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Youth Conference Inspires Teens To Become 'Tools of Change'
By Andy McKeever, iBerkshires Staff
06:30AM / Saturday, April 14, 2018
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Zoe Hypolite kicked off the conference with an inspiring speech to her peers.


The arts was one of the four tracks students could choose for the workshops.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Zoe Hypolite watched as Hurricane Maria devastated her home country of Dominica.
 
She knew something had to be done to help. She started fundraising.
 
"I decided that I am going to do something about it. This is why I am the head of Miss Hall's natural disaster relief group where we have raised thousands of dollars for schools of areas affected by natural disasters," Hypolite.
 
Hypolite is a student at Miss Hall's and comes from a background checkered in trauma. From nearly being blind as a child to bullied in high school to feeling suicidal, Hypolite hadn't thought she had much power in this world.
 
But that changed. At some point, she realized that if she doesn't work to make this world better, who else will?
 
 "We are the only ones who are going to take action because we are the tools for change," she told high school students from across the region on Thursday morning. 
 
She advised them to learn their voices and have confidence. She asked the students to find the things they are passionate about and fight for them.
 
"We have the power. We have the ability. We have the drive. And we have the answers. So let's go out there and show the world what we are made of because, can't you see it, change is coming," Hypolite said.
 
Hypolite's story kicked off a daylong convention when 113 students from 13 different Berkshire high schools descended on Hancock Shaker Village for a series of workshops. The annual 411 in the 413 Youth Conference brings teens together to learn things they want to learn outside of the classroom setting. The program is youth run and organized by area teens and is supported by the Berkshire United Way, Railroad Street Youth Project and the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition.
 
"One point is to get students from different schools to meet each other, delve into their passions. It is really about getting out of the classrooms and learning in a new way," Kat Toomey, coordinator of positive youth development for the Berkshire United Way, said. 
 
The high school's nominate up to 10 students to attend the conference. Interns from the various agencies work with other teens to develop a series of workshops led by area businesses and organizations. The sessions range from arts to wellness to paying for college. The lessons are much more unique than the typical high school curriculum.
 
"This is really a youth-led day," Toomey said. "It is really just about this different learning style."
 
The program is in its 12th year and was started completely by area teens. Later the nonprofits joined the effort to help coordinate professionals in the area to provide the workshops and work out logistics. 
 
This year's theme was "tools for change" and Hypolite's speech motivated the students to become those tools for change. However, the other keynote speaker for the event brought a somber, yet still motivating, story. 
 
Madison Quinn is a student at Pittsfield High School whose life was changed when she met 9-year-old Landen Palatino. Battling through tears, Quinn told the students stories of how close the two had gotten leading up to his death. Palatino lost  his fight with childhood cancer. 
 
"Childhood cancer has stolen a part of who I was and is pushing me to be who I am," Quinn said.
 
Quinn has started her own non-profit, Strong Little Souls. Through that, she raises thousands of dollars to help the families of children with cancer. When Shavez Forte died, she raised money to help cover the cost of the funeral and get him a headstone. When other teens take trips to New York City, they want to see Times Square, but she finds the nearest children's hospital. 
 
"These kids make me the happiest person I’ve ever known possible. I'd like to continue on this path forever and keep raising awareness, keep raising funds, keep raising funds to help these children," Quinn said.
 
But Quinn's story wasn't meant just to sadden the audience because the lesson she has learned is that there are plenty of people in the community who will support efforts to make change happen and that any individual has the ability to change other people's lives for the better.
 
"Each and every one of you holds the potential to change lives. Knowing changed lives is a gift that keeps on giving. Giving back to the community or an individual who needs the support, find a path to pursue it. And whatever you do, do not give up," Quinn said.
 
Following the speakers, the students took off to various parts of Hancock Shaker Village for the hour-long lessons. The students chose between different tracks - the arts, compassion in action, wellness, and adulting. 
 
"I think this conference is such an amazing opportunity for students to learn and explore new topics outside the classroom. Things like therapy, yoga, self-dense, and how to pay for college will help us a lot in the future," said Julie Xu, of Miss Hall's School who helped organize the conference. 
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