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A Magical Weekend

A blog by Riley’s Way Co-Founder Ian Sandler about his experience at the Youth Leadership Retreat

This weekend I traveled to Timber Lake Camp to be part of the first-ever Riley’s Way Youth Leadership Retreat. The weather was perfect as nearly 100 young women and their adult mentors arrived from across the country.

Our goal was to bring together kind leaders to create meaningful connections with like-minded peers. Our amazing Riley’s Way team curated a balanced retreat that mixed in skill-building workshops, fun camp activities and most importantly, teen-led conversations. The weekend was magical. Watching these young women in action left me feeling more inspired than ever.

“Thank you for leading me to believe that magic does exist, and not in the form of tricks, but in the form of love, kindness, leadership, and leading me to believe that magic exists in people who have the courage to dream big.” Riley’s Way Retreat participant

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Friday evening was a time for participants to get to know each other. We had a warm welcome from our incredible hosts, Jay and Mindy Jacobs.  Then the renowned child psychologist Bob Ditter led the group through a series of ice-breakers that had everyone laughing, stepping outside of their comfort zones, and connecting with new friends. The girls each wrote out the qualities they would like to see in a kind leader, including the ability to lead from the heart and to be vulnerable.

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On Saturday, I had the honor of opening the day. One of the parent chaperones had pulled me aside and stressed the need for me to tell our story to everyone in attendance. I channeled my inner Riley and fought back a rush of emotions as I stood in front of this remarkable audience.

One thing that really frustrated me when I was growing up was when adults would water down or avoid sensitive topics to protect me. So, I spoke to the girls about Riley and what happened to her. I told them about Riley from her earliest days, how she loved connecting friends from different worlds, and how she told Paul Burke to always have a smile on his face. I talked about how much Riley was growing during her summer at Timber Lake and how no fiction writer would dream a script as cruel as the way Riley was taken from us. We felt compelled to take action immediately and Riley’s Way was launched the day after her passing.

From day one, we knew that to have lasting success Riley’s Way needed to be about our work and not about what had happened. It has been a long journey and it was anything but a straight line. But, we were directed by this beautiful young girl who always aimed to be kind and loved her friends with all of her heart. In the end, we chose to focus on a series of local and national programs that would create scaffolding and tools for the next generation of kind leaders. I explained how the journey for each of us involved with Riley’s Way was paved with pain and yet paradoxically brought us all together in the most beautiful way. A participant told me afterward the talk was “brutiful,” and the group was thankful for the open and honest discussion. I was grateful to be surrounded by so many bright shining souls searching for ways to make a difference in the world, and to tell them a bit about my daughter.

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The rest of the day was a flurry of activity. Christine, Laura, and Lauren led everyone through a wonderfully curated weekend. Participants learned new ways to connect with experienced leaders and how to build a successful network. The highlight of the day’s sessions was in the late afternoon when the adults left to have their own discussion and the teens broke into various peer-led workshops. We discussed the challenges present in connecting young women from different backgrounds and experiences, while the girls were busy learning from each other, breaking down barriers and bonding as campers and new friends. As we suspected, the real magic happened when we got out of the way and simply let these young women learn from each other.

“I just wanted to thank you and your staff for making this weekend possible. The lessons I’ve learned and the connections I have made will last me forever. I cannot thank you all and the hard work you have done to make this retreat amazing.” Riley’s Way Retreat participant

Saturday evening was a series of highlights that are almost impossible to capture. The group serenaded one of their own who flew across the country to join us on her sweet sixteen birthday. This was followed by a step performance from some of the girls, which dissolved into laughter and dancing. Elated voices filled the mess hall as we sat slack-jawed watching some of the more quiet teens break out of their shells as they made new friends.

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After dinner we made s’mores over a giant campfire. The group started to give shout-outs to their new friends and proceeded to genuinely open up to each other. Tears and laughter filled the evening. I heard the phrase “life-changing” thrown around as they talked about how to remain connected. I was able to watch with joy as everyone celebrated the hard work of the amazing team at Riley’s Way, and for the team to see that they had made a lasting impact.

Sunday arrived in a blur and we created a large paper kindness chain around the Timber Lake friendship gazebo, which honors Riley. We wrapped up the weekend by gathering in a giant circle around the flagpole. Mindy drew on another camp tradition and asked everyone to name a word that represented their feelings from the weekend. Girls rattled off words such as inspiring and life changing. In my head, the only word that fit was Riley. I was sounding that in my mind as we went around the giant chain. I was wondering if I was going to be the only one to utter her name as we made it all the way around. The very last young woman to speak was holding my hand. Rather than rattle off another adjective, I heard this voice next to me say “Riley” and I nearly fell over. I echoed her sentiment and shook my head in disbelief.

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Magic was on full display. In my wildest dreams, I never imagined we would be here in such a short time, and with such a bright path ahead! Gathering this group of inspiring young women to support each other on their journey to become change agents is such a fitting way to honor Riley’s spirit.

I am so excited to see where we go from here under the direction of our amazing new Executive Director, Christine O’Connell, who joins Laura Kikuchi, Lauren Shenkman and Raq Massey to form a dream team focused on creating the next generation of kind leaders. Please stay close to us as we grow our kind leadership movement. It will take a village.