By Mark Udry
The annual Diocesan Youth Conference at Camp Kulaqua Retreat and Conference Center in High Springs on February 22-23 drew more than 250 teens from 24 parishes for three days of activities centered around the theme of “United in Christ.”
For the first time in its five-year history, the DYC featured three keynote speakers, including two talks, “Christ is Alive in You!” and “United in Serving Others” by Sean Forrest, a national speaker, missionary, musician, author, and groundbreaking youth minister from Connecticut whose passion for the Catholic faith and tell-it-like-it-is style sets the tone of his discussions. Forrest travels the country giving about 50 speaking engagements a year all targeted to teens ages 13 to 18.
“My talks are more of a ‘call to action’ rather than a typical speech about God and faith,” said Forrest. “Engaging in a dialogue with these students lets them know someone has had the same life experiences growing up. I get to see teenagers get passionate about Jesus and the Catholic faith, and that’s better than experiencing any sunrise in the world.”
The conference offers teens a chance to make new friends, talk with youth ministers from other parishes and participate in a broad range of activities. This year was the first time ever that bilingual workshops were offered. The students select two 40-minute workshops geared to their individual interests, attend question-and-answer panel discussions with youth ministers, religious, couples and peers about faith, and unwind with a number of outdoor activities, including a visit to the camp’s zoo, walks on hiking trails and team games that build confidence, camaraderie and cooperation.
“It’s important that these students hear not only from the keynote speakers and youth ministers, but also from each other,” said Robin Shipley, director of youth ministry for the diocese and one of the founders of the conference. “We’ve had a number of students who have attended the conference for two or three years and go back to their parishes and peers to encourage others to attend.”
Grace Castillo is one of those teens. The 18-year-old from St. Catherine’s of Siena parish in Orange Park has attended the conference three times and says it is the highlight of the year.
“I really enjoy meeting kids from other parishes and the conference strengthens my relationship with God, and the keynote speakers are excellent motivators,” said Castillo. “At the end of the weekend I feel more positive and driven to do things in my parish.”