PHOENIX -- A woman from South Africa kissed the white balloon bearing a pledge of peace and whispered, "Please, please," before letting it ascend into the night sky.
"It was a joyous, sensitive moment," said Elanie Hesse Greif, general secretary of the World YWCA. "It was representative of the beauty of fellowship we've seen here these last several days."
She was speaking of the World YWCA Quadrennial Conference here that brought together 500 women from 72 countries to look for solutions to global problems under the theme, "Development with Justice." The conference ran Aug. 24 through Sept. 5.
The YWCA's new leadership development center, which housed the delegates during the two-week conference of seminars, workshops and business meetings, was dedicated Aug. 25 as a peace site during a candlelight vigil. Participants released white balloons, each containing a peace pledge.
Developing and empowering women was the common thread that was woven through the world YWCA's five main goals toward which it gears its programs: human rights, health, peace, energy and environment, and immigration and refugees.
"We've spent a lot of time talking about the refugees and the migrants," said Jewel Graham, newly elected president of the World YWCA. A resident of Yellow Springs, Ohio, she also is a former president of the YWCA of the USA, which was host of the conference.
"We've looked for ways to educate our members and communities about why these problems arise. We have to educate others to eliminate the fear of foreigners and to form groups to help teach the people who must adjust to a new society," she said.
Leadership skills that will enable women to take their places as decision-makers for critical issues in their communities also were emphasized at the conference.
"With the skills they need for community involvement and through using appropriate technology and programs, it will help our members become self-sustaining," Graham said. "We want them to help each other accomplish their goals."
As the new leader of the worldwide organization, Graham said she has three major concerns. The first is continuation of developing personal relationships among women throughout the world "so they can see geopolitical issues in human terms.
"The second is developing leadership and exerting our influence," she said. "And finally, we want to examine how we put our Christian principles into action so they can make a difference in our lives."
Lydia Breen, communications director for World YWCA based in Geneva said she had been impressed by the delegates' ability to see the connection of issues despite their diverse backgrounds and cultures. "They see the need for looking for global solutions and reaching across their countries' borders to help each other," she said.
The modern YWCA evolved from two groups of British women who combined forces in 1855. One of the groups was concerned with prayer and living better lives through Christian principles. The other hoped to provide housing for the women making the transition from farm girls to factory workers during the Industrial Revolution.
This year, acquired immune deficiency syndrome captured delegates' attention. Resolutions falling under the broad issue of health focused on AIDS education, especially as it affects women and children, Greif said. "The health report on AIDS captured everyone's attention," she said. "We are searching for ways to support the community through education and to suport the people who suffer from it."
Greif said she had been impressed with delegates from Third World nations where the organization is growing quickly and injecting vitality into the older chapters. "Those members are experiencing the dynamics of social change and not letting go of their power," she said. "Every one of them is speaking up, and it's joyous to see. A lot of our members, whose associations have been around since the 19th century, are picking up their vitality."