By: Bryan Woolley
Part of what makes RYLA so incredible is the vastly different paths each of us take. Somehow these paths miraculously cross in the middle of the woods for four days at Camp Hinds. Looking back, heading into my first year of RYLA I was in a similar place as a lot of sophomores. I had no clue who I wanted to be and was convinced everyone else had it all figured out. My personal identity consisted of what sport I played and what classes in school I was good at. I didn’t expect this to change anytime soon, and I definitely didn’t expect it to change surrounded by 13 people I had never met before at a camp in Raymond, Maine. I went into RYLA with the expectation that it would be a cool experience and maybe I’d learn a thing or two. Two years later, RYLA would be the sole topic of my college essay, and four years later I can easily say that it has been one of the biggest factors in shaping who I am today.
My camper year began with an absolute downpour while we dropped off our luggage. Still, I began to warm up to my LEG through all of the trust exercises and get-to-know-you games. I started to open up in reflections, and, with this, started to grasp the lessons we were being introduced to. My introspective skills began to slowly improve, but they were still stuck at the surface level. I had incredible facilitators and some really great people in my LEG, but I didn’t come close to fully understanding what was going on around me. I recognized that I learned about the core values that RYLA teaches, but I didn’t feel any different. I was still a little lost, just this time I had the tools to find my way. These tools would later be the key in helping me solve a problem I wasn’t ready to face yet.
Still, I recognized that something special was going on and I wanted to dive a little deeper. So I applied to come back as a staff member and was lucky enough to be accepted. With a group of 16 other incoming new staff, I arrived at camp for my second year. I was a LEG support, which allowed me to try to soak up as much about RYLA as I could. I was placed with some amazing facilitators who worked  to show me what the other side of RYLA was really about. They satisfied both the curious part of me and the excited part of me. Even outside of working with the LEGs, I got exposed to a community of wonderful people. Within this community, I started to feel stronger and happier. My identity within this group had nothing to do with what sport I played or what classes I was good at. Instead, my role was about my personality. The RYLA community didn’t care about the things that made me feel insecure, but they did care about the things that made me feel strong. With this feeling came a newfound happiness that I was grasping at understanding. I didn’t know how to explain it, but I liked the person I was at RYLA a whole lot more than the person I was in other aspects of my life.
I knew without a doubt I needed to come back and get back to that feeling. At home I tried to act like I did at RYLA, but that didn’t seem to fix the problem. I realized pretty quickly that you can’t replicate RYLA and I was pretty defeated. So I went back for my third year hopeful that I’d get some answers. Within minutes of being back at camp I felt stronger again and confident with myself in a way I hadn’t felt in a year. No test scores, no team wins, just me. For year three,  I had the opportunity to co-facilitate a LEG for the first time. Once again I was placed in a great situation as I had a co-facilitator with whom I worked extremely well. I was feeling confident, happy, and proud to see what was happening in front of me that week. But it wasn’t what we did for the campers that really defined the week for me, though that was special too. What really got to me was what I learned about myself when I had this new perspective. I saw aspects of myself in some of these kids. Watching the way they handled the week, I saw why I was so lost. All I focused on was the people around me. After having spent so much time in my life focussed outside of me, I hadn’t given myself enough attention. This shift in persepctive allowed me to start to understand my struggles, and understand how to start to work on them.
By then a high school graduate, I was heading into my freshman year of college. With all that RYLA had shown me and taught me about myself, it was a huge part of my self identity. I had finally started to feel comfortable with who I was, and immediately this massive part of me was starting to slip away. College started to make adult life seem real. The prospect of internships, long-term relationships, possibly leaving New England, and all that comes with adult life started to creep into my head. So I arrived for my fourth year and, to be completely honest, I was terrified it would be my last. I knew nothing about what my life would be like in a year’s time. All I knew was that I couldn’t give up RYLA.
 That year at camp was the best one yet. I finally wasn’t lost and was working on finding and becoming who I wanted to be. I was surrounded by people who made me stronger, though that wasn’t something new in terms of RYLA. Again there were challenges, but we got through them. My co-facilitators and I went through struggles, but we got through them. We had challenges with the LEG, but we got through them. I had my own struggles, but we got through them. The only obstacle that didn’t feel beatable was the inevitability of my departure from camp for good.
Everyone involved with RYLA has gotten to that point, or we will soon: that point where life without RYLA starts to feel real and it’s absolutely terrifying. We’ve spent some portion of our lives with this experience every year and the thought of losing such a big part of ourselves is scary. This past year I missed my first year of camp. I was offered an internship in New York that was extremely tough to turn down. I finally had to face the fear of leaving RYLA as I watched from afar. It’s a surreal feeling to hear stories and see pictures of RYLA and having it hit you just how badly you miss it. That Friday, as all of the RYLA staff were showing up to camp, I left work early. I couldn’t focus on what I was doing when RYLA was all I could think about. So I got back to my apartment and allowed myself to wallow in it for some time. I wish I could say I handled it in a healthy way, but really I was mad at myself for choosing a career over RYLA and jealous of the people who went. There was nothing helpful about this, but I didn’t see any other way to cope at the time than to be sad for a bit.
Then Phil, the Director of RYLA, sent a letter to current and past RYLA staff. It filled me with so many new emotions about RYLA than I had been feeling lately. One line in particular hit me hard: “There will come a day when I step aside and RYLA will be stronger because of the work I have put in.” Phil is absolutely right. Of course the program and the way it is run has progressed, but I think more than anything else Phil was right about the people. The people are the most important part of it all, and RYLA is stronger because we are stronger. I started to think about who I was before and who I am now, and without a doubt I know that I am stronger now than I ever have been.
Finally I was in a healthy mindset about leaving camp. To build on what Phil said, there came a day when I had to step aside, and I am stronger because of the work that we have all put in. For all the people that pour their time, energy, and heart into camp, I am stronger. And I hope that all of us feel this way. I hope that when RYLA feels distant, we can look back and feel proud of who we are and grateful for what RYLA has been for us.
Part of that pride is what we’ve been and continue to be for RYLA. I find happiness in the idea that this experience gave me the opportunity to leave someone stronger somehow, no matter how small of a difference. It’s a terrifying thought to consider that we will really never know the true magnitude of our influence, but it’s also an incredibly fulfilling thought when we trust that our intentions will affect others positively more often than negatively.
That all being said, we only step as far aside as we choose. I have no idea what my future holds, and while camp might be in the past (though hopefully not), there is still so much of RYLA left that we have the opportunity to contribute to. New Voices feels so incredibly important as it allows us to continue to spread our influence even beyond our capacity to attend camp. While physical distance feels challenging, we are really only as far as we allow ourselves to be. We can be grateful for the memories and how it has changed us and move on, or we can continue to surround ourselves with these incredible people and continue to strengthen the world around us.
Bryan Woolley attended RYLA in 2015 thanks to a scholarship from the Dover Rotary Club. He is currently a junior at Williams College where he is pursuing a dual major in statistics and economics while also pitching  for the school’s baseball team. This past summer he was a business analytics intern for the New York Mets and is hoping to be the analytics intern for Star Island Corporation for the summer of 2020. Following college, he hopes to enter into the field of baseball analytics and research.