90941_000_011Snow and biting winds fill the Catskills in January. But something lures young people from New York there every year.
The wind blows in off the Hudson, whipping and whistling around corners to surprise the warmth right out of you. The cold air snaps you to attention, stealing your breath away and leaving just a white pouf in its memory.
And LDS teenagers, whether they’re chatting in groups, bundling up against the cold, or quietly daydreaming, all think about the same thing: Frost Valley.
It’s January in the Yorktown, New York Stake, with all the traditions of winter neatly in place: some dreaded, and some loved. The wind and the cold are something to be endured, but the youth conference at the Frost Valley YMCA camp is a tradition that’s anticipated almost as much as Christmas.
It’s hard to believe anything in the middle of a New York January could be that exciting, but that’s the magic of Frost Valley. The three-day conference is held in the Catskills in a setting right out of a postcard. It features quaint log cabins nestled in rolling, evergreen-dotted hills.
The youth in this area have been coming here for at least 16 years, long before the stake was divided to form the Yorktown and New York City stakes. In fact, the New York City Stake still participates, just because it’s always been that way, and because it’s so much fun.
“You always hear from the older kids that Frost Valley is so fun that you want to go. Then when you’re older, you want to make it fun for the younger kids,” said Jeff Hedberg, 17, of the Westchester Ward.
But why is Frost Valley so wonderful? Some might think it’s because teenagers from New York City look forward to getting out to the country. But not so. The Yorktown Stake is about 150 miles across, covers three states, and it takes in areas as diverse as rural Middletown and the U.S. Military Academy, West Point.
Actually, the size of the stake has a lot to do with Frost Valley’s attraction. With such a large area separating the youth, it’s not very often they all get together for three days at a time. “This is fun because all your friends are here and only once a year do we have all these things going on at once. You get to spend more time with people than you would at a normal Super Saturday,” says Claudine Gager, 17, a member of the Stamford, Connecticut Ward.
The time at Frost Valley is also important for Pav Reyes, a 17-year-old member of the Manhattan Spanish Ward, New York City Stake. “I really love being here for the whole weekend,” he said. “I feel like when we’re here everyone is like a family. I feel closer to the kids in our ward because we usually just get to see them twice a week, on Sunday at church and Thursday for activity night. Here you have more time to talk.”
And so it is for almost every teenager here: one of the best things about this youth conference is the chance to see old friends and make new ones. Friendship is a big part of the Frost Valley tradition. Lisa Cunningham, a 17-year-old member of the Stamford Ward, said, “This is a place where people will just come up and introduce themselves and you can make friends that you can talk to about the gospel.”
Edie Conner was the only girl who came to Frost Valley from Wilton, Connecticut Ward. At the testimony meeting she said, “I knew I could go to any one of the girls’ lodges and be able to stay there. It’s a comforting feeling to be around so many people who share the same values.”
And that’s another thing that makes Frost Valley a well-loved tradition: shared values. Many of the teenagers in this stake are the only members of the Church in their high schools, except for their brothers and sisters. Sometimes being so alone is hard, and activities like Frost Valley help.
“I love coming here because it’s a weekend when I can get away from all the worldly problems I have and get back to the way life is supposed to be,” said Poughkeepsie Ward member Wendy Edney.
“When you come here and do things like this, it sort of charges you up to face all the peer pressure at school,” agreed Carla Hedberg, 16, of the Westchester Ward.
Seminary is another thing that helps the youth in this stake stay close to the Church. They all meet once a month at Super Saturday activities, and all of Saturday morning during the Frost Valley weekend is spent outside, devoted to whatever the focus of seminary is that year. During the New Testament study, groups of teenagers followed the Twelve Apostles (members of their bishoprics) through the Holy Land (campground) to see the results of six of Jesus’ miracles. The wind was bitter that morning and the snow was deep, so there were lots of chattering teeth and semiserious talk of freezing to death. Everyone but the wind hushed with reverence, however, when the witnesses to Christ’s miracles told their stories.
It’s always a surprise to the students to see just what Saturday morning will hold. While all the other events at Frost Valley are planned by the youth, Saturday morning is left strictly up to the adult leaders.
“One time they showed us about the pioneers and we had to walk through the snow (briefly) in bare feet!” exclaimed Laura Bartholomew, a 16-year-old from the Westchester Ward.
The enthusiasm for this seminary activity carries over into their weekly seminary classes. Many of the students in the stake go to early-morning seminary, and others participate in home-study seminary, but everyone seems to appreciate it.
Missionary work is also appreciated at Frost Valley. Many bring non-LDS or inactive friends to Frost Valley and work hard to make the experience a good one.
“People who never come to church come to Frost Valley because it’s so fun,” said Megan Stone, a 16-year-old member of the Westchester Ward. “The leaders bring in all this spiritual stuff while we’re having fun, and it’s a great experience.”
Jason Knight was a 14-year-old nonmember at Frost Valley for the first time. “I’d like to be a part of this church—that’s why I came,” he said. “All right!” cheered his friends around him. “I heard this was a fun place, and my mother is a member of this church, so I decided to come. I’m having a great time,” he smiled.
Claudine Gager said, “For the past two years we’ve had baptisms as a direct result of Frost Valley. It’s just a wonderful experience.”
And Claudine should know—she is the person in charge of missionary work on what we have come to call our Youth Executive Committee in the stake. The Youth Execs, as they’re affectionately known, are a group of eight seniors called to lead the youth of the stake for the whole year. They plan activities, conduct the meetings, and generally take care of just about everything. Each of the eight members of the committee is in charge of one particular area, like finances, media, or seminary. The things they learn and teach as they fill these leadership roles are yet another part of the great tradition of Frost Valley. Someday soon the youth will be leaders in the Church and in their communities, and they’ll remember what they learned here.
“Being a Youth Exec is a great honor and huge responsibility,” said Bryce Inouye, a 17-year-old member of the Westchester Ward and president of the committee. “They’re the guys you always looked up to—and now we’re those guys!”
It’s a lot of hard work to be on the committee—lots of meetings and lots of planning—but when the Youth Execs bear their testimonies at the close of the weekend, they don’t talk about that. Instead they talk about the great opportunity they had to serve. They talk about their love for the gospel and its guiding principles, and how much they care about their friends and family members.
The Sunday testimony meeting that ends the Youth Conference may seem a lot less exciting than the dancing, skiing, and playing that make up the rest of the weekend, but it’s the one thing that gets unanimous approval as the greatest event of the whole three days. Connie Cowan, a 16-year-old member of the Westchester Ward, said, “I love every thing about Frost Valley. It’s great to be up here in the snow and have a good time, but what I like best is the testimony meeting.”
Ultimately, the youth who came to Frost Valley learned traditions like love and commitment and service. They learned principles that will last far longer than the memories of even the best dance of the weekend. What they learned will still be around when the photos that were taken are faded and curled, and the names and faces of high school friends blur together like wet watercolors.
These are traditions that many people today think are difficult to build and easy to break. But the teenagers in these stakes know better. If their convictions now are any indication of the future, the traditions they learned at Frost Valley will last forever.