RYLA breaks down walls

Mike Norkin leads District 5330’s RYLA as camp director.

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.

Daily themes

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.

6 thoughts on “RYLA breaks down walls

  1. Rotary Bill; Please come to a camp and see for yourself that we do save lives! Also, we don’t just have people off the streets work with our students. We do have medical doctors, school teachers and professionally trained mental heath advocates as DGLs!! We have letters from former students telling us how camp helped them.


  2. I too have worked w the students. 4 of my 5 children attended RYLA. Some returned the following year to assist. Each of our children are different, yet all gained so much during”their weekend”. They each have developed friends they met, 10 to 15 years ago. My hats off to those who continue to support and work on this unique program. And yes, 1,000 is a great goal. Count on me to help you achieve this.


  3. It is ALARMING that without any training professionally that RYLA has become a life skills camp for this District’s RYLA. RYLA is a leadership training event by definition. Mr. Norkin states: “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.” MOST CONCERNING that non-professionals in counseling delve into areas that they are NOT trained to unleash. DANGEROUS!!! While the growth in attendees may be useful, it makes one wonder how many of these campers go home to unresolved, serious mental issues that require professional counseling. Even the potential for suicide when non-professional, self appointed adults UNLEASH emotions in children. This seems like a “what NOT to do”, not something of which to be proud.


    • Hey Bill, how about you come and see for yourself before you start casting stones. In 15 years of RYLA, we have saved HUNDREDS of LIVES…. we have identified students who were suicidal and got them the professional help they needed. The blog was 400 words, we were not able to articulate all of the services we provide for our kids. Not only have we saved lives, we have created friendships, grown our Interact clubs by 300%, created service projects led by former RYLArians every month etc.

      While you and many others may be afraid of actually diving deeper into issues with these kids, we are not, and this is ABSOLUTELY what our kids need. Life changing experiences put on by people who do care… oh, and while the vast majority of us are not therapists by trade, many of us are trained crisis volunteers and have received over 60 hours of emotional first aid training, good enough to be called out by first responders 24 hours a day/ 7 days a week to help families in need, so I am quite certain that the Rotarian volunteers who attend have it handled.

      Anyone who is afraid to work outside of “What has always been done” is doing a disservice to the kids and the opportunity to push them to better their lives.


    • You are SO wrong, and really need to attend just ONE RYLA Camp, and not judge. No one there preaches that they have the answers.. but rather that we are not alone, and there are others in the same boat, or worse. Furthermore, it helps us to realize that there is hope, and that we can choose our own
      Dee Thomas
      Rotary District 5330


  4. As a former chair of D9780Ryla committee I have noticed the change of youth sent to our camps.
    We use a dedicated team of sleep in and over for our week. We do not have fly in fly out facilitors which allows participants to have follow up on something they have missed or wish to explore further .
    I have used a statement of we take wall flowers to camp and bring mature adults home bouncing of the roof of the car full of enthusiasm for life .
    To all that have not put something back into rotary here is your chance


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