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The Rotary Youth Leadership Program

A Community Initiative for Over 20 Years: The Center for Creative Leadership and Rotary International, Greensboro Chapter

The Rotary Youth Leadership Program: A Community Initiative for Over 20 Years


"The RYLP changed my life and gave me a new perspective on what it takes to be an effective leader."

Over twenty years ago, the Greensboro chapter of Rotary International and the Center for Creative Leadership saw a need to cultivate leadership potential among young people in the Triad. Together, the organizations created a one-of-a-kind, world-class program that would challenge local students to develop the leader within. By providing tools and training, CCL and Rotary sought to encourage young people to be effective, responsible leaders in their high schools, local communities and beyond.

The experience of 1080 high school juniors and seniors, 112 college-age advisors and more than 50 Rotary and CCL volunteers is the story of the Rotary Youth Leadership Program.

The Early Years

Rotary Youth Leadership Program participants take part in a group exercise about ethical reasoning
Rotary Youth Leadership Program participants take part in a group exercise about ethical reasoning

In 1983, the Rotary Youth Leadership Program began when members of the Greensboro chapter of Rotary International realized that young people with leadership potential were not being cultivated and challenged.


"It was a wonderful experience; I loved everything about it! I felt I was able to find myself that week and begin to understand what I wanted to accomplish with my life."

"A key concern we had was that high school students were unwilling to stick their necks out, to take on leadership positions," explains Dr. Stuart Fountain, the Rotary co-director of the RYLP for the first five years. "Young people were not even aware that taking a leadership role was something they could do."

Fountain shared his concerns with CCL's David DeVries and Victoria Guthrie, asking whether CCL's unique and powerful approach to developing adult leaders could be modified for local high schoolers.

"When Stuart and David asked me to design a program for rising juniors and seniors, I immediately said yes," Guthrie recalls. "What better place to invest our time and resources? Young people are our future leaders. To contribute to their development and growth at a crucial time in their lives was an exciting, important opportunity."

With the commitment of Guthrie and CCL, the Rotary Youth Leadership Program moved from idea into reality. From the beginning, the two organizations sought to create a program that would be powerful for the participant. The overarching goals of the program were to:


"The RYLP helped me gain confidence in myself and gave me the skills I needed to start a new club at school. I never thought I was capable of taking on such a huge task, but it proved to be a very positive experience."

  • Stimulate the willingness and obligation of students to use their leadership talents; and
  • Teach them how to utilize and develop those talents.

The organizers also felt that to be effective, each element of the program — selection process, location, content, facilitation, activities, logistics, and so on — had to be well run and supportive of the youths involved. A strong belief in collaboration led to a clear delineation of roles and responsibilities between the two organizations. Rotary would be responsible for the selection of participants and all camp logistics, while CCL would handle program content and design — a structure that remains in place today.

The first program was held for 5 days in July 1983, with 54 participants from 30 Piedmont-area schools. It was then that Fountain, Guthrie and the others involved knew they had created something special.

Creating the Program

In designing the Rotary Youth Leadership Program, Guthrie applied the same principles and approach the Center uses in creating leadership development initiatives for adults.

"The idea was — and still is — to view the students as young adults, to treat them like our adult CCL participants," says Guthrie. While activities and examples were tailored to appeal to the youth, the leadership lessons, intense feedback and challenging action learning methods were on par with the programs CCL runs around the world.

What Do We Teach?

For 20 years, the fundamental structure and content of the RYLP has remained the same. The program is an intensive study of leadership concepts, skills, models, styles and methods. It takes a three-prong approach of being insight-based (assessments and feedback), knowledge-based (models, discussions) and action-based (experiential exercises, application to back-home issues). Students receive a range of self-assessments and feedback regarding preferences that affect leadership and learning styles, as well as identify career interests and goals. Often the UNC-Greensboro Piney Lakes Challenge Course, which is modeled on the Outward Bound Program, is a favorite part of the program.

All of the formal and informal activities are woven together to:

  • Foster a greater understanding of self-potential;
  • Improve the ability to work effectively in groups and teams;
  • Teach the value of diverse leadership styles;
  • Demonstrate the value of individuals with differing talents, skills and perspectives;
  • Practice and explore communications skills, both verbal and nonverbal;
  • Facilitate reflective learning which can be applied to real life situations; and
  • Promote a commitment to good citizenship.

How Does RYLP Work?

Participants enjoying some down time with new friends over a pizza
Participants enjoying some down time with new friends over a pizza

"Amazing experience ... I remember thinking that I wanted to be a leader in my community and help others. I think I was able to return to my high school and make a difference."

The program is designed for rising juniors and seniors who have demonstrated leadership potential in school, in the community and in other organizations. Students are recruited from a 100-mile radius of Greensboro and must be recommended by their principals as having exhibited leadership. Students must also have a cumulative B average.

Greensboro Rotary underwrites and provides the logistical and administrative support for the program, while the Center donates staff time and all training material. The local Rotaries pay $500 (for a program valued at more than $6,000) for each student they sponsor.

The residential program, as well as a half-day preprogram orientation, is held on the campus of Guilford College. The staff is composed of CCL faculty and coordinators, former RYLP participants who serve as leadership advisors, and local Rotarians. Local or state leaders with skills in communicating with young people are invited to speak and participate as well.

Making a Difference


"At first I was skeptical about how the week would unfold, but I had a great experience and learned a lot about myself and what I want to accomplish. It's an outstanding program."

Anecdotally and intuitively, the Rotary Youth Leadership Program has been viewed as powerful and highly successful. Over the years, Rotary and CCL organizers have witnessed skeptical, reserved teens transform into enthusiastic participants and ambassadors of the program. Many remain friends with their fellow students.

These participants are beginning a group project known as Straw Towers
These participants are beginning a group project known as Straw Towers

The experience of Courtnie Carter, a RYLP participant in 1999 and a leadership advisor in 2003, is similar to that of other participants: "To be honest, I was dreading going to the program, thinking, 'what did I get myself into?' Over the course of the camp, I began to have a whole new outlook. It became fun and I became more open-minded. I wanted to be a leadership advisor because I wanted to make the experience memorable for someone else."

In June 2002, CCL began an evaluation to formally characterize the impact of the program. Utilizing written surveys as well as telephone interviews with program alumni, the study found that the program is indeed effective in delivering its learning objectives (foster a greater understanding of self-potential, improve the ability to work effectively in groups and teams, teach the value of diverse leadership styles, etc.). The alumni also confirmed that the concepts and tools used in the program were effective in helping them develop leadership skills.

The majority of Rotary Youth Leadership Program participants believe their lives were positively impacted by the experience, learned the value of effective leadership, experienced new cultures, thoughts and ideas, and formed valuable relationships.

A Long-term Commitment

The enduring value of the program is not simply reflected in the quality of the program and the positive experience of the students. Just as significant is the commitment and belief in making a difference exhibited by Rotary and CCL.

The finished products of the Straw Towers exercise
The finished products of the Straw Towers exercise

"I have taken many leadership courses over the years, but they all pale in comparison to the RYLP. I enjoyed the whole learning experience — the chance to reflect and evaluate self, how to set and establish goals and how to accomplish them."

"RYLP is one of the few initiatives CCL has done locally, and we've done it consistently for 20 years. It is a way we give back to and interact with the community," explains the Center's Jeni Powell, the current program director. "Over the years, CCL staff have given countless hours to the RYLP because it is something we value as individuals and as an organization."

David Clem, the current Rotary RYLP director, says the Rotary perspective is similar. "For the Rotary, the leadership program is a way to give back, reinvest in the community and help develop young people. It can be a life-changing experience for these kids. One of the most exciting aspects of the program is that it is an opportunity for kids of very different backgrounds to get together and learn. It is a program that gives a world-class opportunity for kids from lower economic backgrounds, those who have had real hardships in life. They haven't had the chance to go to other camps or enrichments. But they are ambitious, hungry to learn, eager to develop themselves."

The program includes classroom sessions, experiential activities, and time to develop a peer network
The program includes classroom sessions, experiential activities, and time to develop a peer network

"Twenty years ago, Rotary turned to the Center for Creative Leadership as a unique resource right in our community," says Raymond Covington, current President of the Greensboro Rotary. "Thousands of executives have completed the Center's powerful leadership programs. We are proud to say Greensboro Rotary and CCL have given the same opportunity to more than one thousand local youths, and we hope to do so for many more."

Contact Information

If you are in the central North Carolina area and are interested in finding out more about attending the program, please contact your high school guidance counselor. For other inquiries about the program, please contact Rotary District 7690.