RYLA Facilitator Natalie Kovalcik leads student campers on a trust building and leadership activity. COURTESY PHOTO/ Luke Libby

RYLA Facilitator Natalie Kovalcik leads student campers on a trust building and leadership activity. COURTESY PHOTO/ Luke Libby

SACO — Students are heading to camp with the goal of honing leadership skills as part of the Rotary Youth Leadership Awards.

A program founded by Rotary International, RYLA is a program that recognizes rising juniors in high school as an award for their leadership and service activities in the past and present.

There are more than 350 participants annually throughout the country who are outstanding students, community leaders, and service-giving students in their schools.

The program is supported by Rotary Club, which began in 1905 as the world’s first service organization. There are more than 32,000 Rotary clubs in more than 200 countries. Rotarians are dedicated to service with the motto, “Service Above Self.”

This year, there are 141 campers and 46 staff members present at the local program, RYLA District 7780. In addition to this year, thousands of campers have gone through the program. The goal is a premiere leadership camp to develop confidence and self-esteem for students of all ability and ages. 

Philip Giordano, District 7780 Camp Director, says the program is focused on helping students find their leadership potential.

“Everyone has leadership abilities,” he said. “Camp shows them to adapt their strengths to situations to show their leadership. There are strong introverts and extroverts redefining the picture of leadership.”

Giordano says the impact of the program is monumental.

“On average, I have 10 to 20 parents contacting me about the huge difference they see in their children after 2 to 4 months after camp,” he said. “The confidence is there. What happens at camp sticks, it just doesn’t go away.”

For RYLA District 7780, 93.2 percent of Rotary Clubs actively fund and participate in staff or camper funding.

“RYLA is the largest collaborative effort of Rotary.,” Giordano said. “All clubs participate in supporting high schools, trying to send as many students as possible.”

Biddeford Saco Rotary President-Elect, Jackson Brown says they have been sponsoring up to six students from Biddeford High School to attend RYLA for a long time.

“After their experience, the feedback is great. The number one thing that every student gets out of it is how much confidence they have gained,” Brown said. “It is a great leadership program that helps students break out of their shell and prepare them for college and the working world.”

Campers are placed in groups with individuals from different high schools. Each group is run by past attendees of the program who are asked to return.

Students participate in leadership building activities, discussing ethical and social issues upon moments of group reflection.

Treasurer of the Rotary Club of Saco Bay, Phil Hatch, says they support up to 12 students from Thornton Academy and Old Orchard Beach High School to attend RYLA.

“This year we are sending nine students in total which is approximately $3,400 dollars. The return on that investment reflected in each student’s individual personal character development is worth many times more than that,” said Hatch.

He says the program is beneficial for the students they send.

“The RYLA program, for many years, has consistently been one of our club’s top priorities. … It’s a youth leadership development program that works very well,” Hatch said.

Activities provide the campers with opportunities to build and hone their skills in leadership, communication, trust, and teamwork.

RYLA functions on a challenge by choice style, where facilitators of the program encourage students to push themselves to get the most out of activities and the camp. 

When students return to their communities, according to the Rotary Club, they have a clear mindset on how to strive in leadership positions and take on service to others. 

The program is a three-day camp, from June 25 to June 28, held this year at Camp Hinds in Raymond.

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