It has been said that "leadership cannot be taught, but it must be learned."
Two outstanding Paonia High School students were given a unique opportunity last summer to experience what that means. In June, Rotary Club of the North Fork Valley sent McKenna Palmer and Cyrus Malek-Madani to the District 5470 Rotary Youth Leadership Awards camp held at the Spring Valley Campus of Colorado Mountain College near Glenwood Springs.
According to the RYLA website, the camp's focus is on providing "foundational leadership skills for teenagers." They joined about 100 other students for three full days of personal challenges, tests of physical and mental strength, and social interaction.
"It was a very enlightening experience that helped us advance our leadership abilities and our social interaction abilities," Palmer told Rotarians at the Sept. 22 meeting. "This was very good for us, to get out of our comfort zone . . . It pushed us far beyond our personal limits."
They faced their first challenge when they were bunked in dorms with other students they'd never met, said Malek-Madani. "That was a little awkward at first." Everyone was "completely different, but it was actually really fun to get to know each other."
When students were divided up into groups for the duration of the camp, Palmer, who confessed to being very shy, said she found herself among complete strangers. "I had to go up and meet new people and it was a very, very big learning experience for me," she said.
Throughout the camp each group faced numerous physical and mental challenges. Their first exercise was to find a partner and hold eye contact for a full minute. "It was very awkward," said Palmer, "but that person and I became very good friends over those next few days."
Palmer's first big group challenge was in completing a low ropes course. One exercise involved going from tree to tree over a series of cables and required working together to get everyone through the course. They also had to pile 20 people onto a four-foot-square piece of cardboard.
It was a very good learning experience, she said. Everyone had something to contribute. To complete the exercises, each individual had to be both a leader and a follower. Once they learned that, "We got the exercise done."
Throughout the three days students were put into "some pretty dangerous situations," said Malek-Madini, "But it was fun."
His group started with a high ropes course exercise which was held some 30 feet in the air. Working in groups of five they had to cross a rope ladder and a suspended log. Each was assigned a different job while one person at a time, secured in a harness, crossed the obstacles. It also required trusting in a person holding onto the rope, which was about all what stood between them and falling 30 feet. "It was really good for building trust between people," said Malek-Madani.
He also described an exercise called the "flying squirrel," where a person in a harness tied to a rope draped over a rope is dragged into the air by students holding the opposite end of the rope. The group sprints to get the person in the air as quickly as possible.
Malek-Madani said that he has a hard time getting to know people, but that someone while hanging 30 feet in the air makes it easy to get to know them, and to even trust them. He befriended kids from Manitou Springs, Vail, and rival Cedaredge. They all met with a Rotary member to learn about Rotary's Four-Way test and what Rotary International does on a global scale, which includes working to eradicate diseases.
"I didn't even realize that Rotary was outside of Colorado," he said.
Both agree they made some lasting friendships at RYLA, and urge this year's sophomores to apply for next year's camp. Palmer said she and that person she first shared eye contact with now text each other daily to ask how things are. Before the camp, she said, she wasn't comfortable walking into a large group of strangers. Now, she said, "I think this would be very easy."