2023 Riley’s Way Youth Leadership Retreat: An Inspiring Weekend Full of Kindness
by Alexa Muchnick
As I made my way across the country on a red-eye flight on a Thursday night from California to Newark airport in New Jersey to attend the Riley’s Way Youth Leadership Retreat in Tyler Hill, Pennsylvania, I eagerly anticipated meeting like-minded teens who had the same goal as me: to bring more kindness into the world through leadership. It was an honor to have been selected to be a part of this group that fully funded my involvement in the Retreat, and my three days of engaging with teens, mentors, and inspiring adults certainly did not disappoint.
Arriving early in the morning after my overnight flight, I wandered through the airport in search of our meeting spot. Before the official programming began, I met two friendly teenagers from Texas, and we hung out at the food court until everyone else arrived. After a lengthy bus ride (with snacks and snoozes) and a few delays thanks to bad weather, we arrived at Tyler Hill Camp and were greeted with smiling faces. We felt like kindred spirits, all hoping to learn more about how to spread kindness to our individual worlds and practice it there together, too. I received my nametag and bunk assignment, where bedding and a welcome kit awaited me. Once everyone else arrived, we gathered in the social hall for a welcome and official kick-off to the weekend. We enjoyed an incredible buffet-style dinner with many options for picky eaters like me (the food was amazing the whole weekend, and that is definitely a compliment coming from me!). After dinner, we participated in identity workshops and small group conversations, followed by free time. My group had such an amazing discussion about our own intersectionalities in relation to the world and social justice issues that we lost track of time and decided to spend our free time making friendship bracelets together. The night was great; our cabin set norms and expectations of how we could respect everyone and make them feel safe. There were seven teenagers in our cabin, along with our amazing team mentor, Tiara. It was the longest she had been away from home, so she experienced the whole Retreat with us and was super supportive!
Saturday was filled with excellent programming! After a delicious breakfast, there was a full group panel where we heard inspirational stories from four incredible individuals: Paul Aviles, Alia Carponter-Walker, Jiahao Guo, and Andreanela Ordoñez. Each shared their unique perspective on navigating kindness and leadership both in personal settings as well as large-scale, global settings. All the stories they shared were inspiring, and I definitely could relate to Paul and his remarks: “In a world with so much negativity, I don’t want to turn into that. I want to leave this world much better.” Afterward, participants attended smaller group sessions that they signed up for in advance of the program. I learned from Riley’s Way co-founder (and genuinely kind adult) Ian Sandler and team mentor Agha about networking, as well as Michal and Anika about sharing your identity through storytelling. Both of these sessions taught me tangible tools, such as creating a LinkedIn account and reaching out to get my writing published. Next, I learned a fun dance combination in a class taught by the talented and patient Riley’s Way Program Coordinator, Naya Houchen. I definitely stepped out of my comfort zone when we were asked to perform for the whole group at the bonfire, but everyone was super supportive and encouraging! One aspect of the Retreat that was particularly empowering for me was the affinity groups. There were tons of options of spaces you could go to, and I chose the Jewish affinity group. Everyone there was able to speak from the “I” perspective, so we were able to connect both on celebrating our identity as well as seeking support in troubling scenarios we have encountered. Later, while eating yet another delicious dinner on Saturday night, Ian did a Q&A for all of us, where he shared stories of how Riley was an amazing “connector” and that he believes in us to lead the next generation with kindness. Saturday evening, there was a bonfire where everyone shared some highlights of the Retreat as well as gratitudes.
Before I knew it, I was standing in the closing circle on Sunday morning, where we all shared a word or phrase that encapsulated a weekend full of memories. The abundance of programming allowed me to shed my inhibitions and just be me. There was a sincere feeling of openness and
hope that permeated; it was refreshing to be immersed in kindness and away from negativity and social pressures.
Additionally, older Team Mentors and adult board members who attended helped me crystallize my own ideas for ways that I can make a tangible impact in my own community. For example, I connected with Abigail, a sophomore at Barnard who majors in theater (something I would love to study), and she encouraged me to take my passion for musical theater and create a theater summer camp for children who have limited access to the arts. I also met Lauren Shenkman, the Director of Programs and Partnerships for Riley’s Way, and her contributions encouraged me, and I am excited to continue to connect with her going forward.
I arrived home exhausted but truly inspired. Attending this Retreat was transformational, and I sincerely hope this is just the beginning of my involvement with Riley’s Way. I look forward to attending more Retreats, applying for the Riley’s Way Call For Kindness Fellowship, and gaining support from the Foundation to grow and brainstorm ideas on spreading kindness on my campus and in the broader community. Finally, I hope to be a Team Mentor someday, too, and encourage others to become a part of Riley’s Way. Thank you, Riley’s Way, for opening your organization to me and helping me to be a stronger, more confident, equipped, and better ambassador of kindness everywhere that I go. I left the Youth Leadership Retreat with more confidence and hope for myself as well as the world around me.