Hotel room:$129/night
Flight: $210
Registration:$320
Clamor of voices: Priceless

That old VISA advertisement often comes to mind as I watch the beginning of a FRIENDS conference. Looking back on the weekend, I treasure the picture of young adults and teens hanging out in the spacious lobby of the Embassy. These kids began gathering early on Wednesday afternoon, waiting eagerly to greet old friends and new arrivals. They each rushed to put away their suitcases and hurried back to become part of the informal welcome committee. At breakfast, bright and early (at least the first morningJ), they mingled with everyone, young and old, to swap stories of the previous year. The lobby began to get crowded again soon after, as they patiently and eagerly waited for the rest to arrive. There were hugs for everyone – new and old – and the loud clamor of voices and smiles was truly priceless.

The conference, as always, was entertaining, informative, and emotional. Much was learned at the workshops. New families merged with old as parents became hopeful and at peace after listening to the stories of those who had attended in previous years. It was apparent, by the end of the weekend, that lives had again been changed.

However, the true value of the conference was not in the workshops. It was not the amazing facilitators and speakers. Instead, it was once again seen in the friendly hotel lobby as the conference began winding down on Saturday evening after the karaoke and into the wee hours of Sunday morning. FRIENDS played cards, swam, laughed, and chatted easily as the night gave way to the steamy Tampa dawn. In mass numbers the participants; young children, pre-teens, teens, and young adults (AND old) gathered blurry-eyed in the lobby once again. Age was not an issue. The large area became crowded as everyone regretfully began to say their good-byes and see each other off for another year. No one ever wants to leave, so the good-byes were plentiful. By late afternoon, the lobby was deserted, and the Embassy returned to its quiet, reserved self.

The quiet is temporary though. Next year there will be another city, another conference, and more workshops. It won’t matter whether the lobby is in Tampa, New Orleans, Cleveland, New York, or Chicago. The numbers will increase, FRIENDS will return – and the cycle will once again repeat itself….in the lobby.

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