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The Courage to Lead and Learn: Rotary Youth Leadership Awards summer camp

Having returned recently from my first 24-hour stint at a Rotary leadership camp for youth, I feel renewed. Renewed, inspired and hopeful.

Imagine being in a room of high-schoolers who do not have their attention on their next text or tweet. Instead, they greeted us adults with handshakes and interested eye-contact.

Imagine groups of high schoolers who do not reflect the sarcasm and anxiety that is so prevalent in today’s media. Instead they worked respectfully with one another on group agreements and developed pitches for service projects to help their communities.


Imagine a week-long training where both wisdom and youthful exuberance were invited, cultivated and honored, where a bridge was created for youth to walk half-way and meet the older generation.  At The Rotary Youth Leadership Awards (RYLA), I had this direct experience.

At the beginning of camp, a lot of time is spent bonding and learning about communication and conflict resolution. Campers learned how to set SMART goals and the six requirements of decision-making. They experienced and became part of the strong container created by the camp counselors, assistant counselors (most of them in college, many of them past campers), and the True North facilitation team, who designed the program. The students felt the encouragement of the Rotarians, most notably, Tom, a retired sheriff, who has not only trained police officers but was a leader with the boy scouts for 35 years.

It warmed my heart to see kids benefitting from the same kind of leadership camp that changed my life when I was a sophomore in high school. I still remember the ice breakers and ideas that were introduced and am grateful that this kind of youth leadership continues to be refined and expanded. Ropes courses, climbing challenges and other physical activities, including hanging out at a swimming hole on a river, allowed campers to connect and to step out socially. They even felt free enough to dance spontaneously before the one campfire I attended.

At the second to the last day of camp, I watched 12 groups present their pitches to panels made up of peers and Rotarians. They had 5-8 minutes to “make a case for a proposed service project, as if to an agency—such as a Rotary Club—that could support the project with its resources, whether money or mentoring.”

There were projects to help war veterans, bring Christmas cheer to foster kids, help high schoolers afford shoes, renovate a park, and mentor middle school students.

Though it seemed a bit incongruent to see high school students wearing suits and ties in the woods, or tottering on high heels through the mud, these young adults pulled it together. They boldly emerged as agents of change. They embraced “service leadership,” a concept I’m still understanding as a new Rotarian. This type of leadership “emphasizes collaboration, trust, empathy and the ethical use of power. The leader is a servant first, dedicated to better serve others instead of increase his or her own power.”

The woman who sponsored me to become a Rotarian, Sandy Friend, exemplifies Service Above Self. She offers her gifts and talents in ways that serve the community, and yet she still stands strong in her profession as a highly acclaimed interior designer. She is a mentor and a role model just by being who she is.

I have found my people! Not only has my Thursday lunch Rotary club welcomed me as the first Life Coach they have ever had but now I have found the “Rylarians.” I enjoyed being with Mary, a sociologist, who shared her RYLA wisdom and stories, as well as telling me about her me about the fun she has with her two grown daughters. Another Rotarian, Diane (who at camp is known as Bubbles) made me laugh the way she described her birthday escapades.  And Brenda impressed me with her Rotary Pin Collection that she collected over several decades.

As Mary introduced me around as a “professional facilitator” and the kids and staff greeted me with open arms, I felt seen. I have facilitated coordinated many workshops, circles and camps. Still, to this day, I feel a nagging shame about not earning more money. Maybe I’ve been too hard on myself though?  Maybe I no longer need to discount my contribution. Perhaps I have been engaged in Service Leadership all along but I haven’t been able to fully value it, especially next to my husband’s more easily seen leadership as a CEO and internationally recognized author and terrorism expert.

I feel the chip on my shoulder melting as new-found acceptance forms yet another identity for me. I am many things. A Dedicated Mother. A Professional Facilitator. A Life Coach. A Service Leader.

As I continue on my journey to learn and teach others about communication, conflict resolution, belonging, and leadership, I feel renewed. Renewed, inspired and hopeful. As a Rotarian, a Rylarian, I am supported by others who also care about changing the world, one person, one camp, one community, at a time.




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