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International director of Springville World Folkfest shares stories of love and faith brought about by annual event

SPRINGVILLE — It was Sunday, Aug. 5, 2018, and Emily Wilkinson stood and watched as her friends boarded a bus for home. With tears flowing, she, along with several others, began singing the song from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints hymnal, “God be With You Till We Meet Again” to their new friends who would now be part of their lives forever.

This tearful yet joyous goodbye has played over each year at the same place, and for the same reason, as the international dancers who performed at the World Folkfest in Springville say their goodbyes to their host families. It has been a tradition that Wilkinson, who is now the festival’s international director, has experienced for the past 32 years, beginning when she was just 8 years old.

It was in 1987 when Wilkinson’s father, Hal Burrows, who worked for Springville City, was asked to host an international family for the World Folkfest that was then in its second year. After speaking with his wife, he agreed, but they had a special request: that the family they hosted be from Japan.

Emily Wilkinson, front, poses with members of her family and international dancers from Japan in 1987.
Emily Wilkinson, front, poses with members of her family and international dancers from Japan in 1987.
Provided by Emily Wilkinson

“My mother lost her father during Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor,” Wilkinson said. “Because of this, my mother grew up with fear and anger toward the Japanese people. This was the norm for a lot of the country at the time, but my mother wanted to replace that hurt with love by inviting individuals from that country into our home.”

While hosting the dancers from Japan, Wilkinson recalled seeing a change in her mother as she was able to heal old wounds by getting to know good people who came from a place that seemed to her to be filled with such awfulness. Having those dancers in her home helped Wilkinson learn at a young age the power of love and service, and that people are good. This was a lesson that she would learn several times over as her family hosted more international dancers in the following years.

Wilkinson recalled when her family hosted dancers from the then-USSR in 1991, which was a time of great unrest. All of the dancers her family hosted, Wilkinson said, were only being allowed in the United States if the KGB, which was the main security agency for the Soviet Union, could use family members as leverage until the dancer returned.

“One of the dancers we hosted had a 3-month-old child who was being detained along with her husband by the KGB,” she said. “Our other dancer was set to be married when she returned, so her fiancé and parents were being detained. All these USSR dancers had similar stories."

There was little the Wilkinson family could do to help these families but pray for their safety, and for understanding of how to serve them. So that's what they did.

"Every night we knelt down as a family to pray for the safety of the dancers’ families and how best to serve the needs of our guests," she said. "One night our dancers walked in and heard our prayers, and we opened our eyes and unlocked our circle of hands to find them in tears of surprise and shock that we were praying for them even though we had just met. From that night on, the dancers joined in our family prayer.”

A group of dancers from the USSR pose for a picture at the 1991 Springville World Folkfest.
A group of dancers from the USSR pose for a picture at the 1991 Springville World Folkfest.
Provided by Emily Wilkinson

Wilkinson recalled her family feeling impressed to send suitcases filled with winter coats, shoes and a some heavy jeans home with the group of dancers. Her family was pleased and humbled to find out later that these items, specifically the winter coats, were things they were in dire need of.

“Our prayers asking the Lord to be able to help these people had been answered because we’d sent them with items they needed,” she said. “It was a blessing to all of us.”

Wilkinson said there have been several more instances where she has seen the Lord’s hand in blessing both her family and those they have hosted during the festival, and says that it has strengthened her own faith in God.

One happened at a recent Folkfest event during the festival's outreach program, which is where the performers go dance for people who are unable to attend the festival. A group from Chile had visited a care center to perform their routine, when one performer was soon found holding an elderly woman who was brought to tears.

"While at the care center, there was an elderly woman who had been experiencing some memory loss, with part of that loss affecting language," Wilkinson recalled. "Her native tongue was Spanish, and she had retained that language, but she had lost her ability to speak English. When the group from Chile began to dance and sing, the woman started to cry because she could understand them. They were singing in the language of her childhood. One of the male dancers noticed her crying, and went to sit by her. He started speaking to her in the language they shared, and cradled her as he spoke. This moment brought home and language to this woman who really needed it, bridging a gap in her life."

Wilkinson said that when you bring nations together in peaceful moments like these, people are able to experience the greatness of humankind, as well as experience a stronger faith in God.

“I believe that any experience where you open your home, heart and family to perfect strangers is nothing less than a step of faith toward God's work and his plans,” she said. “In the ultimate picture of things I believe there is a greater purpose as to why these particular dancers have come to us. Sometimes we don't know the reason why until months or years later, just like our USSR dancers and their great need for winter clothing during the 1991 Soviet coup. It is said that God answers prayers through other people, and I strongly believe that the World Folkfest has been a way for God to answer prayers for not only my family and our host families but countless others in this world as well.”

An international dancer from Chile hugs an elderly woman at a care center during the festival's outreach program.
An international dancer from Chile hugs an elderly woman at a care center during the festival's outreach program.
Emily Wilkinson

Wilkinson expressed having many experiences where her involvement in the World Folkfest has strengthened her faith in God while also teaching her to appreciate and love the faiths of others from around the world.

“The Folkfest has strengthened my overall belief that we truly are brothers and sisters just trying our best to make it through life and create meaningful bonds of love and peace,” she said. “Dance and music is one of the purest ways for us to express joy in this life, so creating the World Folkfest was literally a way to build a bridge over the difficulties of this imperfect world. It is during this festival when we celebrate our differences and influence good works and love throughout this world. Because of this intention in our hearts, miraculous things have happened.”

With each passing year, Wilkinson looks forward to meeting and hosting new dancers, giving her own children the chance to learn what she did as a child: that love, music, dance and faith in a higher power are things that can connect us all.

If you are interested in hosting a family for this year’s Folkfest that will be held July 30-Aug. 3, contact housing director Elissa Johnson at folkfesthostfamilies@gmail.com.

If you go ...

What: World Folkfest in Springville

When: July 30- Aug. 3

Where: Arts Park, 760 S. 1350 East, Springville

How much: $10 general admission; $8 students, military, seniors 65 and older; family and group rates available

Web: worldfolkfest.org