All of us search for and desire a sense of community. In this day of Facebook, Twitter, texts and instant messaging, we are connected to the world in a way we have never been before. But do those connections bring us together in a truly meaningful way? Can we know what our friends and family really think and feel through a 100-character text? Can our younger generation develop supportive friendships through a Facebook post?
The Journey Conference for Young Women in Fort Collins gives all women, young and old, a sense of true community, a chance to connect with each other and to learn and mentor. For one day in April, women in Fort Collins convene with our future female leaders, girls in 10th- to 12th-grade, to talk about what is important, impactful and possibly life-changing.
The mission of the Journey Conference is “to mentor, motivate, and inspire young women in Poudre School District through a dynamic and meaningful intergenerational conference experience that empowers them to change their world.” This year’s conference will be held April 26 at the Marriott Hotel in Fort Collins.
“It is difficult for young women to have all of the healthy connections and support they need,” says Kori Wilford, co-chairperson of the Journey Conference. “If you don’t feel like you can reach out to your support group, it’s easy to get a false sense of who you are and your place in this world.”
The conference is a chance for young women to find their place. Panels include women from different countries, financial situations and backgrounds to give young women many different points of view.
The keynote speaker for the 2011 Journey Conference is Ashley Shuyler, founder of AfricAid, a nonprofit organization that supports girls’ education in Africa. The goal of AfricAid is to provide young women with the opportunity to transform their own lives and the futures of their communities through education.
When Shuyler was 11, she traveled to Tanzania with her family. She was struck by the poverty in the area – especially among children her own age – and became determined to do something about it. In 2001, she formed AfricAid.
Shuyler was only 16 years old when she developed this non-profit.
In 10 years, AfricAid has raised almost a million dollars and supported over 40,000 Tanzanian students. The results are dramatic: In Tanzania, 95 percent of girls don’t finish a high school education. Yet when girls are educated, they are three times less likely to develop AIDS. Girls who attend school marry later and have fewer, healthier children, and their children have a 40 percent better chance of living to age five. Girls tend to stay within the community, reinforcing what they have learned within their own village.
Ashley’s success story tells young women that you don’t need a lot of money to make a difference in this world. You can be a 16-year-old girl with a dream to make an impact.
Fort Collins is not Tanzania. But even in the U.S., we can do a better job of raising young women to be strong, empowered leaders. The United States has a teen pregnancy rate that is significantly higher than other industrialized countries. The high school dropout rate in the U.S. is 10 percent. On average, we spend only 40 minutes a week having a meaningful conversation with our children.
Every day demands do not always allow for us to mentor and connect with our teenagers the way we feel we should. It does, after all, take a village to raise a child, and the Journey Conference provides that village for a day.
Previous participants of the Journey Conference are encouraged to sit on the planning committee for the next year, to provide insight on what is important and what young women can benefit from most.
Session topics include “Health – For Girls Only!,” which gives girls an opportunity to ask important questions about their own bodies, birth control and how to stay healthy – questions they might be embarrassed to ask anyone else.
“Queen Bees and Mean Girls” was a popular session last year focusing on the dark side of female friendship and rivalry, when competition among friends is healthy, and when it isn’t and how to cultivate healthy female relationships. One attendee commented on the Mean Girls session, “Mainly the positive attitude the presenter had struck me. I would really like to be as positive as she is. I have not been hurt like she was, but I’m kind of a floater and don’t quite fit in.”
Another session focuses on the important topic of gender issues and sexuality, offering an open and supportive discussion on human sexuality and gender identity. One young woman commented, “I learned that it’s okay to be different.”
It’s not all so serious. Women learn Zumba dance, yoga and jewelry making, and the ever-popular, “It’s Your Body, Decorate It (or Not!),” features Ryan Corley talking about ownership and respect of your own body, safe piercing and tattooing protocol, and the all important lesson to never, ever tattoo someone else’s name on your body, no matter how much you like them.
The Journey Conference will celebrate its 13th year in 2011. It is free of charge to conference attendees. A majority of funding comes from personal donations within the community.
“We are so proud that we can hold this conference without big, corporate sponsorship,” says Wilford. “We never want the girls to feel like we are trying to sell them something or endorse a product. This is a very grassroots organization.”
The Journey Conference relys on the efforts of volunteers who plan the entire event. “It is a committed group of busy women,” says Wilford. “We are professionals, we are moms, we are balancing home and work, but we all believe strongly in this cause. Everyone pitches in and every year we have a great conference.”
Speakers also volunteer their time to be at the event. “It is so exciting to see the professional women of this area want to come for the day and present at the Journey Conference,” says Wilford. “I think it enforces to the girls how important they are. The conference provides a diverse professional group that all young women can relate to, encouraging them to be exactly who they are.”
Journey Conference will be holding a fundraiser at Bas Bleu Theatre on March 1, where they will be screening the film Iron Jawed Angels to honor National Women’s History Month. “We’re encouraging women – girls and mothers and grandmothers – to help us all remember the work our foremothers did to ensure our right to vote, to raise awareness, and to hopefully raise some funds for the conference,” says Wilford. Additional details will be up soon on the Journey website, http://www.fortcollinsjourneyconference.org/.
Heather Schichtel is a freelance writer and marketing professional living in Loveland. You can find her at her daily blog: http://www.samsmom-heathers.blogspot.com/