Today, our District has more Interact and Rotaract clubs than it does Rotary clubs.
A decade ago, that wasn’t the case. What happened? How did District 5370 become a Youth Services leader in North America?
Tamara Larson (RC of Edmonton Whyte Avenue), who has been the District’s Youth Services chair for the last three and a half years, credits 2010-11 District Governor Jackie Hobal (RC of Edmonton West) for getting the ball rolling.
“Jackie sat down and developed a strategic plan to grow youth programs in our District,” Tamara says. “At that time, we had 11 Interact clubs and one Rotaract club.”
There were 61 Rotary clubs.
“The strategy was to build these clubs. Start with Interact, which would grow our Rotaract, which would ultimately grow our Rotary membership in our District,” Tamara says.
“At RYLA (Rotary Youth Leadership Awards), we always tell Interactors that if they go to university and there is no Rotaract club, start one,” which is exactly what happened at one university this year.
“The president of the Concordia University Rotaract club was an Interact club member in Grande Prairie,” says Tamara. “She moved to Edmonton to go to Concordia. There was no Rotaract club, so she started one. It took her less than three months to get 15 people and they have done some great things.”
With a background in education, Jackie came to her role as DG with a passion for working with youth.
“I was very aware of the demographics in Alberta, the demographics in Canada and the fact that the majority of our population was in that very young age group. If you are building for the future, and that’s what we are always thinking about in Rotary, we need to empower that particular age group.”
“I saw the writing on the wall in terms of Rotary membership,” she says. “The decline of Rotary membership began about a year before I was governor, about 2009. People were not as excited about Rotary as they used to be and so I saw an opportunity with youth.”
Jackie feels there were two reasons that the District was successful in meeting the goals she set out in her New Generations Vision, which became the blueprint for developing youth programs in District 5370.
First, the District formed a partnership with the Alberta-based Servus Credit Union, which provided a grant of $250,000. The grant was spread out over three years and shared with District 5360, which includes Alberta Rotary clubs from Red Deer south.
“That was the magic—having the flexibility of the dollars to build capacity. Those dollars were used to create events, to really beef up our RYPEN (Rotary Youth Program of Enrichment) and our RYLA. We also started RYLE, which is Rotary Youth Leadership Experience. That program has had great success.”
Making more great ideas possible
The funds from Servus Credit Union made numerous other great ideas possible.
“Sometimes you have great ideas as Rotarians, but you don’t have the money to make it happen. We were able to bring youth to leadership events and international conventions,” Jackie says. “We sent them to Big West Rotaract in the San Francisco area, where they have huge Rotaract events that we don’t have here.”
The money also allowed the District to adapt the concept of the CBC program Dragon Den to provide opportunities for Interact groups to find money for their projects.
“We used some of the Servus Credit Union money—one year we put aside $5,000—and we said, ‘Come and pitch your project, sell us your project,’” Jackie says. “We brought some CFOs and CEOs to be judges and gave them criteria. The kids got up and pitched their projects and then [the dragons] doled out the money. It was great. The [Rotarians] really enjoyed that. I think that got clubs inspired. They could see the potential of what these youth groups could do.”
The second component to success was having people with the passion to implement the plan.
“You need leaders and you need champions,” Jackie says. “I put a touch on Laura Morie (RC of Westlock). She became Youth chair.”
Laura’s involvement with youth goes back to when the Westlock Rotary club hosted the orientation for inbound Youth Exchange students, which the club had done for over 30 years prior to the District taking on this task.
With the orientation off its plate, the Westlock club agreed to host RYLA for three years, beginning in 2009.
Giving youth a voice
“We decided that what we really needed was for these kids to have something that was a little more experiential than sitting in a room and having different people come and talk to them,” Laura says. “We figured that enlisting the help of the kids who had previously had the experience, from one year to the next, was going to be a path to success because with kids the voices of other kids resonate.”
Listening to youth led to the creation of the District Youth Council, which meant “kids had a voice,” Laura says. “They had influence. The assisted in creating programming for RYPEN and RYLA.”
Tamara, who succeeded Laura as Youth Services chair when Laura became District Governor in 2016-17, now chairs the Youth Council.
“The committee is comprised of Rotarians, Rotaract members and Interact members. We have Rotaract and Interact members in chair positions when it comes to RYLA, RYLE and RYPEN,” Tamara says.
“This council drives our short-term and long-term youth programs. It allows young people to have a voice in where these are going and what is most effective. They have a very large voice in the future of youth programs within the District.”
One of Laura’s first actions as Youth Services chair was to find out what Rotary clubs were doing related to youth programming.
“We did a District-wide survey of all the clubs, asking them to tell us what they were looking for and how much resources (money and effort) they put into their youth programs and we got this amazing picture of what was going on in the District, from scholarships to commitments to sending kids off, be it on an exchange or adventure trips or RYLA or RYPEN,” she says.
Youth Services become part of presidents-elect training
Growing youth programs required the support of clubs, so Jackie ensured that information about youth programs was part of the training incoming club leaders received.
“I had been part of the training team for many years in our District and I made sure that became an essential part of training of presidents-elect and club leaders,” Jackie says. “Clubs sponsor Interact and Rotaract clubs and we have seen that grow exponentially, more so than in any other district in our combined zones, Zone 24 and Zone 32. My guess is we have more active youth leaders than any of those districts.”
Part of the strategy was to encourage Rotary clubs to send students to RYLA events.
“We thought we should use the RYLA program as way to help clubs kickstart Interact clubs. If clubs would commit to sending three participants to RYLA, what would happen would be a lot like what happens at our District learning sessions,” Laura says. “If you have two or three people who go back with a consistent message, they are not a lone voice in the wilderness. We figured out how to get kids from RYLA to start Interact clubs and we trained their advisors to support them.”
When they graduate from high school and go on to post-secondary institutions, some former Interactors look to become involved in Rotaract clubs.
Laura recalls attending a University of Alberta Rotaract fundraiser about five or six years after she was first involved with Youth Services, as an amazing moment.
“The U of A Rotaract had about 90 members and when I walked in the room at least half of the members of the Rotaract club were kids that had been through RYLE, had joined Interact and now they were Rotaractors. There were kids from Yellowknife and Peace River and Grande Prairie and Camrose and they had found and built their community in the Rotaract club and they had built-in mentors because many of them had attended RYLE and some of their counsellors who were putting on the program were university students. When these kids got there, they already had friends.”
What has happened in our District over the past decade has made it a leader in North America in terms of Youth Services.
“You get out east, to the east coast and down into the U.S., and they don’t have a lot of Rotaract clubs. They don’t have Interact clubs,” Tamara says.
“Why is it that way in other districts? I can’t say, but I have been approached by two other districts to help them build their youth programs and maybe do workshops and things like that.”
Maybe someday those districts will also have more youth clubs than Rotary clubs.