By Eliott Gonzales
contributing writer 

Rotary Youth Leadership Awards 2023


June 10, 2023

Judy Trujillo.

Students and Rotarians who volunteered at RYLA. From right to left: Nena Thornburg, Hudson Kaiser, Abigail McNutt, Elliott Gonzales, Paul Kaminski, Melody Roberts, Rosa Ashybekova, Cole Porter, and Lisa Hughes.

Are leaders born or made? This question echoed in our heads as we stood surrounded by the four corners, each one holding a sign printed with one of the four options, "strongly agree," "agree," "disagree," and "strongly disagree." We were told to stand in the corner with the sign that we aligned with, and some were asked to share why they chose the corner they did.

The group was almost evenly split up between the four corners, but three people stood in the very middle, the self-made "neutral" area. Listening to this prompt, you may have already formed an opinion for the question. But the group of teens at this year's RYLA camp kept open minds and discussed their different viewpoints, and throughout the week, proved that they themselves are all leaders, whether born or made.

So, what is RYLA? It stands for Rotary Youth Leadership Awards, a camp hosted each year in Ojai, California, for the future leaders of the world. While there, you meet hundreds of new people, take a variety of classes and learn how to be the best leader you can be.

This year, I was lucky enough to be selected to attend. And I'll be honest; I was unsure I wanted to go. The information on the camp was a little intimidating at first. I was told that my phone would be taken away, that the people from my school would not be in my color group for the week and that I would rarely see them, and that I would have to work and think really hard while I was there. I'm a junior in high school. I have work, school and commitments that already make me think and work hard, and I did not want to go to a camp where I would have to do all that on top of my current workload. Plus, I wouldn't get to see my school friends. I was not excited. But, my best friend went the previous year, and promised me that it was an amazing opportunity and genuinely a lot of fun. While I was still nervous, I trusted her, and I am so glad I went.

I talked with a friend from RYLA, junior Skylar McDaniel, who had this to say, "The most impactful thing I learned is that sometimes you need to put aside your differences in order to work together and have fun."

His advice to those who are hesitant to attend is this, "It may seem weird and people may not know what's actually going to happen when they get there, but it's worth it in the end."

Sean Shalk, another junior student who attended, said, "My favorite part was meeting new people, and I learned leadership skills for myself from Jim Brogan. I also learned about the special qualities of others from Emmanuel Gentinetta." His experience was heavily impacted by the speakers. While I wish I could have interviewed everyone, there was simply not enough time. But I can guarantee that everyone had a good time, and of the people I did talk to, they all said their lives were changed, and that they wish they could go back to the camp.

Provided by RYLA 5240.

2023 RYLA attendees and volunteers.

There's so much I would love to tell you, but the element of surprise was a huge part of the camp in my experience. There were impactful discussions each day, friendships made and strengthened and consistent growth throughout the four days. At closing ceremonies on the last day, we were told to share with the world how this camp changed our lives. If an adult tells you something is cool, chances are you'll doubt them. I'm telling you, THIS CAMP IS COOL! IT'S AMAZING! Become an active Interact Club member or officer, and you may be selected to attend. If you are selected to apply by a teacher or Rotary Leader, you should do it! I promise you, RYLA will change your life.

Elliott Gonzales is a 11th grade student at Valley Oaks Charter School.


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