Fifteen members of Raritan Valley Community College’s Rotaract, together with over 400 other Rotaractors from over 40 countries, spent one summer week living the Rotary motto “service above self.” Each of them came home having made a diverse group of new friends and with heads full of new ideas ready to be implemented.
Thirteen of the members of RVCC's Rotaract, which is the youth division of Rotary and an international community based service club, attended the Rotaract Youth Leadership Awards (RYLA) North America Conference Aug 1-6. The conference took place at the 4H Youth Conference Center in Chevy Chase, MD, a town that borders Washington DC.
Almost 300 Rotaractors from around the world attended. RVCC was the second largest group attending. The conference featured over 20 workshops, and participants had the opportunity to work in service project presentations, learn possible ways of solving world issues, meet national leaders and visit a different foreign embassy every night.
Two Rotaract members, Joel Reyes and Amanda Donner, attended Interota in Canada from July 26 to Aug 1. The first three days took place in Toronto, and the last two in Montreal. The conference offered workshops, discussions, a boat cruise on Lake Ontario, a tour of Niagra Falls and an opportunity to help clean-up a park in Montreal. Every three years a different Rotary District, which can be anywhere throughout the world, hosts the conference.
Both groups from RVCC’s Rotaract left with a pile of business cards, and found a flood of Facebook friend requests upon returning home, many of which were from people on the other side of the world.
Joel Reyes witnessed the forming of very strong connections at Interota, one of which turned into a marriage proposal. “I made some of the best friendships in my life," said Reyes. "Many of the people I met said that whenever you visit our country, whether it’s for a project or vacation, we will be there for you.”
Reyes has started a Facebook group to keep in touch with everyone he met at Interota and is in the process of setting up a member exchange program with Rotaractors from Texas and Canada. He believes that the reason he connected with them so well, despite their cultural differences, is because they share common goals and morals.
Shannon Symonds, who attended RYLA, said she became much closer to fellow members of RVCC’s Rotaract, whom she now considers to be among her best friends. She also said that she has Skyped with many new friends she met at RYLA. Two of her closest are from California and Canada.
“I was put in a living situation with people I didn't know,” said Symonds. “I had four roommates, which included someone from Canada and Sri Lanka. I had to learn their culture and ways of living. Everything, including just the casual clothes they wore, was very different.”
The members of RVCC’s Rotaract also left with ideas they believe will help them make their own club stronger. One of these was to work with local Rotaract clubs on projects and not just do them by themselves. As a result, they are starting a project with Pace University’s Rotaract.
Symonds said RYLA inspired her to do more than “just give” money to RVCC Rotaract’s biggest project, Operation Smile: a charity that provides cleft lip and cleft palate surgery to children in low and middle income countries. She now wants to travel to those countries, talk to the children and get to know them personally.
RVCC’s Rotaract also left a lasting impression on others. In RYLA, John Cohn made a presentation on Operation Smile, and afterward other Rotaract groups, some of whom had never heard of Operations Smile before, approached them wanting to help out.
Three of the Rotaract members who went to RYLA did so for the second time. One of the members, Ashley Fuentes, said of the experience, "I was lucky enough to attend RYLA for the second year in a row. While both years were different, they both shared the common ground of meeting people from all over the world. It was a truly eye opening and enriching experience to view the world through the eyes of Rotaractors from around the world."
Although both groups have mostly positive memories of their experience, they believed two things needed improvement. The group that went to RYLA believed there was not enough free time. The group that went to Interota believed there could have been a little less free time.
Both trips were entirely paid for by RVCC and Rotary. 9 of the 13 members from RYLA were sponsored by the school, with 4 members paying for the trip themselves. The members who went to RYLA are Jeannine Clark, John Cohn, Kevin Danco, Ashley Fuentes, Khaled Hadarra, Brendan Leonard, Joshue Lozano, Sarah McKnight, Jorge Moran, Steven Rudden, Dhruv Patel, Shannon Symonds and Jack Yuan.