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October 2006

ICYPAA Bounces Back

After being routed by Katrina in September 2005

In the Big Book, AAs are compared to "passengers of a great liner the moment after rescue from shipwreck when camaraderie, joyousness and democracy pervade the vessel from steerage to Captain's table." From June 30 to July 2, 2006, the Sheraton Hotel in New Orleans was such a vessel. Only here, the great majority of passengers were in their teens, twenties, and thirties.

Each year, the International Conference of Young People in Alcoholics Anonymous, or ICYPAA (pronounced "ick-ee-pa"), holds a conference that feels like a party--a good party--without the hangover, blackout, or shame. Since 1958, ICYPAA has met on an annual basis and in a different city each year. And everyone, everyone, is welcome.

The purpose of ICYPAA, as its statement of purpose says, is to "carry AAs message of recovery and to provide a setting for an annual celebration of sobriety among young people in AA."

"Why is it so important to celebrate in sobriety? As one young woman from Louisiana said, "You're kidding, right?" With a delighted laugh, she quoted from the text of Alcoholics Anonymous: "If newcomers could see no joy or fun in our existence, they wouldn't want it." At ICYPAA, there was lots of joy and lots of fun. She grasped my hand, flashed me a smile, and pulled me across the room to meet some of her friends.

The ICYPAA schedule of events spanned Thursday to Sunday with late-night meetings, an old-timers' ice-cream social, panel discussions (on such topics as getting sober at eighteen and under), bidding information, a Q&A with GSO, and dancing and live music until early morning hours.

On Thursday, the Pre-Conference Event kicked off at the recently reopened Aquarium of the Americas. AAs wound through the aquarium for exotic views of maritime flora and fauna. Penguins played in a simulation of their natural habitat and charmed their audience. Over plates of jambalaya, AAs hailed old friends, met new ones, and brought them along to the 10:30 P.M. speaker meeting in the Napoleon Ballroom to finish off the evening.

By Friday, most ICYPAA attendees had arrived from all over the United States and Canada--others traveled from as far as Ireland and New Zealand. Participants had their pick of an emotional sobriety workshop, panel discussions, and various information seminars. That evening, Holly H., from Lake Charles, Louisiana, shared about being young in AA. "If you're new to AA and you're looking for a relationship or a better job, you'll probably find it," she said. The crowd tittered, and seemed to recall some of their early desires when first walking through AA's doors. Holly continued, "But if you're looking for sobriety, you're going to find that, too." At this, the young assembled AAs cheered heartily and loud. That, they seemed to say, was what we were looking for all along.

On Saturday evening, young AAs, suited up and slicked-down, entered the Armstrong Ballroom to share a banquet dinner. Later, conference attendees were surprised with a Mardi Gras parade--a brightly painted float circled the Napoleon Ballroom while masked AAs threw beaded necklaces and doubloons. The Cajun beat rocked the crowd and bounced off the rafters, as ICYPAAs jumped and stretched to catch the beads rocketing colorfully through the air. When all the beads had been caught and most of the jumping had died down, the sobriety countdown began. By the time AAs began to stand and claim their thirty days, twenty days, ten days, ICYPAA attendees were cheering with a fevered pitch of love and excitement. It was easy to get the message--there is joy, fun, and life in sobriety.

Carlston, from Shreveport, Louisiana, got sober at seventeen. No long after, he was taken to an ICYPAA and returned home better prepared to carry the message of recovery to others. How did an ICYPAA help? "There was something there that I wanted," he said. "People my age were having a ball. I thought I'd have to give up fun when I got sober." Now in his twentieth year of sobriety, Carlston serves as the chair of the ICYPAA48 Louisiana host committee. "This has been a powerful experience for me," he said. "The guys on the Louisiana host committee thought they were bringing a conference for young people to New Orleans--they thought they'd be doing service for a year. Then, Katrina blew through. Many of our guys didn't have homes to go to. They lost their jobs and everything they had. But they showed up to do another year of conference planning and work, all over again. And do you know what they said? They said: 'This is my service commitment to AA.'"

"You know," Carlston continued, "they didn't even know they were doing anything special."

Mike, from Connecticut, has been coming to ICYPAA for over twenty years to reconnect with old AA friends. He was surrounded by sober drunks whose happy looks and demeanor were no different from the teens' and twenty-somethings' milling about. Except, perhaps, that salt and pepper spiced their hair and most sported laugh lines. When asked why they kept coming back, many answered, "Haven't missed one since 1993," or 1987, or even 1972. This is, of course, a testament to the enjoyment of ICYPAA, but what is it about ICYPAA that keeps AAs coming back once they are no longer considered "young people"?

"This is AA!" claimed Reed from North Carolina. At my quizzical look, he continued, "I didn't even know "it, but I was dying. I held off from doing service work for young people's AA for the longest time--I figured, it's not for me. I attended a service meeting just to get someone off my back and I walked out with a service position for young peoples' AA in my area. And wouldn't you know it? The quality of my sobriety went straight up. I knew happiness." He paused a moment and looked out across the hotel lobby. In view were quiet greetings, hearty handshakes, shrieks of laughter, and a long line for iced coffee. "There is passion here, and friendliness, and a desire for the message of recovery. I am looking forward to meeting friends, old and new. For me, this is AA."

Marathon Meetings, a staple at ICYPAA, are a good way to meet friends. Meetings ran from 12:00 A.M. on Friday, to 10:00 A.M. Sunday. Each meeting had a quote or topic, pre-selected from AA literature, to use as a springboard. One meeting discussed what AAs can expect as a result of completing the Fifth Step. "We can look the world in the eye. We can be alone at perfect peace and ease. Our fears fall from us. We begin to feel the nearness of our Creator."

Sharing, at first slow and faltering, picked up speed as young AAs shared their experience with the Fifth Step. One young man shared that being at ICYPAA was great--amazing, he said. "But I don't have the problems in 'older people' AA that I do in young peoples' AA." He explained, "I am not self-conscious around the older folks; I can go for coffee, chat after a meeting, and feel perfectly relaxed and unself-conscious. But, when I walk into a group of people my own age, I start thinking, Oh, man, they've got more than me--they're better-looking, they have more money, they are more confident--I'm afraid they won't accept me. It feels like walking into the high school cafeteria, and it brings my fears front and center. I'm here working through it--what I get is more than fun, it's hope and knowledge about myself."

Service opportunities are plentiful at a conference or convention, and ICYPAA48 was no exception. Louisiana host committee volunteers greeted cheerfully, while directions, safety, security, and a host of other unseen needs were taken care of by other committee members.

Each year, in a different city, local young AAs are provided with a great opportunity to carry the message to "new friends in your own community.... If you live in a large place, there are hundreds. High and low, rich and poor, these are future fellows of Alcoholics Anonymous. Among them you will make lifelong friends." To the AAs involved, the joy, fellowship, and opportunities involved in hosting an ICYPAA may bring the message of recovery to someone who, like themselves, thought that sobriety would be a glum and miserable existence.

According to the long-time AAs living it up, ICYPAA is not only for teenagers and twenty-somethings. "Hey, we used to say it is for the young. Now, we like to say it is for the young-at-heart. Actually, though, it is for anyone who is still open and willing."

For anyone young, old, or willing, ICYPAA49 will be held in Los Angeles, California. For more information, visit www.ICYPAA.org

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