- Paul Van Nest
ROTARY YOUTH LEADERSHIP AWARDS (RYLA)
Do you have what it takes to become a dynamic leader and change yourself and the world? This is the question asked of young people in our community who would like to participate in Rotary Youth Leadership Awards (RYLA). Every year, thousands of young people take part in this leadership program coordinated by Rotary clubs around the globe.
The Rotary Clubs in Kingston have embraced RYLA since 1989 and were instrumental in bringing the program to Rotary District 7040 after Rotarian Dave Dineen from western Ontario suggested our district should get on board. Dave was a remarkable person. He started off every RYLA program asking each participant sitting in a circle to introduce themselves by name and relate something of significance to them. When they finished, Dave would then go around the circle backwards, naming every one of them and repeating what was special to them. He had their attention.
Aimed at senior high school students, the program brought out leadership qualities in the participants along with the consequential interpersonal skills, communication skills, the ability not only to lead but also to follow. Dave Dineen did all this through customized games and directed activities that had the young people working day and night, depending upon each other.
The groups formed their own committees: social, newsletter (daily), food details, and the like. The program ran from a Sunday afternoon until Friday afternoon at Queen’s University’s Donald Gordon Centre. It was an exhausting week for everyone but very fulfilling … there were many lasting connections made and lots of tears on the final day.
Dave Dineen made RYLA an instant success; he was phenomenal. After 1992, the program moved from Kingston to other parts of the district (Pembroke, Ottawa, Montreal, Plattsburg, Watertown, Napanee, and Smiths Falls). The program was then held at Paul Smith’s College north of Saranac Lake before it moved back to Kingston in 2017. Pulling students out of senior secondary school at any time of the year is problematic but, over the years, we have found that the last week of May inflicts the least interruption. The now 3-day program format runs from Friday morning to Sunday afternoon.
Dave Dineen eventually retired and was replaced by other leaders, encouraged by successive District Governors. The number of students from across the district continues to climb under the administrative leadership of Paul Elsley. For the May 2020 session, Covid-19 raised new challenges inspiring virtual participation that was a resounding success and will undoubtedly increase participation in future years.
RYLA has had profound and lasting effects on participants. One student beautifully summarized the experience: “Within a matter of days that group of strangers became my team, my friends and the proudest supporters of my journey in life. RYLA gave me a chance to be vulnerable and brave in ways I had never experienced before. The methods used were unconventional and confusing, but the results were unquestionable. Every single one of us, each with different backgrounds and different life stories, came out of RYLA changed for the better with a new, deeper understanding of how to be leaders, listeners and problem solvers in our lives. The program was nothing less than life changing.”