The Sullivan Foundation moved down from the mountains of North Carolina and into Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley for the Spring 2022 Ignite Retreat, but the atmosphere was just as vibrant, attracting the largest cohort of changemakers in the history of the event.

The event, which ran April 1-3 at the Staunton Innovation Hub in Staunton, Va., brought together 107 young people with a passion for changemaking, community leadership and social entrepreneurship. The weekend was split into three workshop tracks designed to meet each participant where they’re at and help them to get where they want to go next. The tracks included:

Personal Track: For those who wanted to better understand their skills and passions, build their confidence and explore the mindset of a social entrepreneur.

Problem Track: For those who had a specific issue or problem they care about but were unsure as to how they want to go about contributing to solutions.

Project Track: For those who had a project, venture or campus initiative they have been thinking about and were ready to take action on.

Additionally, the retreat’s faculty/staff development agenda featured two sessions: “Building Resilient Faculty Leaders” and “How to Run Experiential Workshops.” The faculty leadership workshop was led by Nell Devito, director of the Vantage Point in Mary Baldwin University’s Office of Personal and Professional Development, and Dr. Jody Holland, associate professor of public policy and leadership at the University of Mississippi. Reagan Pugh, who co-led the Ignite Retreat with Sullivan Foundation Director of Student Engagement Spud Marshall, also spearheaded the experiential workshops session.

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Marshall said the retreat’s young changemakers were eager to break free of the constraints imposed by COVID-19 and get back to doing what they do best: working together to build a better, more equitable world through social entrepreneurship and innovation.

“After navigating lots of social isolation over the past two years because of the pandemic, all of our participants were hungry to build meaningful relationships face-to-face,” Marshall said. “The energy in the room was electric as folks had a chance to share what was on their heart and open up about the challenges they’ve been navigating these past few years.”

Catherine Briley, a student at North Carolina Wesleyan College in Rocky Mount, N.C., said the retreat’s workshops and exercises helped her discover her own untapped powers as a leader and innovator. “My favorite part was writing a letter to my future self and writing positive comments on sticky notes for others,” she said. “I loved reflecting and also appreciating everything I learned about people in such a short amount of time.”

Like so many Ignite Retreat attendees, Briley came to the event as part of a journey of self-discovery. “My biggest takeaway is that I am capable of pursuing my passions,” she said. “I always knew I wanted to do something great and change the lives of others, but I never thought I would be able to do that. I have been so encouraged and inspired by those at the retreat, and I look forward to pursuing my passions.”

Timon Jones, a student at Lees-McRae College and star basketball player, echoed Briley’s sentiments. “This experience really opened my eyes to growth in all aspects of life—self-care, business and mental health.” What was his favorite part of the retreat? “The whole thing, honestly,” he said. “It was so fresh.”

Related: How Ignite Retreat speaker Sanah Javani overcame alopecia and learned to love her natural self

For his part, Marshall loves the little moments where friendships blossom and meaningful conversations bring people together.

“Each year, a highlight for me is watching folks connect one-on-one in the nooks and crannies of the retreat,” Marshall said. “This year, it meant folks talking about their mental health while engaged in a game of foosball, or a few students who had just met each other talking about the social ventures and nonprofits they wanted to create while getting ice cream down the street from our venue.”

“Although the content from the workshops is valuable,” Marshall added, “hands down the most memorable parts of the weekend are when someone feels like they are being fully seen—when they are able to follow their curiosity and get to know someone for how they want to be known, rather than how they might otherwise be labeled or traditionally perceived. At the end of the day, participants simply want to connect as their authentic selves. That’s what impacts people.”

The change of scenery was refreshing, too. Past retreats have taken place in remote mountain settings in North Carolina. “Unlike our typical gatherings, which take place in a retreat center in the middle of the woods and around campfires, this retreat allowed participants to explore the gems of Staunton,” Marshall noted. “From the incredible facilities of the Staunton Innovation Hub, which served as our home base throughout the weekend, to Mary Baldwin University students inviting everyone to attend a step dance performance and party on Saturday night, this year’s location allowed students to connect in completely new ways.”

The spring retreat was just the first of many events planned by the Sullivan Foundation for 2022, as Pugh keeps the momentum going with smaller, more intimate sessions taking place at the foundation’s individual partner schools. “Moving forward, we will be taking the energy from the retreat on the road with our Roadshow program throughout the upcoming fall and spring semesters,” Marshall said. “Schools are encouraged to reach out to Reagan if they’d like to have Sullivan visit their campus and rally excitement to attend an Ignite Retreat.”

Meanwhile, Marshall and Pugh are planning to head back for the hills again this fall, with the next Ignite Retreat scheduled for October 7-9 in Asheville, N.C.

And, according to Jones, that event’s attendees can expect to leave feeling reinvigorated and empowered to turn their ideas into reality. “This opportunity changed me by just giving me that confidence in my voice and encouragement to produce my ideas,” he said.

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