Toyon Bay that would have facilities to accommodate the group. They would be together in a secluded spot away from telephones, television, and radios. It was perfect. It was a place to appreciate the beauty of the ocean and learn to love the other members of their stakes.

What can we do to get everyone together and excited about doing something close to home? We don’t want to just have workshops in one of the stake centers. I think we’ve found it. There’s an old school on Catalina Island that can handle this big a group. The ferry landing for the trip to Catalina is less than an hour away for most people. On an island we won’t lose people after one day when they don’t feel like coming back. On Catalina you can’t say, “I feel like going home, see you later.”

More than 350 young people signed up for the youth conference, including nonmember friends. The youth decided to organize the conference copying a stake organization. Stephen Tanner was asked to be the “stake” president. Charmaine and her counselors acted as the “stake” activities committee. Three “wards” were formed, and three “bishops” chosen, counselors for each were selected, and teachers from the ranks of the youth were asked to prepare lessons for Relief Society, priesthood, and Sunday School. Tournaments and games were to be played with the three Catalina “wards” in competition. Because everyone would be divided up, hopefully the mixture would produce new friendships.

Last night I met with my committee, Susan Cowley and Nicole Land. We sat for three hours discussing the activities for youth conference. How much work it is! I can’t believe that we’re to oversee this all and make it work. I am definitely getting to know my Heavenly Father through prayer. We went over all the materials we’ll need and all those who need to be called to help. It’s an endless list.

As the youth committees were called to help organize different aspects of the conference, the young people gained a new appreciation of the work their adult leaders had done in past conferences. As Dina Chatwin said, “Our adult leaders would sit in on our meetings. And when we were discussing problems, I guess we would have reactions just like they have had, and they would laugh. As people would call and cancel out on things they were asked to do, the leaders would just say, ‘Welcome to the real world.’”

As the planning progressed, the youth learned that they couldn’t do everything themselves. They had to learn how to delegate and ask for help. For Charmaine, this was a hard lesson to learn. In her journal she wrote:

It is so hard for me to ask for help. It is hard to admit I just can’t do it all. I called someone and told her I needed some things done. I called her back a week later, and she not only had those things done, but more. I sat down and cried. It’s good to know that someone cared enough to really help. I feel so much gratitude. The countdown has begun. Just eleven days until we board the boat. Although I’m frustrated and concerned, I wouldn’t trade this opportunity for anything. I know that I’m doing the right thing and that I was called for a reason. I also know the Lord’s giving me the strength to keep planning, making calls, and thinking up new ideas. My love of the gospel has grown so much. But what a job!

At the last minute some big problems presented themselves. Youth leader Stephen Tanner, who had been working and planning the conference from the beginning, became extremely ill. He would not be able to make the trip. And then the weather wasn’t cooperating. Rain squalls had made the sea choppy. It was going to be a very rough ride across the channel to Catalina Island.

Rough was putting it mildly. No sooner had the ferry filled up with excited youth-conference-bound passengers than it was released from its moorings into a rolling, pitching ocean. The shoreline, outlined in lights in the twilight, rose and fell as the sturdy boat plowed through the rough water. The exuberance of youth was squashed as waves of seasickness seized those aboard and reduced them to hunched shapes crouched in their seats yearning for solid ground. Only a few avoided getting sick. The get-acquainted game planned for the ferry trip was a flop since everyone was more interested in keeping their stomachs calm than in getting to know the unfamiliar if slightly green faces of their companions. On the other hand, being seasick together had a cohesive effect. They had shared a common trial, and it was something to laugh and talk about. It was dark by the time the group landed at Toyon Bay, but after the rough crossing, they were only interested in getting their assignments and settling down for the night.

In spite of the problems, things were coming together. Just before boarding the ferry, Charmaine recorded her feelings about the day:

The big day is in just a few more hours. There’s so much to do still—materials I’ve forgotten and things to pack. It’s endless. Last night Nicole Land and I met and sorted through all of the candy which will be given as a final prize for the group competition. I think I ate half of it, but we had a good time sorting it. The general activity is organized, but the final day has a lot of rough edges still to be smoothed out.

I had a long talk with my mom, and I told her my feelings of how it has been for me and what I’ve learned. There have been some moments that I thought, “I can’t do this anymore,” and I’ve really struggled. At times I just said a prayer and went to sleep. But there have been times like when I’m working with my committee that I’ll always remember and cherish. I’ve learned what it means to plan and organize a major activity, and it’s hard to do right. I’ve learned—and this is the most important thing for me—to say, “I need help,” and ask for it. That’s been something I needed to learn. It was hard for me to admit I’m not Super Teenager. It isn’t the same as being teachable—because I feel I am that—but it is something I’ve had to learn.

The next morning dawned bright and clear. The rains had stopped. It was a glorious day for snorkeling and exploring the undersea world just a few steps off the beach. Since the school was now a marine institute, it had plenty of snorkeling equipment. Shiny black wet suits and bright orange flippers were a common sight as the brave ones swam in the chilly water. Even though it was winter, the sun gave hints of the summer to come as youth explored the surrounding hillsides, climbed on rocks along the beach, and participated in activities designed to get to know each other as well as learn.

That evening everyone spent a little extra time getting dressed before they set the main hall rocking at a dance.

Even though activities and a dance occupied much of their time, the real experiences of a youth conference took place in diverse moments: getting to know a name to go with a new face, asking someone you don’t know to dance, struggling with team members to help your group come in first. One girl was standing to the side waiting for a game to get started and said, “Do we have to play?” Her friend turned to her and answered, “Of course we do; that’s what we came for, isn’t it?”

That’s what they came for, to participate, to get to know each other, and to learn more about fellowshipping. The meetings were conducted by the youth with youth assigned to prepare lessons and serve as teachers.

I love being on the planning committees. I love the excitement and getting to know the kids. But the testimony meeting is my favorite.

Charmaine was not alone in expressing her enthusiasm for the testimony meeting. Everyone looked forward to that special evening when the whole group sat down together and shared the things that meant the most.

One young Spanish boy told about being inactive and being involved in stealing and lying. He turned to the Lord for help and has come back to the Church. His major problems have been solved, and he is again establishing good family relationships.

Margaret Bishop of the Hollywood Ward, Los Angeles Stake, told how grateful she was for the closeness that had come between her and her sister. She said, “I know I am living a happy life because of the gospel. It’s the only way to go. It’s not just a religion; it’s a way of life, and I’m grateful for my life.”

Tracie Pressler of the Centralia Ward, Inglewood Stake, told about going through a hard time before coming to the youth conference. “But here,” she said, “I’ve grown to love people that I’ve never really known before.”

Sulin Fifita of the Lennox Second Ward, Inglewood Stake, said, “My testimony is very precious to me and no matter what happens to me no one will be able to take my testimony from my heart.”

Several more admonished their friends to never leave the Church because they will be lost. Others talked about coming back into activity. Some testified of their love of the Savior and of the prophet and added the testimonies of the truthfulness of the Church. It was a time when feelings and tissues for heartfelt tears were shared freely as an outpouring of emotion took place in the open-air plaza under an inky sky filled with stars.

The final day was time for group competition. Three big groups picked their representatives to join in relays, sand castle building, and races. Then they lined the sides of the playing field and cheered their fellow teammates on. Soon chants of “We’re number one” drowned out casual conversation. Everyone was caught up in the activity, because in just a few hours they would have to leave, board the ferry for the return to the mainland and the end of the Catalina Youth Conference. No one really wanted to go home.

I’ve come to really respect the Church leaders and respect the work they do for us. Today as everyone is playing games, no one is going to think, “I wonder how much work or how many phone calls went into the planning of it.” It will be just another game. Some will like it, and some will hate it. It’s amazing how much work and prayer and trust go into planning a conference like this. If I could say anything about it, I’d say it was one experience I’ll never forget. And it has been so valuable to my maturing and understanding. I have grown closer to many, but most importantly I’ve grown closer to my Father in Heaven. I know he’s been a constant companion, and without that I’d never have endured to the end.

[photos] Background photos by Michael McConkie

[photos] Photos by Eldon Linschoten

[photos] Toyon Bay is a small strip of beach sandwiched between rugged hills. Climbing on the rocks and examining the marine life were irresistible to those attending the conference. The school which hosted the conference is set up to introduce students to the study of the ocean and marine life.

[photos] Group games such as being blindfolded and learning to follow the correct voice often provided a teaching moment. Donning masks and snorkels, many explored the underwater reefs offshore. Keeping 150 growing kids satisfied and well fed was a big job.

[photos] Sunday was a special day with youth taking the roles as teachers. It was a day for individual and group scripture study concluding with an emotional testimony meeting.