History of RYLA

A Brief History of RYLA
Adapted by Joe Wirzburger
from the letter "The Origin of RYLA"
by Eric Blackford, a member of the first RYLA committee

RYLA's beginnings can be traced to Queensland, Australia in 1959.  For Queensland's centennial, a Festival Week in Brisbane was planned for young people in the same age group as Princess Alexandra, the official representative for the Queen.  This week was called "Gundoo" which is the aboriginal word for "festival" or "fun together".

The government extended an invitation for two young people, between the ages of 17 and 23, from each Shire to attend "Gundoo".  The Queensland government approached the Rotary Club of Brisbane to assist with the organization of the week's activities and the guests' living accommodations. 

Approximately 300 people from around the country attended "Gundoo".  There were many problems with the festival, but the "Gundoo" committee felt that Rotary should take it over and run it as an annual project.

The first Rotary Youth Leadership Award (RYLA) seminar was held in Brisbane from July 8-15, 1961.  There were only 26 leaders present from District 260 that year, but it was felt that the week had served a good purpose and was worth continuing. 

In 1962, the program changed slightly so that the youth leaders would spend two of the days at the YMCA "Camp Warrawee" in Petrie, outside of Brisbane.  Due to poor support at the District and Club levels, there were only 35 registrations.  It was then decided that if the clubs did not give reasonable support the following year, RYLA would be abandoned.

Over the next year, the RYLA committee made arrangements to fully acquaint District Governor Frank Sanders on all aspects of RYLA.  Due largely to his support, the third RYLA had 64 registrations.  This encouraged the committee and RYLA was on its way to becoming firmly established.

After the third seminar, RYLA spread rapidly to many other districts in Australia and then New Zealand.  In 1971, at the Rotary International Convention, RYLA was approved as an international project.  Since that time, RYLA has spread worldwide to Rotary Clubs in Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Chile, France, India, Italy, Japan, Korea, Norway, Pakistan, the Philippines, Portugal, Switzerland, Thailand, and the United States among others.

RYLA spread to North America when a representative from District 709 was sent to observe the RYLA sponsored by the Heidelberg Club.  Subsequent to that visit, RYLA was approved as a project in 1977.

Today there are hundreds of RYLA programs running in more than 30 countries.


A Brief History of our RYLA
by Joe Wirzburger & David GoWell

The District 7500 RYLA has its roots in District 7640's first RYLA held in 1980 at Stockton College in Pomona, New Jersey.  It was here that Pete Heberling from Bordentown Rotary first encountered RYLA. Pete served on the District RYLA Committee almost continuously from 1980 onward.

In 1994 David GoWell was a new Rotarian in the Mt Laurel Rotary Club. He was a motivational speaker and personal development trainer who had previously worked with Anthony Robbins. David was working with the Lenape High School Interact Club when he first heard about RYLA. He immediately knew that he wanted to get involved and contacted the RYLA Chairperson of District 7640 to offer his services as a speaker.

One of the young men who heard David speak at that RYLA in 1994 was Brad Clements. That same year, District 7510 held their RYLA at the Scanticon Conference Center in Princeton, New Jersey where Jill Eberle was a participant.

That following year Rotary International decided to re-district the Rotary Clubs in New Jersey. As part of that process Districts 7640 and 7510 were both split up, with Burlington County from District 7640 joining Monmouth and Ocean Counties from District 7510 to form a brand new district: District 7500. David GoWell volunteered to develop a new RYLA program for the brand new district, and he formed a committee with Jeff Donoghue and Pete Heberling and a few others.

The first District 7500 RYLA was held in 1995 at Georgian Court College in Lakewood, New Jersey.  The first few years they hired high school teachers as Advisors, but they brought in 10 RYLA graduates, including Brad Clements, Jill Eberle and Jody Gersh, from the previous year’s programs at Stockton and Scanticon as a Counselor team. Each Counselor was put in charge of a team of 12 participants. The Counselor training program that year consisted of getting to RYLA a couple hours before the participants and helping to assemble the registration bags!

The following year Brad, Jill and Jody returned as Senior Counselors, in charge of 10 new Counselors from RYLA 1995. Eventually the Support Counselor program was added to more fully prepare the Lead Counselors for their duties and the Counselor training program has grown more sophisticated each year. In 1997 the high school teachers were replaced with volunteer Rotarians, and they were eventually replaced by RYLA grads who had once been Sr. Counselors.

Our team of Directors, Coordinators, Advisors, Senior Counselors, Lead Counselors and Support Counselors now numbers about 55 people each year – almost every one of them a past RYLA Graduate. They train for about 40 hours every year – in between RYLAs – to prepare to change the lives of 180 new participants each June.

From its early roots at the "Gundoo" festival to its present complex form, our RYLA has grown to be one of the preeminent leadership training seminars in the entire world.


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