By Mike Norkin, RYLA camp director for District 5330 (California, USA)
I attended my first Rotary club meeting as a 24-year-old guest of a member, and sat in complete awe. Students and members who had attended the Rotary Youth Leadership Awards program the weekend before were sharing their stories. I will never forget the feeling I had as I listened to the accounts of how lives were being changed. I knew, at that moment, that I would be a lifelong Rotarian if I was able to participate in this program.
I had to wait a year for RYLA to come back around, but in April of 2005, I had my chance. As we say here in our district, once you have experienced RYLA, you never go back! Three years later, I was asked to become the camp director, a position I hold today.
RYLA in my district has grown immensely since I became camp director in 2008. Our numbers then, which were amazing, hovered around 375 campers for a weekend experience. This past spring, 598 high school juniors attended our camp.
RYLA has taken on a life of its own in my district. Instead of focusing primarily on leadership, RYLA has become a life skills camp. We don’t shy away from emotions. We dive head first into the emotional pool with our campers, providing them emotional first aid and surrounding them with the love and care these kids need.
Each day at camp has a theme, with Friday being breakdown day. The entire day is planned with activities that play off each other, culminating with a highly-charged and emotional “culture walk” that quickly becomes the highlight of the weekend. Once the walls have been torn down, we can move on with our weekend experience knowing that we are all on the same page, no judgments, no preconceived notions in place. We are human, we are one, and the overall happiness level of our campers thrives come Saturday morning.
After a few surprises Saturday morning, the rest of the day is filled with outdoor activities and fun, culminating with an outdoor carnival/dance. Sunday is Rotary/community service day, where the kids pack emergency meals and learn CPR. Before they know it, camp is over, and the tears are flowing!
In 48 hours, the kids’ lives have been turned upside down! They have laughed, cried, and experienced every other emotion under the sun. Throughout this experience, they have learned more about themselves than they ever thought possible. The bonds they create among their peers last a lifetime.