Teens tackle Peace through Service at International RYLA conference

For the second year in a row the Rotary Clubs of the Central Peninsula were host to one of the major youth training events in Alaska and Canada. Known as the Rotary Youth Leadership Awards conference or RYLA the event historically is held in a different location in Canada or Alaska each year. “We got lucky! Because we put on such a great event here last year we were asked to host it again this year. RYLA is a conference that brings youth together to build the leaders of tomorrow,” said Soldotna Rotary president Marcus Mueller. “Mix four days of leadership development, service learning, hard-hitting social issues—suicide awareness, bullying, eating disorders and healthy choices—Zumba, and nearly sixty high school teens who’ve never met, yet still said yes to attend the RYLA conference, then courageously arrived in Soldotna from Barrow, Sitka, Juneau, Kodiak, Fairbanks, Wasilla, Eagle River, Anchorage, the Kenai Peninsula, Whitehorse, Canada and you have 4 days in which memories were made and lives changed forever,” he said.

For several months local Rotarians and student alumni who attended RYLA 2012 planned for the four day teen retreat. Thursday afternoon began with team building activities led by Timi Tullis from Juneau and alumni student leaders. The students jumped in to take risks and break through their discomfort in a room of strangers. Lots of Xtra-tuffs, RYLA hoodies, and non-stop activities were specifically designed to help both introverts and extroverts open up and discover their inner potential in order to develop the possibility of “Peace through Service,” the weekend theme. “It was a blessing and gift to sit in their circle, facilitate their story-telling, truth-telling, and help to create a safe space for these amazing young men and women to come alive with passion, potential, compassion, and laughter,” said Pegge Erkeneff, a local Rotarian and a program leader for the academy. “I’m so impressed; by the second day they were reaching out to help each other, dance, laugh, and shift perspectives. Before they left to their various local non-profit service sites Saturday morning, I asked them to be on a hunt while they were gone, and pay attention to how they were surprised, challenged, or deeply moved. When they returned and reflected in the large group about their service it was clear though their stories that the teens discovered the power of teamwork and peace through service.”

Thomas Jones from Eagle River returned to RYLA this year as alumni, “My basketball coach told me about RYLA and nominated me, I was interested but was amazed once I experienced it. It made a big difference in ball game and that’s why I wanted to come back and share with this new group the experience and impact RYLA had on me last year,” said Jones. Dozens of volunteers and chaperones helped the event flow smoothly, and local non-profits benefited from dozens of donated hours. Even the Caring for the Kenai awards banquet set up was assisted by RYLA volunteers who were happy to be serving their peers. Rotarian Jodi Stuart was introduced to RYLA for the first time last year and this year stepped up to do the lions share of coordinating the major event, “After last year I was so blown away by the kids and their experience I knew that this was something so worthwhile that I wanted to invest my time and life with helping make it happen, RYLA is one of the best investments to help our young people acquire leadership skills,” she said. “The ripple effects throughout our state will continue to grow and take positive form as these young leaders return to their communities, schools, and families. Already, ideas are sprouting for ways to implement their learning, and to invite others into the experience. A Facebook page, District 5010 RYLA, was formed along with a hashtag, #ryla5010, to share Instagram photos and tweets. Dozens of students asked if they too could return in 2014 as alumni for RYLA 2014, which will be in Eagle River,” added Erkeneff.