by Liz Marshall
As the pandemic rocked the country in spring 2020, American Youth Foundation alumni sought connection and community with their Founder Family despite the physical distance. They asked AYF leadership for ways to connect and reflect, drawing strength from one another through their shared camp experiences.
Within days, new virtual events and platforms began to take shape for participants and staff of all ages. The first AYF-wide live event on March 26 was an Evening Reflection on Zoom. More than 20 participants gathered to listen to poetry and music, converse, and enjoy a recording of the sunset over Lake Michigan.
By focusing on the sights and sounds of Miniwanca and Merrowvista, these virtual programs allowed people to step outside the social confines of quarantine while staying in their homes. The limitless space made it possible for people from different AYF backgrounds to join events where the tools of Four Fold balanced living served as common ground.
One AYF community that thrived in this new space was Summer Seminars for Women, a program that originated at Miniwanca in 1988. Each summer, women gather on the sand dunes for a five-day experience focused around reflection, community building, and retreat. During this unique season, the pandemic shifted SSW events online and drew more participants than ever.
In July, AYF presented the 32nd annual SSW in a fully virtual format with the theme of “Living the Mission at Home.” The five-day program consisted of opening and closing circles, a social night, and two thought-provoking seminars. Each event allowed participants to meet, socialize, and dig deeper
into their own goals.
These sessions were free and open to the public, and they saw daily audiences of 40 to 80 participants. One highlight of SSW was AYF President Anna Kay Vorsteg’s seminar, “The Four Folds for Today,” which offered an update to the timeless philosophy of balanced living.
“Anna Kay’s session put forth a dare to meet three unique challenges of this moment — the pandemic, racial injustice, and climate change — all through the lens of being guided by one’s values,” said SSW coordinator Holley Young. “To see this group of women take time, reflect, and then open up in conversation really underscored how there is a need for spaces like these that give time to and honor the process of looking inside and engaging with the world.”
SSW also gave participants the chance to explore their personal journeys through creative writing. Kirstin Anglea, a facilitator trained with the Center for Courage and Renewal in Greenville, South Carolina, led a session entitled “Where I’m From,” which invited the women to write poems that evoked specific memories.
“I was so struck by the way women opened up to each other in their breakout rooms and discovered such specific and moving common elements of their life stories,” said Shannon O’Toole, another SSW coordinator.
Building on the success of Summer Seminars for Women, AYF also offered a series of virtual events for attendees of the Miniwanca Girls Camp Labor Day Reunion and Living the Mission Retreat this fall. The model of clustering events into a four-day experience has worked well, as it mirrors the community-building experience of a short camp program.
Highlights of the virtual reunion included meetups for groups from each decade, as well as playful Night’s Doings and Interest Group gatherings. A camp-themed Grab Bag activity issued a lighthearted challenge to participants: a virtual treasure hunt to gather the most camp items at home. Meetups uniting former campers from the 1950s and 1960s through the 1990s and 2000s drew women who had intended to make the trip to Michigan for the in-person events, as well as others who had not planned to attend.
Old camp friends discovered each other online, and several former cabin leaders found campers they hadn’t heard from in decades. During the kickoff and closing events, all former Girls Camp Directors offered inspiration and advice for applying the skills learned at camp to the world’s current challenges. Suzy Marshall LaPine, Vanette McKinney, Mary Struckoff, Liz Marshall, and Hannah Patterson each issued a healthy dare as the sessions ended.
“I have found this to be a wonderful few days,” said Marshall LaPine. “I feel somehow more positive and more empowered to do something about the terrible problems in our world today.”
As they reconnected with each other and made new friends, reunion attendees reflected on ways they can make an impact on the challenges we face.
In October, Living Your Purpose, the latest in the series of Living the Mission adult programs, gave another group of adults the opportunity for self-reflection in an online retreat setting. As AYF develops these virtual offerings, there will be more opportunities to bring the work of our founders to life and to build community in uncharted new ways.