20 Ways The Rotary Youth Leadership Awards Has Been A Home Away From Home For Students
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20 Ways The Rotary Youth Leadership Awards Has Been A Home Away From Home For Students

RYLA has given me the confidence to do things I never thought I could do.

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20 Ways The Rotary Youth Leadership Awards Has Been A Home Away From Home For Students
Emily Small

As a shy, quiet 15-year-old, riddled with a severe case of depression and anxiety, I didn't get involved in much. I tried my best to stay under the radar whenever possible, staying safe and sound in the center of my comfort zone. I didn't like to shake things up, to be in a spotlight, to be heard... until I went to RYLA.

My first RYLA was all the way back in 2012. I loved it so much, I've been back every year since--this week I'm preparing for my seventh weekend, and our ten year anniversary. RYLA is a three-day leadership camp for high school sophomores and juniors in Cape Cod, where students learn about themselves, their strengths and weaknesses, and how to use those strengths and weaknesses in a group and their community. It is absolutely life-changing.

I know for a fact that I wouldn't be the same person I am today if it weren't for this program. When I was fifteen, I kept to myself. I never dreamed I would help organize service projects to benefit local and global communities, or that I would one day run a camp of 200 people, or that I would be totally comfortable wearing a rainbow tutu for three days straight. But today, at 21 years old, not only can I say that I would do all those things, I can say that I have done all those things, and more.

This program means more to me than I can put into words. It's unreal to me how far this organization has come since my first camp. It's unreal to me how big of an impact we've had on people. It's unreal to me that we've been doing this for a whole ten years.

My experience is only one of the hundreds--if not thousands--though. It's impossible for one person to talk about a ten-year program and the impact it's made on those who have participated in it... which is why, to celebrate our ten year anniversary, I opened the floor to all former RYLArians, looking for their input.

I got responses from 20 participants and asked what RYLA means to them, how the program has shaped them as a person, and what they hope future students take away from the program.

1. Darius J. - Black Family 2013

Darius was a Student Leader for the Orange family in 2014.

"[RYLA means] family. It helped shaped my maturity and outlook on society as a whole. [I hope future students learn] to always know that they will have a friend to call upon no matter what they are going through."

2. Erin G. - White Family 2012

Erin was a Student Leader for the Aqua family in 2013.

"To me, RYLA means more than just a leadership experience, but a way to branch out and learn more about yourself while learning to trust your "family" and experience a once in a lifetime experience"

"RYLA helped me break out of my shell and learn a lot about myself. Going into the experience, I was nervous because nobody would give me any information, but after pouring my heart out to my "family" after the Culture Walk, I learned that so many people go through experiences I thought I was alone in. I got to conquer my fear of heights (momentarily) by zip lining and for a brief moment felt like I was unstoppable. RYLA is an experience I will never forget and will always hold close to my hear."

"I would hope that this experience teaches future students that being a leader does not always mean that you are in charge of a group, but that you can work with a group to achieve your goals efficiently."

3. Caty C. - Black Family 2014

Caty was a Student Leader for the Silver family in 2015 and has participated in the program long enough to become a Student Mentor. This RYLA will be her fifth!

"[RYLA is] my sunshine on the cloudiest of days. This program has shaped who I am as a person now. My confidence comes from this place and all the people I am surrounded by. [I hope students learn] to be unapologetically themselves."

4. John K. - Green Family 2012

John was a Student Leader for the Black family in 2013 and has since returned to the program as a Family Advisor.

"[RYLA] is a life-changing experience. It has developed me as a leader on a personal level. [I hope students learn] how to make dynamic interpersonal connections and never lose sight of what's important."

5. James D. - Red Family 2014

James was the Student Leader for Blue family in 2015 and later volunteered as a Student Director.

"RYLA was another home for me. My first year I got to meet so many students from different backgrounds that all shared the same interests. I never felt so accepted and loved as I did my first year of RYLA. It was truly an amazing experience that I never forget!"

"During my time as a student, student leader, and director I was able to enhance many of my professional skills such as public speaking, event planning, fundraising, management, communication, etc."

"[I hope students learn that] RYLA is a judge free zone where you can feel comfortable talking about anything and not worry about people making judgments against you. RYLA is a great way to build upon your leadership skills and apply them in a meaningful way. RYLA provides a great support system when you need it."

6. Cat S. - Blue Family 2015

Cat was a Student Leader for the Purple family in 2016 and is currently an Executive Student Director. This will be her fourth RYLA!

"To me RYLA means family, you meet so many new and amazing people who you may not talk to all the time, but who will always be there for you if you need them. RYLA has made me grow a lot. I have learned more about myself through RYLA than I thought possible. I hope future students learn that when people from different backgrounds come together with open minds they can accomplish anything."

7. Jessica B. - Yellow Family 2011

Jessica was a Student Leader for Silver family in 2012 and went on to become a Student Director.

"Ryla was a place for me to escape reality and meet new people. I enjoyed hanging out with people and learning so much about them. I always left meetings or Ryla weekend with a happy heart and huge smile. I still think about the memories of my time with RYLA and I still utilize the things I learned in my everyday life."

"Ryla has shaped me as a person by teaching me that you can’t judge a book by its cover. This old saying really applies when I think about everything I have taken from RYLA. I hope that future students learn to branch out and understand that you don’t need to always follow the social norm. It’s okay to be different and no one is perfect. It’s also important to learn from Ryla that you are never alone."

8. Christopher B. - White Family 2015

Christopher was a Student Leader for the Black Family in 2016 and is currently an Executive Student Director. This will be his fourth RYLA!

"RYLA is the world to me. I wouldn’t be the person I am today with my experiences had and lifelong friends made at this wonderful program. This program has lead me to be the person I am today. They helped me discover my traits as a leader and that you have to adapt your methods of dealing with problems to fit different situations."

"I hope the students discover something new about themselves. If you come out of the weekend learning just one thing it should be about you as a person because finding who you are is the most important thing someone should do. "

9. Emma F. - Red Family 2014

Emma was a Student Leader for the Purple family in 2015 and has participated in the program long enough to become a Student Mentor. This will be her fifth RYLA!

"RYLA is a place where I can fully be myself without worrying about people judging me! It’s the most accepting place! I have grown so much as a leader! I am able to talk in front of people better than I ever thought I would! RYLA has really gotten me out of my shell! I hope they learn to accept themselves but also to accept others! RYLA really teaches you that everyone is going through something so it’s important to be welcoming and kind to everyone! "

10. Gabrielle G. - Maroon Family 2017

Gabrielle has attended RYLA as a Family Advisor for the Maroon Family.

"RYLA means getting to be yourself with complete and total acceptance by others."

RYLA was an amazing opportunity to get to such wonderful individuals. Having the opportunity to engage with high school aged students has contributed to my field of work, as I typically work with children between grades 1-6. I loved having the chance to get to know the students in my family and seeing their interests, as well as following their journey’s as they complete high school and begin college."

"I hope future RYLA students learn that they will always have a support system in RYLA. I also hope that they learn to be themselves and have the time of their lives as they learn to become young leaders."

11. Beth R. - Orange Family 2009

Beth was a Student Leader for the Purple family in 2010, and has been with the program the longest! She is the Chair of the program.

"RYLA gave me purpose. I was always a strong student, but I was never truly passionate in anything and it gave me a place to be myself, make mistakes, and learn from some of the best people in this world. Some older than me and some much younger than me. I always come back to RYLA because watching the students lead the program and take it to a place that we could only dream of in 2009-2011 has been spectacular. It is amazing to be part of something bigger than yourself and it's been a phenomenal ride. "

"Before RYLA, I was quiet, nervous, and honestly quite odd. In my 9 years with RYLA, I have been able to learn how to manage people, speak publicly on an almost normal basis, and push myself beyond what I believed I could do. Even now, RYLA keeps me out of my comfort zone and it is the only way you can truly find out what you can really achieve. "

"Don't be afraid to be yourself. Innovate. If something isn't happening that you think should speak up and it could make any organization you are part of stronger. Without someone speaking up and wanting to do a service project, we wouldn't have that as part of our program each year. Leave your comfort zone when you can and push to see what others see in you- it's the best way to unlocking the potential you may not have known you have."

12. Andrew B. - Red Family 2015

Andrew was a Student Leader for the Aqua family in 2016 and later attended as a Student Director. This year he will be attending as a Family Advisor, making this his fourth RYLA!

"I will always view RYLA as how I gained my first true friends that valued me for who I was and cared about me and the things I cared about. Participation in and volunteering for RYLA are the most important things I have ever done. It made me realize that it was OK to be me and taught me how to be a non-positional leader. "

"I want students to learn that the most satisfying things in life are those which you put the most time and effort into; I got so much out of RYLA because I and many others put so much into it. I hope they see the value of the program and do so as well. "

13. Brenna F. - Purple Family 2016

Brenna was a Student Leader for the Green Family in 2017, and has volunteered as a Student Director!

"To me, RYLA means being able to be myself around people who love me for who I am. I cant share my leadership and teamwork skills with others and use their experiences with mine to make the lives around me better. RYLA has taught me that I am capable of doing whatever I put my mind to and has helped me to grow into a more confident and mentally inclined person. I hope future students learn that they can do anything they can set their mind to and that there will always be people there for them to help when they need it. "

14. Paola D. - Silver Family 2017

Paola will be a Student Leader for Orange this year, making this her second RYLA!

"[RYLA means] stepping out of your comfort zone. [It] made me be more accepting of others. [I hope future students learn] to accept everyone no matter how different they may seem ."

15. Arianna M. - Yellow Family 2010

Arianna was a Student Leader for the Silver family in 2011, and later went on to become an Executive Student Director!

"RYLA means everything, it means safety, it means a place to call home, it means growth and learning. RYLA not only saved my life but gave me something amazing to look forward to week after week, month after month. I feel as though RYLA made me a more understanding and tolerant person, it made me a stronger person, and it helped me fully come into myself."

"I hope RYLA continues to show students that they are not alone, that the world can be anything they make it, and that they will always belong somewhere, now that they have a family in RYLA ."

16. Kenneth B. - Yellow Family 2017

"[RYLA is] a team and relationship building lesson taught through games, songs, and work. RYLA helped give me some exposure to a different side of people and of myself that I rarely see. [I hope students learn] to keep an open mind, to do your best, to work hard and care for others. "

17. Danielle W. - White Family 2010

"I attended RYLA as a junior in high school, and this was my very first leadership training experience! I gained skills at RYLA that gave me the confidence to take on two leadership positions during my senior year (i.e. honor society presidency, softball varsity co-captainship). After graduating from high school, I took on leadership roles in college and graduate school. I am so grateful for RYLA for launching me into leadership AND introducing me to some really great, inspiring people!"

"RYLA taught me how to take a step back and let others use their strengths. Previously, I would try to do too much and end up stretching myself too thin. This would result in subpar outcomes. I realized the best efforts are true team efforts that capitalize on everyone’s strengths!"

"During my time at RYLA, I participated in a culture walk. Learning about my peers’ life experiences opened my eyes to how people experience many similar things in life—but often in silence. I hope that future students learn to empathize with each other and grow together by learning about one another’s experiences. Understanding each other is the first step to making this world better!"

18. Mary N. - White Family 2011

Mary was a Student Leader for the Pink family in 2012 and participated in the program for several years as a Student Director, Executive Student Director, and Family Advisor!

"RYLA for me is place that is not only a place where students can learn leadership skills, but it is also a place where you can make life long friends that will be there for you during any high or low points in your life. It is truly a life changing experience where you can learn many life lessons, and know that you are never alone in anything you have gone through in your life. "

"My RYLA experience has shaped me as a person by giving me the confidence to believe in myself. Going from being a participant to student leader to student director to executive student director and finally being a family advisor I have learned to have confidence in myself. I have learned to trust in my instincts and that if I put my mind to it then I can do it."

"My hope for students attending RYLA is that they can see that they are not alone in the world. Many students and even some adults think that they are alone in any problem that they are dealing with in their life. But RYLA is where I realized for the first time that I’m not alone, and that there are people out there either dealing with similar problems or problems that make mine seem like they aren’t that bad. I hope these future students learn that RYLA is a safe space to share anything you may want to, and a place where people will go out of their way to help you in anyway that you need."

19. Salma V. - Purple Family 2015

Salma was a Student Leader for the White family in 2016, and is currently an executive student director. This year will be her fourth RYLA!

"[RYLA is] a safe place for me, I feel loved and cared and I'm surrounded by people who want to see me succeed and are willing to help and listen to me, and I love you all. RYLA has helped me grow into myself. It’s helped me realize my strengths and weaknesses as a leader but most importantly as a person, and has given me space and the support to figure out how to grow into the person I am and the person I want to be. I want future students to learn that there is a place for everyone and that there are people like them no matter how weird they might think they are."

20. Jill M. - Aqua Family 2016

Jill was a Student Leader for the Red family in 2017, and has volunteered as a Student Director!

"To me, RYLA means connection. Through RYLA, I have not only connected with so many others from all over Massachusetts and Rhode Island, but also myself. RYLA has definitely helped to shape me as a person. It helped me to feel comfortable with myself, and not be apologetic for being who I am. It also helped me to find my strengths and weaknesses, and learn how to use those to my advantage. I hope future students learn more about themselves and their strengths and weaknesses, to ultimately help them feel more comfortable in their skin. "


RYLA has meant lots of things to lots of people over the years. To me, RYLA means purpose. It means growth. It means home.

To any future RYLArians that may stumble upon this article, I hope you have an experience like mine--only better, because I've worked alongside my best friends for the past seven years to figure out how to make that happen. I hope you learn that you're not alone. I hope you learn that you'll always have a home at RYLA. I hope you go on to change the world, because every single person I've met through this program has the ability to do so.

And more than anything, I hope that RYLA can help you find your confidence, just like it helped me find mine.

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.
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