My RYLA Experience of a Lifetime

Last Thursday, March 10, Joshua, Thalia, Kristen, and I went to RYLA, the Rotary Youth Leadership Awards. RYLA is a weekend long conference where students meet and develop their leadership skills by listening to motivational speakers and participating in leadership and team-building exercises.  In a way it seemed like a Joshua’s Heart Junior Advisory Board (JAB) meeting because all the students who attended were around our age, and all tried in some way to help and make a difference in their community. We were able to go because Josh was asked to speak at the conference and he invited me, Thalia and Kirsten to go with him and represent Joshua’s Heart.  Since we fit the demographic at the camp, we were able to assimilate into the RYLA students and build our leadership skills alongside them. The story begins on Thursday, March 10…

March 10

Today we had to leave early from school to catch our flight. My dad dropped me off at the airport,  I met up with Josh and the other JAB members, and we checked in and made our way to the flight. The flight to Chicago was 4 hours long, but it felt short because I was deep in conversation with the other JAB members on the trip. The highlight of the first day was the drive after the flight to the hotel. The hotel and Camp Edwards, the campground where RYLA was being held were, to put it simply, in the middle of nowhere. We had to go through an hour drive through the countryside of Wisconsin to get to the hotel and Camp Edwards. Although this may seem boring and mundane to others, I believe this was the first big lesson of my RYLA experience. RYLA is meant to put the students out of their comfort zone and grow, and that’s what that drive did to me as well – put me outside of my comfort zone and allow me to reflect. The suffocating darkness surrounding the car inadvertently silenced everyone in the car – although we talked, most of the time was spent in silence. The stars and moon provided a dim glow that barely left a dent in the blanket of darkness that covered us. Living in Miami, darkness isn’t something we have to experience every day. We always had lights to guide us through the darkness, tell us where to go, what to do, and how to do it. But I took this darkness as metaphor, as the first lesson that RYLA had to teach me – that eventually we all have to be our own leaders and we won’t be able to look at the people around us for the answers. We have to become our own lights – and shine as bright as we can to lead the people of tomorrow through and out of the darkness. After the drive, we arrived at the hotel and checked into our rooms. Through unpacking, showering, and brushing my teeth, I felt apprehensive. The questions didn’t stop bouncing around my head until I went to sleep.

March 11

We woke up early in the morning. As I looked out of the window, I realized the weather reflected my mind – it was really foggy, and I couldn’t see more than 50 feet in front of the window. We ate and drove to the camp, which was only about 2 miles away. As we stepped into the cafeteria where the RYLA students were eating, it felt as if we were students on their first day at a new school – I felt definitely out of place. But, after breakfast we were assigned to a group of students, which the staff believed would help us fit in more. But, before we got to really talk to our groupmates, we were to listen to a speaker named Rick Metzger. Rick was an Olympic athlete. He competed in bench pressing, and became the captain of the US bench press team. The overarching message of his speech was to stay positive and that your attitude towards life can mean the difference between succeeding and failing. He believed that the problems and setbacks you have in your life won’t feel that bad if you have a smile on your face and keep on keeping on.  Right after this speech, we broke off into our groups for team building exercises.  Our group went to the ropes course. We were each assigned a partner – one was to go through the course, and the other was to spot them. It was a great experience because it showed us how we can get through seemingly tough challenges when we work as a team. After the ropes course, Rick gave another workshop to help people understand themselves and others so that people could work in a team. He gave the students a personality test to let us find out more about ourselves, among other things. He also taught us about how to choose the right personalities in your team to avoid conflict and move towards progress. This section helped us learn how to reflect on ourselves and our personality, which he believed we don’t do as much as we should. Rick made an impact on  my growth, especially as a leader. It really made me think about my life and attitude, and how it can improve for the better. I can tell you his strategies worked – if you are unfazed when confronted with a problem, you can get through it.

After this we had dinner and went back to the hotel, to get ready for a new day.

March 12

Today was already the last day for speakers. We started the day like the last – we woke up, ate breakfast, and drove to the campgrounds. The first speech we heard was from Tom Carroll, CEO of RR Donnelley. He believed that if you knew how people worked and why they acted, you could succeed in life. He told us of his psychology degree as proof of that – he ended up working in business, and the degree helped him to greatly understand people. I believed his talk to be helpful as well because it reinforced Rick’s point – Rick wanted us to understand ourselves, and this speech was about understanding others too. After this speech was the reason why we had come in the first place – it was Joshua’s speech. It came as a surprise for all of the students because everyone thought we were just campers. Joshua reinforced this point and used his story to tell the message that anyone can make a difference, no matter who they are. My big moment came after Josh as well, for I talked about what we did in the JAB and our mission of coming together to make a difference. I believe our talk had a big impact on the RYLA attendees because we are kids just like them, and it shows that making a difference can actually be done no matter who or how old you are. After answering questions from the campers and finishing up our talk, it was time for the last speech of RYLA. This was a more somber speech, for it was about the Columbine shooting, specifically about one girl named Rachel Scott. The speaker, who was Rachel’s uncle, spoke about how Rachel had a dream of compassion and kindness, and wanted to help many people around the world. I believed this speech left a hopeful tone to us at RYLA. It said that even death cannot stop someone from making change in the world. For me, it felt that the whole speech had come full circle to Joshua’s Heart. Anyone can make a change, no matter their position or condition. Through hard work and goodwill people can help others, no matter how hard it may seem to be.

This memorable RYLA experience has shaped my life for the better and provided me with tools to become a better and impactful leader. I thank everyone at RYLA for their kindness and generosity.

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