The Rotary Youth Leadership Awards, or RYLA, is a leadership retreat for high school sophomores and juniors organized by Rotary International and Leader N U. Attendees spend six days, three online and three in-person, reflecting on themselves and learning leadership skills.
I attended RYLA through Rotary District 5320 with high schoolers from Los Angeles and Orange County. Along with other Los Alamitos High School students, I represented the Rotary Club of Los Alamitos/Seal Beach. The retreat lasted Tuesday, April 18 through Sunday, April 23.
RYLA began with three-hour evening Zoom meetings on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. The more than 200 campers, Rotarians, and RYLA staff met in the main Zoom room and eventually split up into breakup rooms based on 18 different teams.
I was assigned to Team Peach, with seven other campers and our team leaders: a Rotarian and Trailblazer, which is the next step up from being a camper. In challenges during the retreat, teams earned points based on how well they performed, and the team with the most points on Sunday won the ultimate prize: unlimited bragging rights.
Throughout the Zoom meetings we participated in virtual activities to get to acquainted with each other. We discussed character traits, motivation, and the effect social media has on our generation’s communication. Each day, we met with our team, but we also split into random breakout rooms to meet other campers and staff.
In our teams and other groups, we experienced a virtual escape room, scavenger hunt, improvisation games, and more. This prepared us for camp, where we did the same activities with each other in real life.
Campers met each other in-person on Friday morning, when buses picked us up from Tustin to drive us to Idyllwild Pines. The team bonding started right away. During the two-hour drive into the mountains, we changed bus seats to talk to as many people as possible and participated in friendly team singing competitions.
At first, this seemed more like torture to me than a relaxing retreat. Before RYLA, I think I had nightmares about talking and singing to a bus full of strangers. I also expected to have time for homework on the bus, so initially I felt reluctant to play games. To my surprise, I had fun playing Two Truths and a Lie, discussing icebreakers like “Describe your perfect day,” and trying to sing the best Disney or love song with my team.
Once we arrived at camp, we checked in our electronics. Yes, a camp full of teenagers survived two whole days without their phones. We spent the rest of the afternoon playing more team games, then we discussed the Myers-Briggs personality test and the character traits important to us.
That evening, we learned how to make a positive first impression in interviews by pairing up with campers we hadn’t met yet. First, we introduced ourselves the wrong way to feel how awkward it is when someone stares intently at you, talks to a point over your shoulder, speaks in a whisper, or shouts in your face. Then RYLA staff taught us how to properly shake hands, make eye contact, use hand gestures, and speak at the right volume.
Later at night, we learned about Rotary International’s Four Way Test. During the last activity, improv games, I went to the optional study hall for an hour. However, as it was almost 11 p.m. after a long day, I didn’t complete much work because I could barely keep my eyes open.
It might be beneficial for RYLA to be spread out over more days to make each one less packed. Other campers expressed this view too because we felt worn out and could not participate fully in all activities due to exhaustion. The length of RYLA depends on the Rotary District; RYLA usually lasts around three to ten days. But expanding the camp days is likely difficult since it’s a scholarship program.
RYLA falls right before AP testing, making it stressful for campers who can’t catch a break over the weekend to study. However, I found that the constant action kept my mind off of my impending work, so I could enjoy and live in the moment. We also learned songs and chants like “Ain’t No Party Like a RYLA Party” to keep our energy high.
As an introvert, RYLA was challenging for me because my social battery depletes quickly. I struggled to participate later in the day, but it helped to have my team to lean on. (The first night of camp, we all sat on the floor and literally leaned against each other during the last activities because we were so tired.)
Saturday was my favorite day of camp. We did more team bonding and communication activities like the “human knot” game, rapid-fire interviews, and creating a team chant. For me, the most exciting part was Idyllwild’s ropes course.
At our first station, Team Peach donned harnesses to fly like human pendulums on Idyllwild’s giant swing. This helped people conquer their fear of heights and acted as a trust exercise because you needed to trust your team to pull you up, like when rock climbing. For the “leap of faith,” we each harnessed up to climb the tall tree and jump off the platform. While these activities were meant to challenge us, campers could opt out if they felt uncomfortable.
The biggest team challenge took place that night: the scavenger hunt, which we’d unknowingly prepared for during the virtual part of camp. RYLA got a group of teenagers to practice collaboration and time management by setting us loose to run around camp and solve clues in the dark.
After the scavenger hunt came meditation in the Labyrinth. RYLA staff set up mazes on large tarps, so campers could follow the path to the center and back out. They said Labyrinth often brings up heavy reflection; many campers and staff became emotional.
I had the chance to breathe and be alone with my thoughts for the first time since arriving at camp. The night was freezing, but beautiful with the towering trees and stars visible in the inky sky. After Labyrinth, we had a bonfire with s’mores and inspiring speeches from former campers, now staff members. Saturday night was the longest; the bonfire didn’t finish until around 1:00 a.m.
The last day of camp was RYLA Warriors, where we participated in mock Rotary projects, and group pictures. At closing ceremonies, RYLA staff announced the winner of the team challenges. While Team Peach didn’t win, we were honestly thrilled we weren’t dead last!
Although I already knew most of the leadership skills taught at RYLA, I discovered more about myself. My most valuable takeaways from RYLA were self-confidence and a strong relationship with my team.
When the bus returned on Sunday and Team Peach gathered for a group hug, I couldn’t believe how close we’d become just by spending three days together. Admittedly, three straight days isolated in the mountains with no technology and many planned bonding sessions. I might not have found best friends for life, but I did make connections with my team that I know will last.
I can’t wait for the RYLA reunion on June 10, and I hope to return next year as a Trailblazer. I strongly suggest all sophomores and juniors reach out to their school or local Rotary Club and apply for RYLA. It was a special experience that gave me new friends, community connections, and one unforgettable weekend.