Three young women give the thumbs up while holding a sign that says Mike's Minions
Kennedy Brooks, right, and two other members of her small group, give the thumbs up during an activity at the a multi-district Rotary Youth Leadership Awards Academy in Missouri in July 2022.

By Kennedy K. Brooks, a participant in Rotary Youth Leadership Awards Academy in Missouri, USA. Photos by Monika Lozinska/Rotary International

Last July, I attended a Rotary Youth Leadership Awards (RYLA) Academy in Missouri, USA, that changed my life. I found myself in the right place at the right time. In the span of less than four days, I made unbelievable friendships, met mentors who were willing to give me wise counsel, and learned skills that I can use to explore a future of endless opportunities.

Several months earlier, my high school counselor had invited me into her office to tell me that the Branson-Hollister Rotary Club wanted to send me to a RYLA event. I knew what an honor it was to be selected. As the trip approached, I was more excited and anxious than for any trip I had previously taken.

The week began with the ride from my town of Hollister, Missouri, to Warrensburg and the campus of the University of Central Missouri. Upon arriving on campus, I checked into the dorms and met my roommate for the four nights. Her name was Ella, and she was from St. Louis. I was not sure how we would get along, as her and my backgrounds were considerably different. But we got along great and stayed up talking about everything and anything every night.

The first day, we did ice breakers to get to know one another. The entire event was filled with activities designed to help us learn about each other and get to know ourselves. Rotary members came and talked to us. We did some fun activities as a large group. And we broke into small groups to take part in a race in which our small groups competed to be the first to accomplish various tasks.

My small group called ourselves Mike’s Minions and Tracy Terrors after our fearless small group leaders: Mike and Tracy. Mike is a pastor and Tracy a Rotarian, but we called them our RYLA mom and dad.

  • A group of young people with RYLA shirts
  • A young woman falls backwards into a group ready to catch her.
  • Participants stand under a tree making a decision
  • Two young women run while balancing a tray of water
  • A full auditorium listens to a speaker with microphone on stage.

Before the race began, the small groups got together to take the True Colors personality test, to learn about our strengths and weaknesses. I learned that my primary color was orange, which meant I’m confident, adventurous, an impulsive decision maker, and a quick action maker. My secondary color of blue revealed that I’m emotionally driven, creative, and empathetic. After we learned our colors, we discussed how we could use this information to help our team win the race.

The race included team-building exercises such as a trust fall, an obstacle course, and an activity designed to teach us about polio eradication. The ultimate goal was to plan a service project, and we were also given a budget exercise where we had to work out a real budget for our project. The service project we decided upon was to hold a 5K Red Ribbon Run to raise funds and awareness for teen drug abuse. We designed a plan that any Rotary club could

implement. After the race, all the teams celebrated with a surprise dance party, led by a fantastic DJ.

Throughout the week, Rotary members told us about different opportunities. I was struck by a presentation on Rotary’s Youth Exchange program, and afterward, spoke to a member of my local Rotary club about applying for the program.  Attending RYLA gave me the courage to apply, and now I have been accepted to take part in a youth exchange beginning in July. My adventure with Rotary will continue.

I am forever grateful for RYLA Academy and the way it has taught me things that will help me pursue my future dreams.

Learn more about Rotary Youth Leadership Awards