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Holyoke to host Western Massachusetts Youth Conference

A youth conference focusing on wellness, culture, art and even jewelry making will take place at Holyoke High School Friday.

More than 300 students between the ages 13 to 19 from across the region are expected to attend.

"I've gotten calls from Hadley, Amherst, Northampton, Greenfield. Of course there will be Holyoke students here as well," said Betty Medina Lichtenstein, who helped coordinate the conference along with with Enlace de Familias Executive Director Frank Martinez Lopez.

"So it started as a dream that Frank had for a youth conference, but this is the culmination of a six month leadership development and civic engagement training course with 25 students," Medina Lichtenstein said. "Frank started to meet them and to hear from them about what is it that they see and what is that they don't see, and the conference came to be from there."

Funding for the event comes from the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, the Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts, MassHire Holyoke and Enlace de Familias.

The schedule for the conference is full of various activities students can choose from including the history and culture of bomba y plena, musical traditions from Puerto Rico, a discussion on the school to prison pipeline by Pa'lante Holyoke, an intergenerational panel discussing on leadership and civic engagement led by Maria Cartagena, director of community-based learning at Mount Holyoke College, and a double decker bus tour of the extensive mural art projects across the city led by Iohann Rashi Vega, director of media engagement at Holyoke Media.

"The students wanted things like cooking classes and jewelry making courses, but they also talked about the importance of mental health and wellbeing," Medina Lichtenstein said. "We wanted to create a conference for them, with their input, that would also be a learning opportunity. So they can enjoy a dance workshop but also learn about the history of how that dance style came to be. They can tour the city on a fun double decker bus ride, but Iohann has extensive knowledge of the nonprofits in the area and was there when a lot of the murals were painted. So they will have fun, but it will be a meaningful learning experience as well."

After a late lunch students will get to hear a performance by Westfield native Madison Curbelo, who was a semi-finalist on the NBC show "The Voice.

"This was her second try at 'The Voice.' She tried when she was 15 and she didn't get any chairs turned. And this time she came and there were four chairs turned," Medina Lichtenstein said. "It's the whole thing about being persistent. You're always going to trip yourself up, or you're going to get tripped up or you're going to fall down when you're trying to create your vision. And sometimes it doesn't pan out exactly how you thought, but if you keep on trying, look at that, she's now a national star."

The event will also include the appointing of 10 students to become the city's youth commissioners. Holyoke Mayor Joshua Garcia has been invited to attend and meet the members who were voted in by their peers in the leadership course.

"They definitely will be advisors not only to the city council, but wherever there's an opportunity for a youth to be on a board or a commission," Medina Lichtenstein said.

The conference will culminate with a block party in the parking lot of Holyoke High School. The event will include gift bags for each students as well as prizes including tablets and other electronics, scholarship opportunities and more. Walk-ins will be welcome, but to register in advance click here.

Elizabeth Román edits daily news stories at NEPM as managing editor. She is working to expand the diversity of sources in our news coverage and is also exploring ways to create more Spanish-language news content.
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