RYLA: An Unforgettable Experience

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Courtesy of Corpus Christi RYLA (instagram: @ryla5930)

Julia Rodriguez, Editor-in-Chief

Johnny Smith and I, juniors, were selected by the World Scholars counselors to participate in the Corpus Christi Rotary Club’s annual Youth Leadership Awards Conference. RYLA, which stands for Rotary Youth Leadership Awards, gives students the opportunity to disconnect from the digital world and interact with other leaders their age, while simultaneously improving their leadership skills through group activities. The candidates were selected in November, and the camp took place during super bowl weekend on Camp Zephyr in Corpus Christi.

We were unsure of what to expect, as the guidelines for the camp were strict and specific- especially the policy against mobile devices. “I thought it was going to be overly strict because of their phone policy. I was worried that I’d feel very restricted and not have a good time at all,” Smith remarked. The supply list was very elaborate and specific; campers were expected to bring their own bedding, towels, toiletries, and even a flashlight. I had never stayed in a cabin away from home without my cell phone, so it was definitely a first for not just me, but my family included. My mom hated that I didn’t call her. She said that was the only day of my life we didn’t talk to each other.

Despite the worries and doubts we had about the camp, we were both excited and ready to take on a new challenge. That Friday morning, around seven in the morning, Smith and I, along with other students from nearby schools, boarded the charter bus, as we were the last stop in the Rio Grande Valley. There were students from all over the valley, from Los Fresnos to Laredo. I made a friend on the bus as soon as I sat down. I wasn’t shocked, for everyone was pretty talkative. I suppose because the campers already demonstrated some leadership skills to their school; that

was how they got chosen in the first place. He and I talked the whole ride; we didn’t even use our phones that much, just to show to each other pictures of our family and the like.

Upon arriving at Camp Zephyr, we were greeted by shouts of enthusiasm and excitement from the Trailblazers, campers that were returning for their second year. Jysela Gonzalez, senior at World Scholars, was among the shouting crowd.

We were required to turn in their phone before entering the large building known as the Tabernacle to meet our groups. Smith was placed in group yellow, I was in red, so we didn’t talk much throughout the camp. Unfortunately, my new friend and I parted ways, as we were placed into different groups. The first day, we did icebreaking activities, drawings, and conversed with our groups through discussions. The staff also introduced us to our colored stations. My counselors decorated a red themed poster board and taped an envelope with each person’s name on it. These yellow envelopes were declared our “mailboxes”: places where teammates and counselors can pass you notes and give you their contact information. Throughout the camp, I wrote several notes to people who said something that made me particularly laugh or did something worth praising.

The first meal, lunch, was slightly awkward with my campers and instructors. I picked at my food, frito pie, and only listened to the forced conversation among the table. I was worried it was going to remain this way for the remainder of the camp, but I was proven so wrong!

We followed a strict schedule the three days we were there, but Smith and I didn’t feel restricted in any way as we had feared. The counselors were very friendly, caring, and understanding, along with the rest of the staff. The activities were engaging, enticing, and interesting. There was absolutely no room for boredom either; the day was so action packed that we forgot our phones were missing. Fortunately the weather was splendid throughout the trip; I only had to wear a light jacket at most. I felt like time didn’t exist, before we knew it, the sun was

setting and we were in the dining hall eating our last meal of the day. I joked that we needed to invest in a good sundial.

The nighttime hours were especially exciting: every night had a bonfire session where campers were able to share stories and snack on tasty food. The first night consisted of writing your regrets on an index card and throwing it into the bonfire, while the second day had the activity of “the Laybrinth” prior to the slow, relaxing bonfire session.

The Labyrinth was very notable among many campers. Campers were to walk on a plastic sheet with a maze imprinted on it in their socks. The room was dim, with calm music playing. The purpose of this activity was for deep, meaningful reflection. Some children cried, some prayed, some meditated, and some just walked back and forth. The counselors were compassionate with their campers and weren’t hesitant to offer their jacket or a box of tissues. I think that’s what made it all the difference for me; the counselors weren’t acting as if they were there to get paid, I could tell they wanted to genuinely help us and transform us into true leaders. I went through the process myself, and although I didn’t cry, I did reflect on my personal situation and felt at peace. It really was a wonderful opportunity for children who are not allowed the time and/or calmness at home; I understand a tranquil, safe environment may be difficult to come around sometimes.

The last day was very bittersweet, as we ate our last meal together. Our last meal was nothing like our first meal, we were all joking and chatting, but the sadness of leaving each other inevitably loomed over us. During the closing ceremony, we walked up on the stage to receive a certificate, a book meant to guide us in college, and hugs from camp staff. Since we were split into color coded groups at the beginning of the camp, we were all seated by color. Competitions held throughout the camp were recognized at the ceremony as well, with my red team coming in last. We didn’t mind very much; we believed our team consisted of the most fun, interesting people (so

we were the REAL winners). The ceremony was even more personalized when the staff awarded individual campers for specific qualities; some were awarded for integrity, some were awarded for humor, and others were awarded for honesty. Some of my team members won awards, so we all shouted their name and clapped extra loudly for support.

As I received my phone, I didn’t feel a wave of relief wash over me. It felt like a normal occurrence; as if I was just pulling my phone out of my pocket. I realized how little I missed my phone throughout the camp. The rest of the time felt like a rush; people were coming up to me asking for my number and asking me to take a picture with them. My teammates and I exchanged numbers, SnapChats, and Instagram usernames before we all engaged in a group embrace. I felt emotional leaving my new friends. I understood I was probably never going to see them again, unless we were invited back to be trailblazers.

Boarding the bus was different on the way back. I actually high-fived more students, especially the ones from my group. The friend I made on the way flashed a smile at me and proceeded to find an empty seat. The bus wasn’t as quiet. I relaxed in my seat, plugged in my headphones, and enjoyed the ride. As the ride progressed, I opened my envelope. My heart was instantly warmed, seeing the amount of letters I got. One of them complimented my smile, another said, “I 100% talked to you the most, you’re pretty chill.” I couldn’t hide the smile on my face after reading those notes.

Upon returning home, I was bombarded with questions from family and friends. The hardest question to answer was, “what was your favorite part?” I thought about it for a while, and came to the conclusion that I don’t have one favorite part; there were too many moments throughout the camp I knew I wouldn’t forget. And at the same time, I couldn’t pick out only one of those moments to declare my favorite. I asked Smith the same question later, and I loved his

response: “I really enjoyed the night of improv and the skit. I always love being able to forget about all my problems for a while and become somebody else. Also, playing Dr. Phil got me some recognition around the camp!”

Weeks later, I still reflect on what occurred that weekend. I definitely learned new techniques and improved my skills as a leader. I also learned new things about myself. I was previously afraid of being away from home, without my phone, which I deemed as my safety blanket. Now, I realize that I can tackle anything, with or without my phone. Plus, it increased my self-confidence and I feel more independent. Smith learned a few things too; after the camp, he realized the importance of clear communication and instructions.

Well, what’s next? Smith and I have the potential to return next year, if we’re chosen to be trailblazers. For now, I’m just going to reminisce and hold onto the wonderful memories I made while up in hills of peaceful Camp Zephyr with some one-of-a-kind people. As they say, “Ain’t no party like a RYLA party ‘cause a RYLA party don’t stop!”

Till next year, RYLA!