RYLA: The next generation of leaders


Courtesy of Hannah Santans

Marlee Baker, Editor-in-Chief

Courtesy of Marlee Baker

I stepped off the bus and within seconds was promptly bombarded with a torrent of raindrops.  The weather app had warned us of rain, but I hadn’t been expecting this.  Fifty other girls soon exited the charter bus, and though all of us were half-dragging half-carrying our luggage through red, thick mud, I was surprised to hear few to no complaints.

This is how I knew I was at a leadership camp.

A few months ago, Hannah Santans, Dale Calma, Nathan Young and I were called up to the Counselor’s Office to be told we had passed the interview process and been accepted to attend RYLA, the Rotary Youth Leadership Awards Camp for juniors in high school.

Calma and Young were taken to a separate boys’ camp a few miles away from us, something I had not been anticipating. However, having a camp full of girls not only eliminated any unnecessary distractions, it also supported an empowering, feminist “girl-power” vibe that seemed to become the theme for the weekend.

Seconds after we entered the camp base, Santans and I were placed into different cabins.  Separated from my only link to familiarity, I was suddenly stranded at a table full of inquiring eyes.  Once we warmed up to one another and from the rain, we went around and began to introduce ourselves.  Now, it must be noted that this was a leadership camp, so please imagine what it must have been like to have a hundred Type-A girls in a single room.  I immediately felt under-qualified compared to the peer beside me who stated she was taking a full schedule of AP on top of the 10 clubs she was involved with.

After settling into our cabins, we were divided into groups in which we, the campers, would oversee, lead, direct and document our time here at RYLA.  There was Camp Council, Camp Competition, Entertainment, Engineering, Newspaper and Yearbook.  I chose Newspaper (surprise!), and learned that we had only a few hours each day to put together a two-page newsletter recapping our day.  Our counselor took a chair, sat herself in a corner and much to our bewilderment refused to lead any more of the conversation or tasks.  It was up to us now.

Working as a reporter for the RYLA Times proved to be much like how a real, professional newspaper would function.  In the morning, we planned the topics we would cover, divided up the tasks and trusted in one another to fulfill our individual responsibilities.  The freedom that accompanied our jobs was not only refreshing but also wildly empowering.  Seeing the finished product made all of us on the team proud because we knew it was something we had created and no one else.

The other programs fulfilled their tasks incredibly well too, assisting to a fun and memorable weekend, one that included a fifty-person Musical Chairs, a diverse Talent Show and even a digital yearbook for every student to take home.

Throughout RYLA we also had the honor to listen to a variety of speakers.  Matt Emerzion, an inspirational and former TedTalk speaker, described how he overcame his crippling anxiety and depression by “understanding what it means to live a life not about you.”  After the stress of the music industry became too much for Emerzion, his therapist suggested community service, and since finding the transformative power of putting others before himself, Emerzion dedicated his life to making sure people knew they were cared for and loved.  “Knowing that you matter, that you’re seen and heard and worthy and loved…these might be the greatest needs we have,” he said.  “So be awesome and spread ‘matter-ing’ to the world.”

Another remarkable speaker we heard from was Roger Crawford.  Crawford was born with a handicap that impairs all four of his limbs.  But, as Crawford emphasized, some handicaps you can see while others aren’t as visible.  “Your life is shaped by the things you dwell on,” he said.  “A broken body doesn’t hold us back, what holds us back is a broken spirit.”  Crawford encouraged listeners to consider three questions: where are you coming from, how long have you been there, and where you are going?  Growth begins when we reflect on our past experiences, take the time to evaluate our progress and determine the purpose we have for achieving these goals.  If we know why we are striving for something then “our disappointments will never be stronger than our desire.”

What I will miss most about RYLA will be the girls from my cabin.  Each of them were so unique, and their passions and desire to change the world will surely continue to grow and manifest into beautiful things throughout their lives.  Within such a short amount of time they taught me so much, probably more than they even realize.

Throughout my life, I’ve seemed to have surrounded myself with people similar to me, personally and academically. My definition of a leader fit into a very small box, one I had molded around myself.  But after listening to these girls share their testimonies and discuss their day-to-day lives, I realized how sorely ignorant I was.  These students, no matter how successful, are still humans.  They stumble, they fall, they make mistakes — sometimes big ones.  But what makes a leader a leader is one’s ability, as well as desire, to jump back up.  Leader’s don’t allow their pasts, their handicaps or their fears restrict them from achieving what must and should be done.  RYLA helped me realize this.

As I return home to my family, my school, my community, I will be reflecting on my time here at RYLA and reasserting what I’ve learned into my daily life.  How can I share a little kindness today?  Whom can I love who may not feel loved? What can I do to serve those around me?  And most importantly, as Crawford said, recognize “how I have changed, and if not, why?”