Speaking at the Rotary Youth Leadership Awards (RYLA)


The good news was I had the opportunity to speak at the RYLA 2015 Conference last evening at the National 4-H Center in Washington, DC.  The bad news was I got caught in the freakish snow storm that blew in right when I was leaving and it took two and half hours to get home.  For those who don’t know, RYLA is a leadership program designed by Rotarians for high school students in grades 10 through 12.  Special thanks to RYLA committee members Rochelle Brown, Mary Dudley, Ed Kumian, Navin Valliappan, and Judy Cappuccilli, for another amazing job done.  Oh heck, I might as well let Judy explain what RYLA is all about:


As always, the energy and enthusiasm of the students who attend is impossible to resist.  I thought I would share my comments to the group last evening.  If you have an Interact club associated with your club, perhaps they would benefit from some of these thoughts about Rotary, Youth, Leadership, and Awards.

Saturday Evening Comment for RYLA 2015

 As I was thinking about this talk, I was struck that the name RYLA, Rotary Youth Leadership Awards, is one of those great names that tells us much of what we need to know about your efforts here over the next few days.

Let’s start with Rotary. I sometimes wonder if our High School Students, Interactors and Rotaractors realize the size of this amazing organization called, Rotary. Imagine if you will, 1.2 million Rotarians organized into 34,000 Rotary clubs, in more than 500 Rotary Districts, and 34 Zones of Rotary Districts, in more than 200 countries around the world. I just came from my own District Governor training in San Diego, called the International Assembly, where every Rotary District Governor in the world is required to attend. I mention this because there were more countries represented at the International Assembly than there are at the United Nations. Amazing isn’t it?

What about Interact clubs? You might be interested to know that Interact has a membership of over 250,000 youth in more than 11,000 clubs worldwide. It’s one of Rotary’s fastest growing programs with clubs in over 120 countries and geographical areas.

Here in our District 7620, we have 63 Rotary clubs from as far north as Aberdeen, as far south as Lexington Park on the Chesapeake Bay peninsula, as far west as Frederick, and east to Annapolis. We have about 2,300 Rotarians in our District alone, all following Rotary’s 4-Way Test: 1) Is it the truth, 2) Is it fair to all concerned, 3) Will it build goodwill and better friendships, and 4) Is it be beneficial to all concerned. Rotarians hold their service projects to the standard of “Will it Do Good in the World.” All 1.2 million members are dedicated to the goal of world peace through humanitarian service, where we define the six areas of focus of our Rotary Foundation as peace and conflict resolution, disease prevention, maternal and child health care, clean water and sanitation, literacy, and economic development.

Last year the Rotary Foundation funded over $35 million of humanitarian projects. Our number one priority is the eradication of Polio, a disease that causes you to be paralyzed and has a terrible effect on children under the age of five. Rotary has been fighting this disease since the mid-1980’s and we’ve reduced the number of cases from more than a thousand  per day to just about 300 cases per year in only three remaining countries. Our partners in this effort are the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the World Health Organization, the Center for Disease Control, and UNICEF. As we like to say, we are “this close” to our goal of eradicating this disease forever.

But that’s not to say that Rotary doesn’t have its challenges. And one of them is that our organization is aging. Here is a recent statistic: 70% of Rotarians are age 50 years or older. So if Rotary is to remain relevant. If what we do is to remain important, we need all of you to join an Interact Club and then graduate to a Rotaract club either in your community or at the college you attend, and then eventually join Rotary at some point in your career of doing service for others.


The next letter in RYLA is “Y” which stands for “Youth.” The Rotary “Youth” Leadership Awards. I would make the following comment about youth. When it comes to service, those you serve, for the most part, could care less about your age. It turns out that young people are amazingly creative when it comes to “hands on” service projects. Why? Because you ain’t got no money! You are not yet at that point in your life where your role is to provide the financing for service projects. This is when you DO service projects. In the eyes of the lonely, the hungry, the sick, the elderly, and the others who need your help, I promise you that they don’t see your age at all. All they see is what you are doing on their behalf…and as many of you already know, they are extremely grateful.

Here’s our secret though. Helping someone that you get to meet, someone who looks you in the eye and says “thank you,” someone who is going to immediately benefit from your time and attention, is an experience that gives us enormous personal satisfaction. I hope you get to experience this feeling.

The next letter in RYLA is, of course, Leadership. I’ve taught leadership to Rotary club presidents for more than a decade, and it occurs to me that one of the most important benefits of joining a service club, at any age, is the opportunity for personal development AND the opportunity for you to grow as leaders.

Here at RYLA, I encourage you to step out of your comfort zone and try to assess what leadership skills you do best and what you need to improve. Public speaking, persuasion, listening, evaluating, project planning, motivating, team building, critical thinking, and leading by example, are all attributes of effective leaders. You will be able to translate these skills to every area of your life, including, of course, high school, college, family, and career.

When you eventually do matriculate from High School or Interact, to Rotaract, and then to Rotary club membership you will take these skills to a new level, and you will be able to practice and network with the Rotary leaders in your community who have years of experience and know how to get things done. That’s pretty good stuff…don’t you think?


Finally, the last letter is “A” in RYLA which stands for Awards. It may sound cliché, but I can assure you that by virtue of the fact that you are here for this RYLA conference that you are all award winners already. But here’s the thing. In the real world you usually don’t get awards for doing the things that you do every day as a leader. The awards come from watching your team succeed, or from helping others to achieve their goals. As a true leader, you will get the most satisfaction when the people you are working with on your team win the awards. Here’s another cliché for you: Being a great leader is its own reward.

Lastly, I would share with you that at your stage in leadership development, I would give you an award that no one else is likely to give you, which is the “I tried to do something outside of my comfort zone and I failed” award. I would be thrilled to give you an award for failing because this is the time for you to explore new ideas, take risks,  and develop new skills. This is your chance to push yourself to try things that make you uncomfortable, and then fall on your butt, dust yourself off, learn something from the experience, and give it another try. I hereby challenge all of you to earn the “no one knows that I was terrified to try this” award over the next couple of days. Just remember, courage, in my opinion, is one of the most important attributes of great leaders, of ANY age.

So…mercifully for all of us I’ve run out of letters. I sincerely hope that your RYLA journey is a life-changing one for all of you. We ask all of you to eventually bring the leadership skills that you are developing here to a Rotary club in your community, wherever your life journey takes you.  We desperately need your knowledge, energy, enthusiasm, and creativity. As you head off to college, if you don’t have a Rotaract club in your community, or at your school, then please consider starting one. Make service an integral part of your life.

I will be encouraging club presidents all over the District in 2015-2016 to be open to doing joint ventures with our Interact clubs and Rotaract clubs, and to help you implement your projects.

Oh…I forgot one last letter than isn’t in RYLA, but should be. That letter is “F” which stands for FUN. I know you are all going to have an amazingly fun time over the next few days.

Good luck to all of you, and thanks for coming.

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2 thoughts on “Speaking at the Rotary Youth Leadership Awards (RYLA)

  1. Ken, I enjoy reading your blog. Thanks for taking the time to put it out.

    In 7730, we had our RYLA Conference January 23-25. Similar to your District’s. About 100 highschool juniors (Class of 2016), a few of which are Interactors, most are not.


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