Traditions run deep at Kanuga, and what often keeps them thriving is the fresh interest and commitment from youth who have been inspired by those before them. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than with Winterlight, a youth conference held at Kanuga Dec. 27–Jan. 1 annually for 9th–12th-grade students and celebrating its 40th anniversary.
“I first went to Winterlight because my older brother had been twice before and really enjoyed it. I was already involved in youth ministry in The Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina and Winterlight was an amazing opportunity to meet youth like me from all across the country in a beautiful setting like Kanuga,” explained Drew Courtright, co-coordinator of Winterlight. He first came to Kanuga for Winterlight 12 years ago and hasn’t missed one since.
For co-coordinator Natalie Lynch, a longtime Winterlight veteran who leads the conference with Courtright, it was her older sister who sparked her interest in the youth conference. “She had been a participant at Winterlight, and it was very important to her,” said Lynch. “She was going to be on staff for the first time when I was a freshman in high school in 2002, and she strongly encouraged me to attend.”
This Kanuga-sponsored event draws participants from around the country and offers six days of worship, reflection and high-energy fun in a welcoming Christian community. It all culminates on New Year’s Eve with a memorable celebration of music, dancing and worship.
A unique aspect of the conference is how alumni grow into later serving as staff, fueled by the desire to provide future generations with the same moving experiences they witnessed in their youth. There’s even a special project, the Torchbearer program, designed to foster a young adult who has graduated from high school and aged out of Winterlight into serving the conference as a staff member. “It’s a bridge program between being a participant and a staff member. A Torchbearer functions as a full staff member but has a mentor to help them with the transition from being served to serving,” said Lynch.
“With so many loyal and engaged alumni, it can be very difficult selecting the staff each year,” said Courtright. “By participating in the Torchbearer program, these young adults invest in their leadership experience and skills. The Torchbearers are shepherded by an experienced staff member who meets with them daily to process their experience. Being a Torchbearer is a great way to transition from being a youth participant to being an adult staff member. It’s also a great way for older staff to get to know the young staff and build up leaders for the next generation.”
Approximately 30 alumni serve the youth conference each year by setting the theme, selecting staff, planning activities, organizing the music and more.
According to Kanuga President Stan Hubbard, Winterlight is a meaningful part of Kanuga’s ministry.
“Over the past 40 years, Winterlight has not only become a signature youth program of Kanuga, but it has been a model for similar events in parishes and dioceses. All told, it has transformed the lives of thousands of teenagers,” said Hubbard. “Developing and sustaining Winterlight has blessed Kanuga with profound connections to several generations of wonderful young people and youth ministers. They inspire us in our work and make us optimistic about the future of the Episcopal Church!”
Winterlight began four decades ago under the leadership of The Rev. Kenneth G. Henry. Serving on Kanuga’s Board of Directors and overseeing the youth programs division, Henry was charged with creating a program that would serve youth and make use of the new Kanuga Lake Inn, which was built in 1968 and offered the first heated lodging in Kanuga’s history.
“It was a natural choice to offer a youth conference during winter school break,” Henry explained. “We hoped to build upon the success of the Youth Week at Kanuga held in the summer.” Youth Week is one of Kanuga’s oldest traditions and brings youth together for a week of fun, friendship and prayer.
For Lynch and Courtright, Winterlight continues to be a source of inspiration and spiritual nourishment. “I came back after my first year because I felt connected to God in a new and powerful way at Kanuga and I felt welcomed and loved by the community there,” said Lynch. She was inspired to become a staff member, eventually moving into a leadership position. She sees a bright future for Winterlight because of the community and spiritual enrichment it provides.
“I have hope in the future of Winterlight. The need is not going away, and as society becomes busier and busier, the need to have a space and time to come together as Christians and celebrate will only grow.”