Youth conference lets Berkshire students learn, and teach, myriad life skills

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PITTSFIELD — "Building birdhouses, making snow globes, self-defense — that's the kind of stuff you don't learn in school."

So says Sara Rawson, a Monument Mountain Regional High School student intern who helped organize Thursday's "411 in The 413" Youth Conference at the Berkshire Museum.

Some 100 area teenagers were able to take a day away from their campus to come together with other high-schoolers and immerse themselves in a new skill or experience taught by either adult or youth experts.

Now in its 13th year, Thursday's conference centered around the theme "Staying Afloat in the Modern World." Or as Meredith Hall, put it — in air quotes — "Adulting."

"As high school students, every year we're one step closer to being out in the real world," said Hall, a Miss Hall's School junior who's serving an internship with Berkshire United Way, one of the conference sponsors.

Other sponsors include Northern Berkshire Community Coalition and Railroad Street Youth Project, all part of the Berkshire Youth Development Project.

Hall described the event as "a day dedicated to you" and "what we as teens want getting out of high school, like help with college and financial aid, and also more personalized things, like learning kindness and yoga."

Both interns said even though they spent the day working behind the scenes, making sure their peers got the most out of the day, they felt empowered by the roles they had in all the planning leading up to the event, which included convening some 20 presenters and other volunteers.

Rawson, a junior interning with Railroad Street, said she initially felt hesitant to take on the tasks at hand, like booking speakers and a caterer. "My last job was kind of like 'This is the boss and do as your told,'" she said.

But in planning The 411 in The 413, Rawson was partnered with Regina East, who is also new in her role as special project coordinator for Railroad Street's Youth Operational Board.

"I felt she was real and honest, and she told me, 'We're both new at this so we'll figure it out together.' I loved that this felt like working more as a team," Rawson said. "I felt like my voice mattered and my input and ideas really had value."

And they did, with dozens of students filling an "Animal First Aid" workshop taught by her cousin Kelly Rogers, who just graduated with a biology degree from Roger Williams University.

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"This is what she loves to do," Rawson said of Rogers. "She's always worked in animal shelters and eventually switched her major from accounting to biology to learn more about working with animals."

Other popular workshops included "Defending Yourself Against the Forces of Evil," aka self-defense, led by students Phaedra Duhon and Anna Dupont, and the three workshops related to college: college financing, careers and gap years after high school.

"I'm a senior so I think I really benefited from that," said Jasmine Accetta of Taconic High School.

During his afternoon keynote address, Regi Wingo, a Berkshire native and domestic and sexual violence prevention team leader at the Elizabeth Freeman Center in Pittsfield, affirmed that young people needn't feel the pressure to have all the answers because most adults don't.

Instead, he encouraged them to ask questions, to challenge the status quo, and to surround themselves with positive influences to guide them toward the best path for them in life.

"We need you at the table. We need you guys to use your voice and consistently use your voice," he said. "When you see something not going right in your school, use your voice to challenge the administration. When you see someone's rights getting trampled on, use your voice to help them."

Wingo told students that every interaction and experience they have with others is an opportunity to build a network and communicate positively with people. "By doing that you're making microcommunities ... but they're like houseplants; you have to cultivate those microcommunities, and talk to the people in them."

His final piece of advice to the young adults was "to actively practice compassion, empathy and inclusion."

Those were words that prompted Quinn Burnell, a sophomore at Lee High School to give Wingo a standing ovation and later a high-five.

Burnell took two workshops on the theme of kindness at the conference, a gesture he said he likes to apply in his role as a production assistant for Berkshire Theatre Group, and also passes along to his customers at Big Y supermarket.

"I think it's very important to bridge the gaps between Berkshire County schools and to learn how to know each other and also see the differences in people," he said.

Jenn Smith can be reached at jsmith@berkshireeagle.com and 413-496-6239.


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