My Rotary Journey – Youth Leadership (AKA: Camp RYLA)

As it so happened, one of my most influential Army mentors, Colonel Dave Pearson, had retired from active duty and was then a member of the Saint Paul Rotary Club. Dave was the chair of the Saint Paul Rotary Youth Leadership Conference. This was a very well established and long-term Club project. The project started in the mid-1940s as the Rotary Youth Conference and was the first of its kind in the world of Rotary. Over the years the names morphed. At one time it was called the Young Men’s Leadership Conference, Rotary Youth Leadership Conference, and then the full-name of the Saint Paul Rotary Youth Leadership Conference. It later became Camp RYLA as I will explain below.

Many aspects of the conference changed over time, but the overall concept remained the same. Each club in the District was invited to send two students to the annual event. The conference lasted between 3-4 days with a basic ideal of teaching and inspiring mature high school students on leadership, recognizing and celebrating vocations, and yes, even to showcase Rotary. The latter, though, was mostly an afterthought.

Most years had somewhere between 120-150 students in attendance. Rotary provided housing, meals, transportation, and the program support. All of this was done through volunteers. Our biggest task was to recruit volunteers to serve as counselors, cooks, speakers, drivers, small group leaders, game leaders, and a whole host of other tasks. Dave Pearson recruited me to serve on his committee with an eye toward leading the Conference the following year. I was involved in all planning with Dave that year and spend a wonderful four days at the YMCA Camp St. Croix. Camp St. Croix is a fantastic wooded site that sits atop the bank of the St. Croix river. It consisted of a large number of separate cabins for campers, together with a large dining hall, theater, and a number of other administrative buildings. The YMCA also had a high ropes course and trust workshops that we built into the curriculum.

Confidence and teamwork building at Camp RYLA

Unfortunately, the U.S. Army had other ideas, so I missed the 1996 Conference. Dave recruited another Rotarian, Dan Fesler, to take up the role as Chairman of the 1996 Conference. Upon my return, I worked closely with Dan and Dave to ensure I was ready to take on that role for the 1997 Conference. As is Rotary tradition, both stayed quite involved, so we didn’t have any failures. They also had recruited another member, Sheila Maun, to take over in case I was not ready.

“Be a Leader” was the conference theme that year.  The objectives of the conference were to learn about leadership and how you can make a difference; to learn about county government and how it operates; to learn about group dynamics and decision-making; and to learn about yourself and others. The 125 student attendees reflected a cross-section of society and were chosen to attend based upon their leadership potential.  Approximately 50 Rotary leaders assisted in the conference and nearly 100 more Rotarians were involved in planning the program.  Many of the Rotarians participated in a unique ethical problem solving discussions with the students. We used the Rotary Four-Way Test to teach and demonstrate ethical principles.

I had so much fun training and teaching – and just being around those young people – that I decided to lead the conference the year after Sheila’s year. I served as her deputy in 1998 and then served as Conference Chair of the conference again in 1999. Sometime between my first and second conference, I figured I’d better work on continuity. I met Kelly Unger at a Rotary District event and put her in the pipeline as conference chair. Next were my Rotary friends, Doug Bruce and Greg Hudalla. The four of us, together with a group of Rotaractors (in short, Rotary for younger members), ended up being the core of the program for the next several years. District Governor Will Salesses took notice of our enthusiasm for the project and Greg and I us to a Rotary International event for Camp RYLA. RYLA stands for Rotary Youth Leadership Awards. It was there that we realized that others outside of our club were doing very similar events. The only difference was that theirs were District projects rather than the project of a single club like ours.

We shared ideas, but left that meeting with the idea stuck in our heads to broaden the reach of our conference to a District-wide event. Why should the Saint Paul club bear the entire brunt of planning and execution for what was, in fact, a District-wide event? As is typical in large organizations, this took some lobbying work – both at the club level and at District level – but ultimately, our Saint Paul Rotary Youth Leadership Conference became Camp RYLA.

Enough about the administration of this project. This blog is supposed to be about influences in my life. Yes, I had a lot of fun – and learned a lot about organization – but the real magic of Camp RYLA was experiencing the effect and transformation it had on our students. It truly changed lives. I saw it first hand many times. Even for those it did not transform, it certainly had a lasting impact on almost everyone who attended. Let me give you an example of the transformation I saw on one young man:

Gunther was a quiet, mild-mannered teenager.  He was rather shy, had very few friends, and simply didn’t get out much.  Gunther didn’t particularly like school and frankly, wasn’t doing all that well.  Neither his parents nor his teachers had expectations for him after high school.  College did not appear to be in Gunther’s future.  Gunther would likely stay home in their small town, find a nondescript job and pretty much keep to himself.  But he wouldn’t necessarily be invisible.  You see, at 17 years old, Gunther weighed well over 300 pounds.  Finally, something changed in Gunther’s life.  One teacher noted a spark and found a way to recommend Gunther to attend a Rotary Youth Leadership Awards camp.  Gunther reluctantly agreed, but didn’t hold out too much hope for anything.

Once at camp Gunther was thrown together with a number of students he didn’t know.  They were all together in an unfamiliar environment.  Slowly throughout his camp experience the real Gunther began to emerge.  Gunther later explained that Camp RYLA was the first time in his life that he was accepted.  He’d never experienced that before.  He was accepted for who he was, not what he looked like.  He was not ridiculed.  No one made jokes about his weight.  Others listened to what he had to say.  By the end of camp Gunther began to show true leadership.  This shy, introverted, friendless teenager with no self-confidence was remarkably transformed.  He made more friends in one weekend than he had made in his entire life.

It didn’t end there.  Gunther returned to school and maintained the confidence that he gained at camp.  His grades improved markedly and he began to demonstrate leadership in his school.  After the summer break, he returned to school with renewed vigor.  He made the school’s honor roll and was becoming a popular member of his class.  Gunther returned to Camp RYLA the following spring as a junior counselor and continued to demonstrate his new found leadership skills and self-confidence.

I saw this transformation first hand.  Last I heard Guther graduated from college and was happy.  I talked to his mother several years ago.  She cried as she talked to me.  Gunther was doing quite well and his future looked bright.  She told me that Camp RYLA was by far the best experience Gunther ever had.  It changed his life.

That is what Camp RYLA is all about.  It can be a life changing experience.  It was for Gunther and it was for me. I’ve seen other similar things in Rotary, whether through Camp RYLA, Rotary Youth Exchange, and various other programs, but Camp RYLA definitely changed my life. I became a better leader, listener, learner, and coach. I learned how I can live my life in a way that can positively impact others. I, like Gunther, was transformed. No longer was I a Rotary newbie, but I belonged. I had become a Rotarian.

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