In September 1997, 2,350 people gathered for three days at Estes Park, Colorado in the Rocky Mountains for the 40th ICYPAA, the International Conference of Young People in AA. This report was prepared by the Grapevine's senior editor, with help from the magazine's art director--both of whom attended the Conference--as well as input from organizers and participants.
If there is a presiding spirit of the International Conference of Young People in AA (affectionately known as "icky-pa"), it might be found in these words from chapter nine of the Big Book: ". . .we aren't a glum lot. If newcomers could see no joy or fun in our existence, they wouldn't want it. We absolutely insist on enjoying life." ICYPAA is the manifestation of that insistence. It proves that nobody's too young for AA and that a sober life can be enjoyed at any age. In the words of one participant: "Sobriety rocks!"
The theme for the 1997 Conference was taken from the Big Book--"The High Road to a New Freedom"--and ICYPAA was a real example that a sober "high" comes from freedom from alcohol. For many people, being in the mountains increased the spiritual sense of the weekend. As one veteran of previous ICYPAAs said, "This is very different from a conference held in a big hotel where you never leave the hotel. Here, you've got all this," and she gestured to the ring of mountains surrounding Estes Park where patchy clouds and fog revealed highlands of dark green balsams broken by masses of bright yellow aspens.
The weather wasn't perfect during the conference, but not even the lowering clouds and fog drifting in the valleys, the chilly temperatures, occasional downpours, and new-fallen snow on the peaks of the Colorado Rockies could dampen the spirits of the AA members who gathered for the 40th ICYPAA. Although ICYPAA is often said to be for "the young and the young at heart," the suggested age for serving ICYPAA is "under forty," and in fact, many of the attendees appeared to be in their teens, twenties, and early thirties. If you can imagine several thousand young people, energized by gratitude and the joy of being with AA pals, their enthusiasm not dulled by alcohol, and all coming together for a long weekend in a Y camp in an alpine meadow eight thousand feet high in the Rocky Mountains, you begin to have an idea of what ICYPAA felt like. If the energy could have been piped down to Denver, it would have powered the city for a week. The mood of the Conference was one big pink cloud.
The ICYPAA Fact Sheet explains that the Conference meets once a year, providing "an opportunity for young AAs from all around the world to come together and share their experience, strength, and hope as young people in Alcoholics Anonymous. ICYPAA is visible evidence that large numbers of young people are achieving a lasting and comfortable sobriety in Alcoholics Anonymous. AAs who attend an ICYPAA return home better prepared to receive young people who come to AA looking for a better way of life." A persistent theme heard in discussions was that sobriety can be fun; life is not over just because you can't drink anymore. ICYPAA newcomer Donna Z. of Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, explained what the Conference gave her: "For the first time in my ninety days of sobriety, I understood what the word family means--and I want to be part of this incredible loving family."
Roger W., of Honolulu, Hawaii, described what being a member of young people's AA meant to him when he first got sober:
"I arrived in AA at the age of seventeen. The city I lived in was preparing to host the 26th ICYPAA--although it meant nothing to me at the time--and in the young people's group I'd found for my home group, the service and enthusiasm for sobriety was at full steam. So with sixty days' sobriety I experienced my first ICYPAA. Nothing could have prepared me for 2,000 sober alcoholics of all ages coming together to celebrate a life of sobriety and being young at heart. A friend of mine describes young people's conferences as one hundred percent enthusiasm surrounded by unconditional love, and that's exactly what I found. I cried tears of joy--and this was so confusing to me I had to ask people why I was crying, because I didn't understand tears without pain. They hugged me and said, 'Keep coming back, you're wonderful!' That made me cry more.
"As new as I was I didn't know that it takes lots of people to make a successful conference and that if you simply asked, you could be of service. I was in the hospitality room and had seen some white 'HOST' ribbons lying around, and--since I hadn't changed much behavior besides not drinking--I stole a ribbon, attached it to my name badge, went to the hotel lobby, and began welcoming people I did not yet know. I was the unofficial greeter, or so I thought. Later I realized I didn't need to steal the ribbon, it was free. All I had to do was ask.
"Since that time I've been blessed with the ability to attend half of the ICYPAAs, serve on the 1995 host committee in Hawaii, and enjoy fourteen years of continuous sobriety."
Roger had caught what Christine H. of Dearborn, Michigan calls "the ICYPAA bug." She herself caught it when she got sober at the age of twenty, and went to her first ICYPAA in Boston. Today Christine, sober for ten years, is the General Service Conference delegate from Area 33, Southeast Michigan. And the ICYPAA bug can come back at any time, as it did for Leah R., of Colorado Springs:
"I was sixteen when I came to AA, seventeen when I had my last drink. So I was sober when I was going through most of my rites of passage into adulthood. Today I'm a nearly forty-year-old mom, wife, business owner, and sober member of AA. My husband and I were making the trek (in the rain) to our cabin when I told him I was glad to be able to share with him something that had been so special to me. He said, 'I can see how this would be a lifeline for a young person trying to stay sober.' I couldn't have said it better: it was my lifeline, and then I woke up one day and found out I was no longer drowning. I had learned to swim."
John H. of Denver, a member of the Colorado host committee, went to his first ICYPAA ten years ago in Boston and said, "I've loved every one I've ever been to." He talked about how the Conference is an important part of his sobriety:
"My memory of my first ICYPAA carries with me every day. It has enhanced my sobriety. I think about the friends I know from ICYPAA and it cheers me up if I'm having a down day, or makes me feel better if I'm having a good day. ICYPAA doesn't take the place of the AA program, but it gives me the feeling of the strong bond that exists between AAs. The fellowshipping that goes on is great, and the energy is incredible. It's like it says at the very beginning of chapter two of the Big Book, that 'there exists among us a fellowship, a friendliness, and an understanding which is indescribably wonderful.' And that feeling doesn't go away 'as we go our separate ways.'"
How it works for ICYPAA
The ICYPAA Fact Sheet sets forth a kind of "how it works" for Young People's Groups (YPGs): "YPGs try to make the newcomer understand that twenty-plus years of drinking coupled with loss of family, friends, and finances are not necessary for one to be ready for sobriety. YPGs bring the newcomer into the mainstream of AA Recovery, Service, and Unity through the Twelve Steps, the Twelve Traditions, and the Twelve Concepts for World Service carrying AA's message to the suffering alcoholic. YPGs are in no way separate from Alcoholics Anonymous as a whole. Members of YPGs are involved in and committed to Twelfth Step work, Hospital and Institution work, Public Information, General Service, and every other facet of AA service."
AA co-founder Bill W. was convinced of the power of young people to carry the message when he met some young people in New York. Here is part of a 1968 letter he wrote (quoted in the March 1971 memorial issue of the Grapevine): "Some weeks ago, there was a young people's convention of AAs. Shortly thereafter, four of these kids visited the office. I saw one young gal prancing down the hall, hair flying, in a mini-skirt, wearing love beads, and the works. I thought, 'Holy smoke, what now?' She told me she was the oldest member of the young people's group in her area--age twenty-two! They had kids as young as sixteen. I was curious and took the whole party out to lunch.
"Well, they were absolutely wonderful. They talked (and acted) just about as good a kind of AA as I've seen anywhere. I think all of them said they had had some kind of drug problem, but had kicked that, too. When they first came around, they had insisted on their own ideas of AA, but in the end they found AA plenty good enough as it was. Though they needed their own meetings, they found interest and inspiration in the meetings of much older folks as well."
As one conference-goer with thirty-two years' sobriety, Giff D. from Florida, explained at the Friday night old-timers meeting: "Some of my old-timer friends have often griped about young people in AA, but let me tell you something, guys--the future of AA is in damn good hands." Later, Giff wrote to the Grapevine: "Some old-timers are concerned about young people in AA because they think that drugs and other issues may cause some sort of erosion with AA as we know it today. But what I witnessed at the conference was a high level of spiritual energy and enthusiasm. There was a lot of emphasis on the Steps and Traditions. These young people are extremely dedicated in every way. Everything they do gives out a wonderful message that there is an exciting way of life in sobriety."
Larry M. of Royal Palm Beach, Florida, said that when "young people are involved in service, we feel scrutinized much more closely than the older members in regard to maintaining the Traditions, and we are therefore more aware and protective of these values. In every young people's committee I've served on, there has been a Traditions chairperson, and as a result, there is good representation of young people in our local service structures."
That the Conference was well organized was everywhere evident, from large things--like the planning of meetings--to small. For example, the host committee had solved the problem of smokers' litter by locating cans labeled "butts" anywhere AAs might congregate outdoors, and there were squads of folks who cleaned up stray butts. Members of the host committee could often be seen solving problems via their walkie-talkies while walking around, eating, or watching an event. The walkie-talkies were essential for communication since the facilities at the Estes Park Center consisted of some three dozen buildings scattered over a square mile or so, and the host committee took advantage of the many buildings. Going to different events sometimes meant trekking somewhere uphill in the rain, and though there wasn't an umbrella to be found, nobody seemed to mind. The main building was a bright airy lodge with wood beams and a couple of gas fires going most of the time, and its little cafe was a good place to grab a snack and relax between events. At the Pine Room, the "solutions desk" offered answers to problems; inexpensive coffee and free eats--bagels, cream cheese, fruit, etc.--were available round the clock. One small building housed the twenty-four-hour-a-day meditation room; another one housed the small but illuminating archives exhibit; three buildings offered displays by Area 10 (Colorado) service committees. Major gatherings took place in the chapel, the auditorium, and the longhouse. Meals were served in the cafeteria, which had all the clamor of a school lunchroom.
Formal ICYPAA proceedings went from Friday night to Sunday morning, but many people showed up earlier to enjoy pre-Conference activities such as hiking, horseback riding, swimming, and a barbeque. Glenn D. of Rocky River, Ohio described going for a two-and-half-hour run: "I'm training for the Chicago marathon, and I thought I'd go out for an hour. But I took a wrong turn and started to climb the tallest point in the Rocky Mountain National Park. I felt like I was in heaven I was so high." On Thursday night, early arrivals were treated to an evening of standup comedy performed by a professional comic who was also a sober member of AA. One evening, an elk could be seen browsing on the commons, indifferent to the quiet group that gathered to take long-lens photographs of him. And throughout the weekend there were many opportunities for fun with four dances scheduled, a movie, karaoke, and "hug lines."
ICYPAA offered a wealth of AA meetings: from seven A.M. Friday morning to noon on Sunday, there were round-the-clock meetings centered on passages from the Big Book. There were also speaker meetings, call-up meetings, Step meetings, an old-timers meeting, meetings on Traditions and service, men's meetings, women's meetings, gay meetings, and meetings in French and Spanish. In addition, there were meetings/workshops on a variety of sober-living topics: health in sobriety, gratitude, couples in sobriety, emotional and mental disorders, AA on the internet, work and careers in sobriety, friendships, sex and intimacy, sponsorship, and a Grapevine workshop. Al-Anon and Alateen meetings were offered. All major AA gatherings had signers to translate into American Sign Language for the deaf and hard of hearing. At all major gatherings there was also a special treat provided by Jim D., for many years the "voice of ICYPAA" and general master of ceremonies. A talented musician, Jim had a foot-stomping, sure-fire way to get everybody's attention and begin the meeting: he played a couple of rousing riffs on his harmonica.
There was much hugging at ICYPAA, in part because participants were given, at registration, a "warm fuzzy," which was a pompom made of short pieces of colored yarn worn around the neck: whenever a hug was exchanged, the huggers tied pieces of the yarn onto the other's neckpiece, with the goal of losing the warm fuzzy and gaining a lei of multi-colored yarn. Australian Tony A., currently living in Norfolk, Connecticut, said, "I ended up with hundreds of colorful ties on my string, a graphic illustration of 'you only get it by giving it away.' My pompom ended up threadbare and I ended up very well hugged." These "bonding rituals," as Tony called them, created for him "unbelievable feelings of belonging to a tribe that accepted me as kin even though I was 10,000 miles from home." David of Berwyn, Pennsylvania, also noted the importance of hugs: "At three years and ten months sober, I'm just now hugging people without jumping back or flinching. After I got back from ICYPAA, I saw a friend of mine and hugged him, and he said, 'Wow, a real hug from you! What happened?' I said, 'Go to ICYPAA and see for yourself.'"
Another distinguishing feature of ICYPAA is what might be called its interactive audience. ICYPAA participants often funneled their energy into whoops and hollers, whistles, calls, wild applause, and ritualized responses. For example, one person may give the sudden spontaneous cry--say, in the cafeteria or before a large meeting started--"ICKY! ICKY! ICKY!" which will be followed by a shouted chorus of "PAA! PAA! PAA!" Whenever someone introduced herself or himself at a meeting--i.e., said "My name is Jane and I'm an alcoholic"--everyone shouted, "Hi, Jane! We love you, Jane, lots and lots and lots--and who-o-o-ole bunches!"
In some of its forms, this "responsiveness" has some longtimers concerned. When "How It Works" is read, many ICYPAA participants like to "respond" to the text. They chant "What's the point?" right before the sentence "The point is, that we are willing to grow along spiritual lines," and afterwards they chant, "Good point!" They also call out the number of the Steps before each one is read. (Somebody often calls out "Thirteen!" as a joke, to which there is always the enlightened response of "Call your sponsor!") This practice has been going on for many years (the Grapevine reported on it back in 1986), and some people see it as youthful high spirits and part of the charm of ICYPAA. Tony from Australia cited the principle of group autonomy in defending the practice of reading "How It Works" out loud "in our own distinctive way" and called the debate about it "a storm in a teacup." But Glenn D. from Ohio said, "We have a lot of fun and there is a lot of energy exhibited, but there comes a time when we need to be a bit responsible." As one longtimer put it, "If ICYPAA wants to be taken seriously by the rest of the Fellowship, this isn't the way to do it." Several AAs spoke up from the podium at the old-timers meeting on Friday night, asking the chanters to consider whether the chanting was respectful of AA literature. Roger W. of Honolulu said, "It did my heart good to see 'How It Works' come of age. Some of the old-timers got up and very lovingly explained that we were offending people with our yelling and ad-libbing. These comments weren't effective at first because it's hard to stop a fast-moving train on a dime, but with love and persistence they did a great job of allowing the newcomer to hear the message as our early members wrote it and meant for it to be read. That was truly a miracle for me to witness several thousand young energetic alcoholics resist the temptation to yell and holler, and settle down to just listen." The chanting continued to be addressed by those leading meetings throughout the weekend, and their pleas appeared to have had an impact because as the conference progressed, there were noticeably fewer responses and more quiet attention was being paid.
For many people, just getting it together to go to an AA conference was thrilling. A young Native American man came from his current residence in Basl, Switzerland. Julia M., a social worker from Montgomery, Alabama who has had cerebral palsy since birth, came in a wheelchair. (Her parents drove her up to the conference site and then spent the weekend in Denver.) Amy C. of Denver was a member of the host committee and had a special problem: "I gave birth to a beautiful baby girl only four days before I arrived in Estes Park. But I was determined to make it to ICYPAA!" Mark from Illinois said, "In my drinking days, I just sat on my barstool and wondered how my other friends did things like take trips and play golf. The only way I did anything was by mistake!" He'd driven cross-country to Colorado from his home in Bloomington. Many people hitchhiked. Martin N. ended up at ICYPAA by way of a sudden road trip:
"On September 9 of this year, suddenly and without warning the band I was playing with broke up. Since these were sober people, I figured to hell with AA, its members, and my sponsor. Having free time and having just read Kerouac's novel On the Road, I decided it was time to take off. I told no one where I was going and could have cared less whether I started drinking again. But several hundred miles after leaving New Jersey, all those sayings from the literature began to take effect and by the time I got to Tennessee I decided to give my sponsor a call. He said it was fine that I was taking a vacation and that I should report to him regularly and try to make a meeting.
"In Santa Fe, New Mexico, I went to an AA meeting in the Friendship Club where they had a large sign painted on the wall that said 'Welcome Home.' I told everyone about my escape from New Jersey and after the meeting a man pulled me aside and asked me what my plans were. I said I was simply making this road trip up as I went along. He told me that the 40th ICYPAA was being held in the mountains of Colorado and gave me a flyer. Wow! I decided that this was the place to be. The Conference turned out to be fabulous. The highlight for me was when about thirty of us gathered in a large tent for the drum circle. As we played, my soul was lifted higher than any drinking ever did, and I gained a lot of strength from all these sober people dancing and sweating their cares away to the beat. So after setting out across the country to do some soul searching, I was led directly to where I needed to be. I realized that I could stop worrying so much about my problems, and that in getting back into the service part of AA, I could keep my sobriety date for a long time."
For the first time in ICYPAA history, AA members from all fifty states were registered. In addition, there were participants from Australia, Bolivia, Canada, Greece, Jordan, Mexico, Poland, Russia, Scotland, South Africa, Sweden, and Switzerland. Ilya from Moscow, Russia, recited the Twelve Steps in Russian at the Saturday night program, and got a huge ovation for doing so, which left him beaming. The youngest sober person was fourteen years old; the oldest was seventy-five. The sobriety countdown, a feature of the Saturday night program, revealed that the longest sobriety in the room was forty-two years; the shortest sobriety was one day. There were more than a dozen AA members who had under a month's sobriety.
At the end of the countdown, the chair announced: "Has anyone had a drink in the last twenty-four hours but has a desire to stay sober?" and a tearful young woman stood up and came to the platform, where she received much applause, encouragement, and a Big Book signed by Bill D. of Texas, the longest-sober person. At the mike, she said only, "I can't stop drinking." As Larry M. later wrote, "This simple sentence is the lifeblood and the future of AA. When this many young people are gathered together to reach out one united hand to the alcoholic who still suffers and then take that experience back to their hometowns, I know we will continue to be of service for many years to come." Others had this sense of taking back home the exuberant message of ICYPAA. Tamra H. of Wheat Ridge, Colorado, said, "I have such joy in my heart that I was afforded the opportunity to attend ICYPAA. I'm nine years sober and I don't have a 'conference high'--what I have is a burning desire to take what I've experienced at ICYPAA back to my home group." Marcus N. of Stockholm, Sweden, said that what he was taking back to the young people in his area was the idea that "action is the magic word--helping newcomers and doing service."
There were plenty of opportunities for carrying the message at ICYPAA itself because there were so many people who were newly arrived in AA. One young man from San Diego said he'd gone to a dance and while there, talked with a new guy who had ten days. Together, they went over to the one of the AA meetings. He said that was one of the high points of the conference for him: "It's always a pleasure to talk to a newcomer."
The bidding system
For forty years, ICYPAA has been meeting all over the United States and Canada: in Arizona, New York, Florida, Hawaii, Ohio, California, and Georgia, to name just a few of the sites. The engine that drives ICYPAA is the bid committee system, the process by which the site for the coming year is decided. As one observer put it, "Every year, they decide whose house is going to have the party next time."
Unlike many large AA gatherings that plan years in advance (for example, the International Convention), ICYPAA chooses its next site at each year's conference. For most of the day on Saturday, bid committees, bidding for the site, give presentations to the ICYPAA Advisory Council, which calls itself "the custodian of ICYPAA experience." The seventeen-member Council, whose members are selected from previous host committees, listens to presentations, makes inquiries, and then meets to deliberate, before announcing their decision at the end of Saturday night before a large, enthusiastic crowd.
Here's how ICYPAA newcomer Donna Z. described the presentations of the bid committees:
"I decided to attend the official bid session held in the auditorium. The place was packed--not what I expected. The members of the bidding cities all sat together, and it looked like a pep rally for a college football team. I instantly felt full of excitement and was glad I was there. The Advisory Council was introduced and a few rules were explained. The name of a city was picked out of a hat and then that committee got up on stage and explained, in twenty minutes, why they need and want ICYPAA in their state. Some presentations included singing, dancing, and skits. Some committees had a few members while others had a lot. When each committee was done, the entire auditorium stood, clapped, and cheered. Bid after bid, no one left that auditorium without a standing ovation. I'd thought it was going to be a competitive event and I was so wrong--it was an emotional one."
Many echoed that sentiment. Leslie K. of Oklahoma City said, "The bid session turned out to be a big gratitude meeting." Kim S. of Lexington, Kentucky, wrote:
"I was prepared to be bored out of my mind at the bid session. But my experience was anything but boring. I don't believe I've ever been so moved as I was that day. I sat in a room for five hours and it was absolutely amazing to see these sober alcoholics sharing with the Advisory Council and each other the work they had been doing for the past year to unite the young AAs in their area. To see a room full of young people all of whom were involved in service work made my heart burst with joy."
One longtimer said it was moving to see young people who only a few years ago were lost to themselves, "now willing to take responsibility for hosting a major AA event." A great deal of work goes into producing a bid, and members of the bid committees have much to learn: how to assess conference facilities, how to negotiate prices, how to plan for transportation, how to determine the effects of federal, state, provincial, or local tax laws. In addition, they are required to demonstrate financial autonomy and responsibility, "within the Traditions of AA," and to bring statements of support from the AA area chair-people and intergroup secretary. Many bid committees stressed their relationship to AA as a whole. The winning bid city was Washington, D.C., and its committee described how, among other things, they supported the annual banquet held by the Washington Area Intergroup Association and took the lead in staffing and supporting the area's mini-conference. The D.C. bid committee's Statement of Need described the importance of going to a lot of meetings, strong sponsorship, service commitments, and continuing involvement by young AAs with five years and over of sobriety.
Jimmy D. of Danbury, Connecticut, said, "ICYPAA helped change my life. It led me on a service journey to be a Panel 41 Area 49 delegate to the General Service Conference." Ivy from Washington, D.C. said that ICYPAA "taught me about service and was an avenue to the larger world of AA." Perhaps the journey starts with being, as Erica S. of Gaithersburg, Maryland, put it, "a part of something so much bigger than I am."
The history of young people's AA
The first ICYPAA was held in April 1958 at Niagara Falls, New York. The press release for the event read, "Youngsters in AA to Meet," and went on to say, "The theme of the conference can be summed up in the apparently paradoxical phrase, 'Youth Finds Serenity,' " mentioning the special problems of getting sober for those "under forty." Indeed, from a photo of one of the conference sessions, it looks as if many of those who attended were on the shady not the sunny side of forty. The photo, taken from the back of the room, shows grey and balding pates on the men and women with suits and pillbox hats. The whole affair looks rather stuffy--a far cry from ICYPAA today.
The permanent ICYPAA Advisory Council was formed in 1960, at the Milwaukee conference. In the Council's words, it was "established for the preservation of experience and material. . . . Being cognizant that not all young people find our conference or meeting necessary, we do not propose to a be a universal answer or a governing body for young people. We believe it beneficial to share our experience with all who request our help, for it is through our sharing that we have learned to function within the framework of the AA Traditions." As more and more young people have sobered up, ICYPAA has grown and strengthened, and the Council has provided a continuum of its experience for thirty-seven years.
Bill W. once described being four years old and looking up at Vermont's Mount Aeolus--"that vast and mysterious mountain"--and then, on being offered a plate of fudge by his aunt, turning away immediately from his contemplation of the heights: "For the next thirty-five years I pursued the fudge of life and quite forgot the mountain." The 40th ICYPAA gathering reaffirmed the ways in which Alcoholics Anonymous helps us look up--up from our alcoholism, and also up from our self-centered fears. To its participants, ICYPAA offered a celebration of service, love, and recovery, and that is indeed the "new freedom" the Big Book talks about. And for three days the mountains rang with it.