By Karen C. Loeb, Ed.D., PMP®, District 5450
You might have heard a lot about “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” at Rotary. And you might not immediately think about RYLA (Rotary Youth Leadership Awards) when you think of DEI, but let me share a uniquely adaptive activity through RYLA. District 5450’s RYLA plus is specifically for teenagers who have physical disabilities. RYLA plus organizers partner with Easterseals Colorado to host this unique RYLA program at an ADA-compliant camp facility with trained medical and counselor staffing to support campers’ special needs. Their parents often ask, “What did you do to my child in one week?” and then beam with pride over the positive changes they now see in their teenagers.
Why create an adaptive RYLA?
Most things we do in Rotary start with a personal motivation. My sister had both legs amputated after an automobile accident and that motivated me to work with people with disabilities in college. Seeing these students learn to swim and build self-confidence showed me how I could make an impact while helping others. So when my Rotary club was looking for a new signature project, I jumped at the chance to partner with Easterseals Colorado to renovate their facilities and adapt our fabulous District 5450 RYLA program to serve teenagers with physical disabilities. Little did we know Easterseals and Rotary have an amazing historical connection (Easterseals founder Rotarian Edgar Allen and Paul Harris were close friends)!
How we began:
We knew there was a lot to do to make this happen. We would need to adapt our RYLA program to meet the needs of our special campers. This adaptation required relationships with schools and therapeutic clinics to recruit participants, financial assistance from Rotary clubs to provide free enrollment in camp activities , and the to identify both Rotarian and junior counselors. Fast forward eight years later, we have held 7 in-person camps with tremendous success all thanks to our preparation, ability to adapt, and the confidence we build in participants and parents that they will be safe and feel supported.
What participants learn:
Our campers not only make new friends, but also feel welcomed in an environment where they do not feel like an outsider – it is a truly adaptive experience. They see former campers become junior counselors who run the activities and lead the debriefing sessions. They are inspired by speakers who have overcome their own disabilities to become successful in sports, organizations, and giving back. They learn about problem-solving, teamwork, and overcoming physical challenges (like scaling our climbing wall followed by going down the zipline). The entire camp applauds the success of each one who tries, even the counselors who try to match the bravery of our campers. Campers develop self-confidence and willingness to take on new challenges – some going on to make the national sled hockey team, enroll in classes that require weekly class presentations, or graduate from college. Parents also report their teenagers are more independent and set new goals for themselves. The most exciting impact is how many campers are eager to return the following year as junior counselors, further enhancing their leadership skills and helping to create an experience for someone else like them.
Creating your own adaptive RYLA
My dream is to see RYLA plus replicated across the Rotary world, but if your community doesn’t have an Easterseals facility, find out more about what resources are available in your area for people with disabilities. Even if this type of RYLA isn’t right for you, there are still ways you can create inclusive activities for young people. Think about how you can adapt your existing RYLA program to be more inclusive of different needs, backgrounds, gender identities, or sexual orientations. Think about the needs and challenges of underserved communities and design experiences that build equity. Make sure your planning committees, participants, and volunteers are just as diverse as the communities you serve. No matter what you do, understand your potential to changes lives, especially for those that need it most. And if it turns out to be anything like my experience, it will be the best part of your Rotary experience!
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