Falling in RYLove

Junior shares leadership camp experience

Story by Ricky Cooks, staff writer

“I am a Rylarian: Uncompromising integrity is my standard. My character and honor are steadfast. My word is my bond. I lead by example in all situations.”

It didn’t take long for the campers at the Rotary Youth Leadership Awards (RYLA) to remember the creed of the wonderful organization, soaking in every word and never wanting to let it go. Or maybe that was just me.

After a brief application process at the end of October, I got a call from a woman named Big Red (yes, I wrote that correctly) letting me know that I had been chosen to attend the camp. Honestly, I didn’t know how to feel— excited? Scared? Inspired?

I didn’t feel much of anything until I found out that some of my closest friends— Raga, Hannah and Tucker— were going as well. Once we figured it out, it was time to have fun.

Fast forward two months later. After an amazing van ride full of singing competitions and curly fries, I, along with sixteen other juniors from the Texarkana area, arrived at Clements Scout Ranch in Athens, TX. We hiked our luggage up to the cabins and were immediately thrown into a whirlwind of games, laughing and a hundred other teenagers.

Before I get off into the real experience, I want to clarify a few things:

RYLA is a program sponsored by Rotary International, so the trip was completely free for all campers (amazing, I know).

Northeast Texas, some of Arkansas, and even a little bit of Oklahoma is encompassed under RYLA district 5380.

Every team of campers has two adult leaders and 1-2 high school seniors that attended the camp the previous year.

The first night, we ate a delicious supper and had the privilege of choosing our RYLA name— the name that was to stick with us in RYLA for the rest of our lives. It was supposed to reflect something about you. I chose “Grin,” meaning “smile.” I like to think that I smile a lot, all right?

After choosing our names, each group was taught different trust exercises that involved holding, lifting and carrying team members around the room. It was pretty tough doing this with people that I had met less than two hours ago, but that’s the way it was. We also picked a team name, and we chose to be called the “Dabbin’ Dragons.” I don’t even remember where the name came from, but I don’t really care either. I love it.

A few more activities and many yawns later, I was exhausted. We were released at around 11:30 p.m., lights-out being at 1:00 a.m.

Around 6 in the morning, the camp was woken up by some very energetic seniors with bullhorns and heavy fists that pounded on our doors. We got dressed, ate breakfast and prepared for another day at RYLA.

Day two was all about teamwork and problem solving. Our leaders gave us certain tasks to complete within certain guidelines, providing consequences for breaking a certain rule or slipping up in a certain way.

For example: One of our challenges was to cross a certain distance of land that we imagined was boiling hot chocolate. The only way to get across was by floating on wooden blocks we called marshmallows. The twist was, however, that we couldn’t ever take a body part off of our marshmallows while in the hot chocolate or it would get taken away by one of the leaders.

My group was incredibly full of confident leaders. We were all pretty much clear with what we wanted to do separately, and we all tried to explain our own plans at the same time. The clock was ticking, little progress was being made and we were making mistake after mistake. We had around thirteen of our original twenty-something blocks taken away, and Worm (aka Tucker) and I were stranded across the river of chocolate with no blocks.

Desperate and feeling hopeful, I cut a deal with our team leaders that if Tucker and I danced to High School Musical, we would get back six blocks. You can bet we danced our hearts out and didn’t regret one second of it (thanks, Dinner Theater). We got our blocks and shimmied our way across the “river,” feeling more accomplished than ever.

From this activity and all of the others that day, the Dabbin’ Dragons really learned to just step back and listen to what everyone had to say. The frustration of the activities could have broken us, but it made us stronger.

Now, we’ve come to the last day. We woke up bright and early and headed down to the ropes courses. We had trust falling, rock climbing, ziplining, jumping off of telephone poles 40 feet in the air, balancing on wires, hoisting ourselves over a wall that’s 12 feet high and swinging from a rope 80 feet in the air. This last one was my favorite— I felt like I should have been hired at Disney World or something.

Regardless of the fun we had while doing these final activities, the true reward we got from the day was getting the love and support from the team. There were times when people (myself included) were terrified to keep going on the ropes, but hearing the cheers from the Dabbin’ Dragons allowed us to persevere.

The positive attitudes and perseverance that my team displayed was one of the most inspiring things I’ve ever witnessed. I am so proud of everyone.

It’s insane how much trust you put into people that you didn’t know before two days ago, but I trusted them way more than a lot of people that I’ve known for years.

After the courses, the team huddled up for one last time. We yelled our chant to the top of our lungs, exchanged information and somehow I managed to tear up a little. The people I was leaving were the people I wish I could be around every day. They were phenomenal.

Besides telling you what we physically did at RYLA, I don’t really know if I can tell you how it made me feel. It was such a unique experience that never seemed to end until it finally did. I feel so honored to have been chosen to go.

The most important thing that I got from the camp was that for the first time in my life, I was okay with not being in charge. That came from the absolute trust I had in my teammates’ capabilities. I can say that I’ve grown absolutely as a leader and a person.

This story is to serve as a salute to Rotary, RYLA and most importantly— the Dabbin’ Dragons. This is for Mezzo, Lumos, Free Throw, Pipes, Flow, Granola, Tinkerbell, Sweetie, Worm, Dreads, Amigo, Sure Thing, Prez, Lilo and Captain; thank you guys for changing my life for the better. I hope to see you all very soon.
And if you are still wondering if I’m drowning in homework— yes, yes I am. Is it worth it though? More than anything else.