Nikki Smith has watched not one, but two of her children be on planning team for Winter Celebration and this year it was her turn. Three planning groups would have looked radically different if she and her family would have moved to Vermont 10 years ago, but she said that she stayed in Virginia for her children's faith.
This year Nikki was one of the adult leaders on the planning group that helped plan Winter Celebration, the winter youth event for hundreds of high schoolers in the Virginia Synod. While the second weekend at Eagle Eyrie Camp in Lynchburg was canceled, hundreds of high schoolers and their adult leaders gathered for a life changing weekend during January 15-17.
The high school students on the planning team were Madison Belcher, Tyler Wertman, Aaron Bock, Liam Wiecher, Valerie Wessel, and Katy Gattuso. Along with the adults, they came up with the theme "Take Your Mark" which centered around Hebrews 12 and not only running the race of faith but also being surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.
|Nikki (far right)praying with the Winter Cel planning group during large group
Each large group session included a presentation skit where the planning group students showed off their acting skills and at the end of each skit one student would give his or her own faith testimony.
"It has been really neat to watch the kids grow in their faith and watch them develop their own thoughts," Nikki said.
Nikki wouldn't have been able to experience this planning group and their strong faith if she and her family had altered one life decision in their past.
"In 2005 is when my husband retired from the military, we started talking about moving up to Vermont," she said. "All of my husband's family is up there and he always knew that when he retired from the military, he wanted to go back."
"We started looking for houses and then it came to the point where we had to make a decision."
|Nikki reading scripture at this year's Winter Cel
Nikki and her family moved to Suffolk, Va. in 2002 and, with her three children, Marcus, Mikaela, and Monique, in mind, they began going to Faith Lutheran Church in December of 2002 because they noticed the importance of children and youth in the church.
Nikki said that her son Marcus, the oldest of the three, was so tall for his age that their Pastor, Scott Benson, began telling him about 7th day, a Virginia Synod event for 5th and 6th graders, when he was only in 3rd grade.
"The first event I went to was Lost and Found with Mikaela and I was completely blown away," Nikki said.
After that first experience, all three of her children attended Virginia Synod Youth events.
"Marcus was the one that caught really my attention when he was filling out a form for one of the Synod events," she said. "There was a question that asked about his faith and what bible verse helped him in his faith."
"He didn't have to crack the bible open and he was able to refer to a chapter in Romans. I looked at him, laughed, and said, 'do you even know what those verses say?' He was able to talk to me and explain what those verses meant to him."
When Nikki and her husband really began to consider moving, she had images of her children at youth events in her head.
"I told my husband, 'I know that we have been talking about moving up North but my concern is that my kids won't be able to build their faith.' We decided to stay in Virginia because there was nowhere else that we felt like could provide the kids with the growth that they were experiencing here."
"The biggest things that I saw in my kids and what has impressed me the most was that they were able to take the bible and use the bible in ways that I felt like I hadn't even developed and learned. They could hold conversations that meant something with their peers and also with adults."
|Mikaela (right) with Lizzie Franz during the 2015 Winter Celebration
Because of that decision to stay in Virginia, her life and her children's lives have been altered forever in the most positive way possible. Nikki has served for many years as a small group leader at the events and both Mikaela and Marcus served as members of planning groups.
"It is an intense moment when your 18 year old daughter comes home and has a conversation with you as parents about how to incorporate prayer into your daily routine in the morning or before we go to bed at night," she said while talking about her middle daughter Mikaela.
Her youngest daughter Monique is still attending the youth events at age 16 and is already talking about feeling the call to explore full time ministry. Because of the connections she has made at all the Virginia Synod youth events she has plenty of pastors she can call on to talk with about discernment.
"You know that phrase it takes a village to raise a child?" Nikki said. "I don't think I would have been able to give my children the strong faith that they have without the leaders that they have met along the way."
"The Synod Events are not just about coming and singing. It's not a program, it's a family."