WOMANFEST: Still Changing after all these years
by Diana Somerville

A group of women unloaded sleeping bags, sweaters, flashlights and candles,boxes of food and a few bags of concrete, their laughter skimming over Lake Crescent in preparation for an annual rite -- the Womanfest fall retreat. The fall equinox weekend, 50-some women, from college students to retirees, all shared a yearning to be with one another, a once-a-year " time for ourselves," they say.

Every fall since 1983, women from across the Peninsula have taken time from their daily lives to re-discover who they are -- apart from familiar roles, away from family expectations, beyond the demands of jobs and careers.

This year's loosely structured weekend began with embraces between women who hadn't seen each other since last year, introductions for newcomers and a seemingly endless supply of food. As Womanfest took over Camp David, Jr., the dress was camp casual. "Early on, one of the most appealing parts of the retreat was a chance to spend the weekend hanging out in sweat pants," said one. With the camp to themselves, another relished having access to both the women's and men's facilities.

Free to "follow your bliss," some went canoeing or swimming in the clear, brisk lake. Others hiked, went to nearby Sol Duc hot springs; some sat in the sun, alternating between daydreaming and trying to come to terms with a world so radically altered the week before. Most gathered for a Saturday morning ritual for world peace.

Broken crockery, beads and seashells were embedded in concrete, creating symbolic stepping stones. For the past few years, retreats have offered women a chance to unleash their creativity in unexpected ways. This year, the symbolism of transforming broken bits into a new kind of beauty gained significance after Sept. 11. More structured activities included a gentle yoga class, aerobics and dancing. Long-time regular Mary Lou Sanelli brought her dance and poetry from Port Townsend.

Womanfest began "when I got together with Linda Paulson, the publisher of the Sequim Gazette," says Carol Knebes, one of the group's founding mothers.

While both belonged to professional organizations that offered meetings, workshops and opportunities for learning, "we realized that lots of Peninsula women felt isolated. They had no access to inspirational, encouraging, educational and uplifting opportunities and we wanted to share some of these inspiring people and speakers with women from all walks of life."

"A woman working with Linda, Barbara Adams, had just moved here from the east coast with the idea of a retreat for women. We decided to start by picking the movers and shakers to see if we should do this, if it was appropriate," Carol says.

They devoted an entire day developing their mission statement -- "as hot a topic as the color of the Womanfest sweatshirts," she says, laughing at the recollection. The women met at noon hours at Aggies Restaurant; Carol put up the money to rent Camp David Jr. and her husband let his legal expertise to establish Womanfest as a 501c-3 (non-profit) corporation.

"Our purpose was to celebrate woman (singular) -- whatever her color, size, shape or political persuasion," she says. Scholarships made it possible for women who couldn't afford the cost to be able to attend.

At first, Womanfest retreats were ambitious affairs with a schedule of 3 to 4 workshops choices for each morning and afternoon time slot, plus an evening together. When 100 women attended and more were on a waiting list, they knew they'd identified an important need.

Over the years, Womanfest has changed to keep pace with the interests of women across the Peninsula. The format of a weekend crammed with workshop changed in response to society's concerns. "We had one 'free form' retreat and decided that was nice," says Leslie Campbell.

Leslie Campbell and Barbara Wise now serve as co-presidents. "I'm usually a 'behind the scenes' person. I did the registration for years, checking in people and calling those on the waiting list when someone canceled," says Leslie, who has been on the board 11 years. "To me it's always been a big, huge slumber party, an opportunity to just be with other women, to hear their stories and relish in my own life." An occupational therapist who provides special education to school district students, Leslie's life also includes playing with Sequimarimba, the popular local marimba band.

Barbara, who has been coming to Womanfest since 1987, recalled how one early retreat was a life-changing experience. One presenter was Phoebe Lundy, a history professor from Boise State University. "She talked about weaving our own lives, creating a quilt of women's experience, and told about an experience her grandmother had, some event that cracked her life wide open."

Then a new mother, Barbara had been living in the woods near Forks, isolated for 8 years, working and going to school. At Lundy's thoughtful talk, "I realized I needed to be closer to women, to have a network of friends." Not long after, she changed jobs and moved to Port Angeles. "I'd hung out with some women before, but to see that many women together -- well, it just cracked my world open, too." Barbara is now a nurse with Olympic Medical Home Health in Port Angeles.

It was author Anne Cameron, speaking at a 1992 Womanfest gathering, who made a lasting impression on Leslie. The acclaimed author of "Daughters of Copper Women "had so much anger -- and it was amazing to me that she found a way to use her anger to enlighten people, to speak it, without simply venting," she says. "Some people were offended and we [organizers] heard about it, but I was impressed she'd figured out a creative avenue for her anger."

Booking a woman who'd written a book about how to clean out your closets -- a book that no one on the board had read -- proved a memorable mistake. "We assumed it was a metaphor about organizing your life, getting things in order, but it was literally about closets. She brought coat hangers," Leslie says with a chuckle. The presentation sparked a bit of outrage from those who'd expected the speakers to reflect their own life concerns.

Women from Port Angeles, Sequim and Port Townsend are among the 20 volunteers now on the Womanfest board of directors. They follow the group's flexible mandate to provide experiences and associations that empower women on the Olympic Peninsula.

New Womanfest events emerge when one person steps forward and decides she wants to do something, Leslie explains. Womanfest sponsored a concert , bringing Seattle-based singer-songwriter Laura Love to the Sequim High School Auditorium. Thanks to the determined efforts of Sequim resident Rhonda Karls, the event was a different kind of benefit. Ticket-holders chose which among three worthy causes they'd like to support. Although Rhonda is a long-time supporter who acts as the group's secretary, "She should probably be called the Czarina of Womanfest," says Barbara.

Through the years of change, one thing remains constant: women of all ages still crave a time for themselves and the Fall Retreat lies at the heart of Womanfest. Every retreat attracts first-timers, says Carol, who has only missed two since they began. The newcomers often say, 'This is my first time here. I've never been to anything like this" Carol says. Women bring their mothers, their daughters, even their grandmothers, and seeing three generations together is not unusual.

"The retreat is "so safe," Barbara adds. "Some women, who never longed for the company of women, who never thought they'd feel such things, just crack their world wide open." After 15 years of Womanfest retreats, "just when you think it can't get any better -- it does," she says.