By Louisa Benatovich
None of us knew what to expect when we exited the car. The air was colder than in Ellicottville, a consequence of being further north, but the surrounding trees and hills were reminiscent of home.
Canterbury Hills, the campground in Ancaster, Ontario, was much smaller than we had expected. There were 10 cabins littered across the hillside with about 10 campers in each one.
Allison Calarco, McKenna Kaleta, Adrian de Orbe and I all joined the excited line of duffle-toting high school students down the path. We were all assigned different cabins, the event’s attempt to spawn new connections, and we began to grow nervous. Meeting new people is hard at any age and we weren’t sure what to do.
As a little bit of background, SLAPSHOT (Student Leadership Award Program for Students High on Training) is a special experience for adolescents in District 7090 and Ellicottville’s Rotary Chapter is a member. The district stretches from the bottom of New York state up to the middle of Ontario, Canada.
The event was spawned over a decade ago, and this year, four Ellicottville Central School students were in attendance. Thanks to the generosity of our amazing local chapter, none of us had to contribute to a single cost. Displays such as this are typical of the Rotary, as they are the largest not-for-profit public service organization in the world.
The camp, marvelously organized, was aimed directly at students trying to make a difference in the world. All of us, we were informed, are leaders are in our own rights, and we need to celebrate our strengths while acknowledging our weaknesses.
During our session with Joel Hilchey, a Canadian speaker and leadership expert, we were asked to take a personality test. The test diagnosed us as either a passionate Lion, caring Koala, analytical Owl or fun-loving Peacock. Though not as involved as Myers-Briggs, Hilchey’s personality test provided us all insight into the human psyche.
Later in the day, we took part in a scavenger hunt, testing the skills we had just learned. We all got insanely muddy, but it was incredibly fun. After lunch, we headed to a presentation by a local Rotary leader. He informed us of the countless options available for students our age, Rotarians or not. Programs such as RYLA, Interact, and Youth Exchange were brought up, each with their own exciting possibilities.
After, we stumbled around a ropes course, tiring ourselves out for dinner. Annalise Carr, long-distance swimmer and conqueror of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, gave us a world-bending speech. She extolled on our abilities as humans, no matter how big or small. Afterward, she let us ask questions. We were all wondering how she managed to eat during her 27 hours swims.
On Sunday, each cabin had to give a presentation on the subject of their choosing. We were told to focus more on the solution than the problem. The goal was to influence fellow members and inspire change in our respective communities. Presentation topics ranged from mental illness to student debt. No stone was left unturned.
“I will admit that in the very beginning, I was so nervous,” said McKenna Kaleta, as we drove home. “I started to second-guess myself and felt that I lacked leadership skills. Walking into my cabin, I did not know what to expect. I am so glad to have been exposed to such an amazing group of people. Seeing all of us working together—amazing!”
“This experience was nothing like what I expected!” said Adrian de Orbe. “It was a super enjoyable weekend and there was so much energy and compassion between everyone. It was incomparable to anything else. Really brought out the best in me!”
“It was crazy to me when I got asked to go to the SLAPSHOT conference,” said Allison Calarco. “My mind was racing about what the people would be like or if my cabin group would accept me. My worries soon disappeared when I stepped into a cabin full of smiles and laughs. Being accepted was great, but the moments were shared as a group, I will hold forever. The activities encouraged me in the sense of doing something great in our community. I would go again!”
SLAPSHOT was life-changing for everyone involved, myself included. We met people from all over the world: Canada, Syria, Germany, Bolivia and more. We learned that we all had something valuable to give.
And above all, we learned that the world is ours for the changing.