Two local Rotary clubs have partnered with the Lake Pend Oreille School District to help groom the leaders of tomorrow. The Rotary Club of Sandpoint and Ponderay Centennial Rotary Club will host what they’re calling a “Mini-RYLA” event for students in a weekend program set for Nov. 2-4.

The adult equivalent of RYLA – an acronym for Rotary Youth Leadership Award – has been going on for 40 years, focusing on leadership development for participants ages 18-25. The Mini-RYLA concept, designed for high school students in grades 9-12, got started in 2016, when Rotary Clubs in Nelson and Creston, British Columbia, held sessions there.

Out of the 56 clubs that are part of Rotary District 5080, which covers southern British Columbia, North Idaho, and eastern and central Washington, just one has so far taken part in the pilot program on the U.S. side of the border, that being in the Tri-Cities this past July.

According to Debbie Ford, youth services chair for the Rotary Club of Sandpoint, the weekend is meant to do more than provide leadership training.

“We see this as a crucial time for high school-age youth,” she said. “There’s a rate of suicides that’s disproportionate to the population. There’s social media that tells young people what to think and how to act.

“We want to send them a message,” Ford added, “that they are free to be unique.”

So dedicated are Rotarians to delivering that message that they’ve come up with a logo for the event that reads: “Be YOUnique.”

Erin Roos, who teaches the Real Life 101 and 201 courses at Sandpoint High School, along with supervising the mentoring program that has been going on there since 2010. She currently has 50 student mentors, several coming from the ranks of school club presidents and team captains, working in the program.

Students rise to the occasion when given the chance to lead, Roos pointed out. Further, they become more enthusiastic when they embrace the idea that uniqueness is an asset.

“Once they realize that, they’re unstoppable,” she said. “The students who sign up to take on a leadership role are so diverse and they all lead in their own way.”

Adding Mini-RYLA to that process could well boost awareness and involvement alike.

“To empower teenagers with leadership skills can be life-changing,” said Roos. “It will be amazing for the culture at our high school to have students involved in (Mini-RYLA). The more kids that get to experience it, the better.

“I think we’re going to have a big stack of applicants,” she added.

Along with SHS, the program is also available to students at Lake Pend Oreille High School and Forrest Bird Charter High School.

With an enrollment cap of 28 students, Ford agrees that the number of interested participants will be far higher than the actual number of teens who get to take part. For that reason, she initially pitched the idea of allowing 100 teens to join the weekend training. The Rotary district, however, counseled her to start slow and build from there.

“They said, ‘100 people? Maybe next year, but not on your first pass,” the youth services chair said. “They reminded us that it’s a large event with a lot of moving parts, including community outreach for funding and support.”

Topics covered during the weekend will include teamwork and collaboration, goal-setting, motivation and overcoming obstacles, effective communication skills, the effect of peer influences and how Rotary’s 4-Way Test – Is it the Truth? Is it fair to all concerned? Will it build goodwill and better friendships? Will it be beneficial to all concerned? – acts as a touchstone for ethical leadership.

The curriculum was compiled with guidance from a team of four “junior staffer” high school students working with four “senior staffer” alumni of the weeklong RYLA camp.

“The curriculum was not imposed,” Ford said. “It’s all student-designed.”

“That’s imperative, because we want it to be important to them,” Roos noted.

One interesting component of the Mini-RYLA weekend will be the “etiquette dinner” requested by the students. The sit-down, semi-formal affair will be catered by culinary arts students and the chef who teaches them at Lake Pend Oreille High School.

“They wanted to have a nice dinner on Saturday night with dress clothes and an instructor teaching etiquette during dinner – this was their idea,” said Roos.

The students, she said, wanted an idea of how to dress and behave if such a meal was part of the job interview process in their futures. To add an element of realism, they will be inviting members of the business community to join them for dinner and to be on a Q&A panel during dessert.

Such connections, formed early, are likely to be in everyone’s best interest when these same students enter the job market, Ford emphasized.

“Because pretty soon, we’re going to be hiring them,” she said. “That’s partly what this is about, so high school grads can stay here and work and raise a family of their own.”

Which is not to confuse all of this with spoon-feeding information to the participants or adopting a top-down approach to communication. Mini-RYLA, Ford said, will be a two-way street.

“The responsibility that’s on us is not to judge or criticize, but to create connections to help each other benefit from our experiences,” she explained. “I call it the ‘RYLA Way,’ because it’s a way of interacting between youth and their experience.

“Out there,” Ford added, motioning toward a window, “but also in here,” she said, placing an open hand over her heart.

The weekend will be structured using a blend of technology, presentations and discussion – all built upon a foundation of team building.

“What I’ve learned with this age group is that we don’t have to feed them information – they have plenty of that,” Roos said. “We need to help them process it and make connections.

“We want to help emerging leaders discover their gifts,” she went on. “To be on fire and start taking action in whatever they’re passionate about.”

Application deadline for the Mini-RYLA weekend is Sept. 28. Application forms are available by contacting Debbie Ford through the Rotary Club of Sandpoint by e-mail at: or calling 208-283-9008, or by contacting J.P. Carver through Ponderay Centennial Rotary Club by e-mail at: or calling 208-290-5364.

SHS students can also pick up the forms from Erin Roos in Room W11 at the high school.