Something wonderful happens in Americus every summer

Published 12:00 pm Wednesday, July 5, 2017

By Nichole Buchanan

AMERICUS — In 1992, Americus Rotarian, Russ Childers was ending his year as Americus Rotary president. The Rotary District Governor suggested he look into Rotary Youth Leadership Awards (RYLA). After some research, without Google, and visiting other RYLA camps, Childers decided RYLA Camp would be a good fit for Americus and the local Rotary. Between the years of 1992 and 1994, Childers visited other RYLA camps and even sent his daughter to attend a camp to see if the kids would actually enjoy it.  She gave it the thumbs-up and the Americus Rotary RYLA was born.
The beginning had some hiccups with location, attendance, and camp counselors’ schedules, but all in all, the kids had a great time. In 2001, after RYLA had been in Carrollton, Childers lobbied to have it moved back to Americus where it has remained since 2002. Meanwhile, Childers had hired Susan Ruckman to work in his office. She helped out with RYLA camp and did such an amazing job, she has helped run the camp ever since. Now, every summer, young people ages 13-30 are chosen for their leadership potential to attend an all-expense paid seminar camp. The purpose of this camp is to give these young adults a place to hone their leadership skills through discussions, activities centered on teamwork, and self-evaluation.
Volunteers with the program work as camp counselors. Seeing this program first hand is a rewarding experience. The five-day camp began with all the campers arriving, some nervous, some excited, and some sad to be leaving their parents. They had no idea what was in store for them.
Upon registration, the campers were assigned to a team and a dorm room where they would be staying until the end of camp. Once they were settled counselors met for the Program Overview and got busy with small-group introductions and a large-group activity, immediately focusing on accomplishing a goal by working as a team. Each day was so well planned. Kudos to Ruckman for managing to keep 130-plus teens engaged and safe for five days.
Each day began at 6:30 a.m. with a wake-up call and ended at 11 p.m. with lights out. Breakfast was the first stop where the campers were encouraged to eat well to prepare them for the busy day ahead.

Team rounds started after breakfast. The team that this writer counseled, Purple Team, has its first activity: conflict resolution in which campers were given an assessment to determine their dominant conflict management style. They discussed how each style has its strengths and weaknesses and, through the other conflict resolution sessions, learned to recognize others’ conflict resolution style and how to best work with each style to resolve conflict with each type of person.

One more large-group activity was where the campers were tasked with getting each smaller team from their individual ‘island’ to a large island with all the teams. The objective was to see if they would employ everything they had learned and work together to accomplish their goal rather than only thinking of their team.

Conflict resolution sessions were facilitated by A.J. Kooti, who has been part of RYLA for several years and is very passionate about making this camp a life-changing experience for each student.
Purple Team’s next rotation was to visit Cameron Kooti for teambuilding activities. Campers were challenged to work together using their communication and problem solving skills to accomplish what appeared to be impossible. Using only rope, clothespins, plastic hangers, and bungee cords, they were tasked with transferring tennis balls from one paint can into another. Counselors aren’t allowed to help, just to observe and make sure the campers are following the rules. The 11 Purple Team members analyzed the problem, discussed the options, and managed to, after a few mishaps, to get the tennis balls into the empty paint can. This was the first of two rotations with different activities and the same objective, promoting teamwork and learning communication skills.
The next rotation was onto the ropes course at Georgia Southwestern State University. This is where some of the most timid and shy students on the team face their fears. From their first time-out, there to the last day, they were gradually encouraged to trust their team members. First activity was to stand on a log in no specific order and were tasked with alphabetizing themselves without anyone stepping or falling off the log. Day two on the ropes course was a little more daring; the last day was the day of trust falls. Robbie Robertson, a former Navy SEAL, ensured the safety of each student as they stood on a platform with their backs to a group of campers with their arms locked and said, “Ready?” to which the group would reply, “Ready!” Falling!” And finally, the group would respond, “Fall on!” Each camper would fall backward completely trusting the group of campers behind him/her.
The team then had their turn in small-group discussion with Patty Robertson, a trained Christian counselor. In this session campers were asked to share basic information like where they are from, where they go to school, and what they want to be when they grow up. The purpose of this was for the campers to get to know each other a little and share things they have in common. The next two sessions with Patty were focused on specific topics chosen by the students. Every student seemed completely engaged and looked forward to meeting with Patty each day.
Every day was filled with activities similar to these. It became clear after the second day that each activity had a purpose and was built on the previous activity to give these students real-life, hands-on experience working with different types of people to accomplish a goal — practical management skills these campers can take with them and apply to their lives immediately as well as valuable life skills they will find very useful as they navigate their way through college and career in their adult lives.
The final day began with clean-up of the dorms and packing their belongings to prepare for their trip home. Small-group discussions were held after breakfast where the campers were asked what they took away from this experience, and the Purple Team went away with new knowledge of themselves and new friends and memories they will cherish. One more large-group activity was where the campers were tasked with getting each smaller team from their individual “island” to a large island with all the teams. The objective was to see if they would employ everything they had learned and work together to accomplish their goal rather than only thinking of their team. Within minutes of the game starting, they were all working together to get each group from their small island to the large island. It was a beautiful thing to see teamwork on such a large-scale work so well.
Finally it was time for wrap-up and closing. There were tears, laughter, many “thank yous” to the counselors and staff for making this possible. Over and over again participants were heard saying, “We came here as strangers and are leaving as family.”
What a wonderful thing for Americus to host each summer.