Sarah Stanley – Camp RYLA Experience

Camp RYLA: Day 5

            Darkness surrounded us. Only the faint orange glow of torches lit the path. The smell of smoke filled the hot night air. We walked hand in hand toward the flickering flames of the campfire at the end of the path. The end was near. Suspense and anticipation wrapped around us like a heavy coat. Emotions overwhelmed us all.  My chest felt like a cinder block was pressing hard against me making it difficult to breathe.  Suddenly, without warning, my vision blurred from the tears pooling in my eyes. I couldn’t control it. The tears broke free and poured down my face. As I looked around, I noticed that no one had been spared this break down. We all looked the same: tear stained cheeks, puffy eyes, and red faced. Little did I know this was only the beginning of what proved to be a life changing moment.

My mind drifted away while I stood by the campfire. I had travelled a long road to get to this moment. After going through an application and interview process, I had been selected to receive the Rotary Youth Leadership Award, or as we called it RYLA. At the time, I didn’t understand what made it so special. It was just a leadership camp. But now, looking around the campfire at the faces of the people I met, remembering the experiences we had shared during the week of camp, and realizing the unbreakable bonds that we had formed in such a short amount of time, I finally comprehended the magnitude of this experience.

Listening to others share their stories and memories of the week forced me to reflect on my own experience as a RYLA camper. I had formed a brotherhood and sisterhood with the twenty-three other high school seniors in my cabin group. On day one of camp we were strangers thrown together in unfamiliar surroundings, forced to work together as a team. During the course of the week, we shared laughter and tears, heartaches and celebrations, victory and defeat. We brought out the best in each other and accepted the worst. Our team of twenty-four was woven together like the squares of a quilt, each one unique and dependent on the other to complete the whole. They taught me what true friendship was about- acceptance.

Sniffles could be heard in abundance. Our circle remained unbroken as the campfire burned hotter and higher. Without losing the grip of the hand of the person next to me, we slowly sat on the grass. The stiff, achiness of my body reminded me of the week’s activities and challenges. During RYLA I did things that I had always believed impossible for me. While I’ve always danced, I had never considered myself an athlete. Growing up I was teased by peers, and told by teachers and classmates that I couldn’t do what others could. I developed a fear, a fear of failure and embarrassment. Invisible barriers stopped me from taking risks and trying new things. Yet, there I sat. The barriers had come down. Sitting there looking at the faces of my encouragers and supporters, I could only muster sobs. These were the people that taught me to believe in myself and I could achieve anything, and I had. I climbed a rock wall, completed a ropes course, scaled a wall, played rag ball, and even broke a board with my hand. RYLA and its campers gave me self-confidence.

Stepping out of my comfort zone, I looked deep inside myself and found the courage to speak. I managed to choke out just a few sentences. “I love you guys,” I said. “You’ll never know how much you mean to me or what you’ve given me.” Overwhelmed with the reality of all that I had experienced that week, I couldn’t get another word out. How could I express the magnitude of what I felt? How could I explain that I would never be the same? RYLA had changed my life.

The campfire signaled the end of Camp RYLA 2014. As the flames were extinguished, I was sad to see the week come to an end. However, I knew this was also a new beginning. I realized that I was not the same Sarah Stanley that had come to camp at the beginning of the week. I grew and changed. Confident, risk-taker, and brave had never been words that I used to describe myself. Now I embrace these characteristics and more. Perseverance and determination are now part of my persona.  I have become a young lady with purpose.

The magnitude of what RYLA had done for me, as well as the rest of the campers, was indescribable. While I had participated in RYLA all week, I did not fully understand the impact it would have on my life until campfire. Sitting around the campfire with my new friends, my new family, was the climactic part of the week, the moment were everything came full circle. These people who were strangers to me just days before, who came from totally different worlds, led totally different lives, had become some of my best friends. They were like my new family. After only a few days we had formed a special irreplaceable bond that usually takes years to build.

I came to Camp RYLA hoping to make friends and become a better leader. I achieved both of those goals. More importantly, through Camp RYLA, I became a better person. I gained self-confidence and a sense of determination. As a result of my experiences with RYLA and the epiphany I had at our final campfire, I now know that I can not only live in this world, but that I have what it takes to make a positive difference in the world.

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