RYLA – Inspiring Young Leaders
I had the amazing privilege of being reconnected with some of our future leaders this past weekend — about 200 of them. I had been invited to be the opening Keynote speaker for the Camp RYLA weeklong retreat in the San Jose area (District 5170). RYLA stands for Rotary Youth Leadership Awards and is a training program specifically for young people, ages 18-30. The mission of RYLA is to support and nuture our budding leaders by providing them intensive training and education in important leadership qualities and practices such as ethics, integrity, even financial stewardship and time management.
This was my first exposure to a RYLA program and I have to admit I came away dreadfully impressed. The energy and enthusiasm that went into District 5170’s program was awe-inspiring. I didn’t know what to expect frankly, but I didn’t expect the excitement and frenzy that counselors and leadership team exhibited when the first of three bus-loads of high school students arrived. I don’t think the “campers” expected it, too. It was very clear this was NOT going to be some dry and boring remote “seminar.” This was a full-on resident camp, complete with counselors sporting clever nicknames, some wearing animal floaties as part of their get-up, and plastic police whistles and custom chants all designed to generate energy and foster teamwork.
But, the topics of discussion were very grounded. Within the first hour, each cabin was settled in and brainstormed to arrive at a “leadership role model” they selected to represent their group. The role models ranged from parents (because of unconditional love and support), to legends such as the recently-passed John Wooden and Rosa Parks.
While this RYLA program offers kids a terrific dose of fun and levity, it’s also very much about the leadership skills, character traits and practices kids will need to become who and what it is they are striving to be.
Rotary Clubs from across the district selected and sponsored the students who came to the camp. There’s no cost to students and the entire program is funded through generous support by local clubs and the District. I couldn’t help but think: if I had had this kind of resource when I was in High School, who knows what a difference this would have made in my life? Instead of “trial and error” as I shared with the kids during the keynote, wouldn’t it have been so much better and easier if I had a map? That map includes Rotary’s 4-Way Test (which each camper had on the backside of their laminated nametag), but is also encompassed in the sessions and breakouts students will participate in during the nearly weeklong event.
At the end of the opening ceremonies on Sunday, each camper was given a key sticker to add to their namebadge — they’ll get several such “reminder” tokens throughout the week. I’ve always been impressed by what Rotary offers children and youth, but this so exceeded any expectation I had. I don’t know if all RYLA programs are like this, but it’s clear from the people I met — like Joanne Mansch (“Mama Jo” at camp, and RYLA chair) and Margarethe Pfeffer (who organizes the program) — that there is an enormous amount of time, energy and dedication involved in ensuring these kids get the very best — and most — out of their experience.
If you don’t know about RYLA I suggest you take a few moments and learn more about this program. It’s more than worthwhile — it’s something I think EVERY Rotary District should consider doing if they don’t already. I know I’m going to have a chat with my club leadership and see what we can do to organize something in our District. Giving our kids a leg-up in the leadership department helps everyone — short-term and long-term. I only wish I could have been one of the counselors or leadership team so I could participate all week; one day was just enough to get me hooked.