The Rockford Rotary Club’s signature program, the Rotary Academy, exists to serve youths of the community. About 240 students participate each year.

Rotary Club Investing in Rockford’s Young Leaders

Rotary Academy, the Rockford Rotary Club’s signature program, has impacted the lives of area middle school students for nearly two decades. Find out what why students find this program so beneficial.

The Rockford Rotary Club’s signature program, the Rotary Academy, exists to serve youths of the community. About 240 students participate each year.
The Rockford Rotary Club’s signature program, the Rotary Academy, exists to serve youths of the community. About 240 students participate each year.

At its core, the Rockford Rotary Club is all about serving the youths of the Rockford community. The organization’s signature program, the Rotary Academy, has impacted thousands of middle school-aged youths in the area since the early 2000s.

Taking place from fall through spring during the school year, the Rotary Academy gives students the confidence they need to stay in school and pursue their life goals.

“What better way to make our community better than by getting our youths ready to become contributing adults in the community, both in the jobs that they do and the volunteer service that they do?” says Dave Byrnes, president of the Rockford Rotary Club.

At 103 years old, the Rockford chapter of the Rotary Club is one of the earliest clubs passed by the national organization, according to Byrnes. The Rotary Club originally started in Chicago as a way for members of the business community to socialize and do some good in their hometown, but it’s grown into an international service organization with millions of members across the globe.

Locally, the Rockford chapter has 117 members who meet every Thursday at Memorial Hall.

Byrnes says the Rockford chapter has always had a passion for helping youths. “One of the earliest projects that the Rotary Club started was a summer camp for children south of Rockford,” he says. “It was something where no child was ever turned away for cost or any other circumstances. It was for all the children of Rockford.”

Longtime Rockford residents will remember that place as Camp Rotary, which closed in the 1970s.

After Camp Rotary closed, the Rockford Rotary Club continued to work with youths in various capacities by offering scholarships, reading programs and other services, but they were still looking for a signature project with which to replace it. So, the Rockford Rotary teamed up with the YMCA of Rock River Valley to form a committee to figure out how they could best serve the local youths.

“After further research, the committee discovered that ninth grade is the grade when most kids drop out of school,” says Linda Johnson, chair of the Rotary Academy. “So, if we could get them involved in something at the eighth-grade level, perhaps that would carry over and keep them going in ninth grade.”

It took a couple of years to develop the program, but it finally launched in 2002 in partnership with the Rockford Public Schools, Anderson Japanese Gardens and the YMCA of Rock River Valley. Today, nine middle schools participate in the program.

The Makings of Confident Leaders

While the visits to Anderson Gardens didn’t become a mainstay of the academy curriculum, leadership skills, community service, and confidence-building quickly became the core goals of the program.

The YMCA now visits students at their schools and does hands-on activities that teach leadership skills, while Rotary Club members teach students the Rotarian “Four-Way Test,” which has students ask themselves four questions before saying or doing something: Is it the truth? Is it fair? Will it build goodwill and better friendship? Will it be beneficial to all concerned?

Johnson says she offers real-life applications to the “Four-Way Test” so the students better understand how to use those questions in real-life situations.

“I will introduce the idea, and I will have them apply it to using their cellphones,” says Johnson. “So, you’re getting ready to send a text or an Instagram post. Whatever method you’re going to use, these are the four questions you should ask yourself about that message.”

And each school chooses a community service project to work on throughout the duration of the program. The projects students have chosen over the years have been diverse, including fundraisers for animal shelters, holiday activities at nursing homes, walkathons, volunteering at food pantries, and reading for students at various schools. Lincoln Middle School students once won an award for their paper recycling project for Keep Northern Illinois Beautiful, says Johnson.

After the students implement their projects, they must evaluate the results of their work and present it to the club.

The program culminates in a dinner at Giovanni’s Restaurant in the spring, where students, their families and program coordinators can celebrate the students’ hard work. Each school selects a couple of students to come to the stage to say a few words about what participating in the program has meant to them, and awards are given out for manners and etiquette and for the person who exemplifies the qualities of the YMCA.

The Evolution of the Academy

When a program has been around for as long as the Rotary Academy, you expect the curriculum to evolve with the changing needs of participants. That’s exactly what Johnson and the other Academy committee members did when they saw unmet needs within the Academy curriculum.

In fact, that’s how the etiquette and manners portion of the program got added.

After running the Rotary Academy for several years, the Rotary Club realized students weren’t prepared for sit-down dinners or college visits, so they added classes that taught the students things like how to shake hands, make eye contact, politely leave a dinner table to use a bathroom and maintain personal hygiene.

Johnson says she sees a big difference after the students go through the classes.

“I see it when I go out, and the kids … they’re willing to come up and shake my hand and look me in the eye and say ‘Hi, I’m so-and-so,’” says Johnson. “I’ve seen it at the tables at Giovanni’s, where the kids are helping their parents.”

The Rotary Club has also added visits to Rock Valley College and Rockford University so students can have some of their first college visit experiences. Johnson says the hope is that students will see there are many options available to them, such as certification programs, two-year degrees and four-year degrees.

Finding Confidence on the High Ropes

One aspect of the Rotary Academy that hasn’t changed since its inception 17 years ago is that the students’ first experience in the program is on the high ropes course at Camp Winnebago. Johnson says the high ropes course is a vital part of the program because it hooks kids into the experience and helps them build self-confidence early on.

“You go way up this huge, very tall tower,” says Byrnes, “and you have to walk on these ropes back and forth between the supporting poles, and then you have to take a zip-line down to the bottom.”

Both Johnson and Byrnes say it’s the most talked-about part of the program, with many students telling them they never thought they could do something like that. Johnson says the kids on the ground cheer on and support the kids who are trying to get across, so it’s also an incredible bonding experience.

“And after doing the high ropes course, you can almost see a difference in their body postures – how they carry themselves,” says Johnson. “Like, ‘Hey, that’s what I just did. I can’t believe I just did that.’ It has been probably the thing that the kids remember most about their time in Rotary Academy.”

A Sought-After Program

Today, getting into the Rotary Academy has become competitive because so many Rockford-area kids have found the program beneficial.

During one year-end celebration dinner, Johnson says, a student shared how they had felt suicidal before being chosen to participate in Rotary Academy; they hadn’t made friends and didn’t feel like they fit in at school. But, according to Johnson, the student said participating in the program saved their life.

“We’ve had kids cry because they couldn’t get in,” says Johnson. “We’ve had parents who called because their firstborn child was in it three years ago; how come their second-born child doesn’t get in? But it’s an honor and a real compliment to have kids want to be part of it.”

Each school selects which students will participate, so sometimes the schools will have students write letters explaining why they think they should be admitted. Johnson says the Rotary Club has received many moving letters from students and parents telling them why a student should be allowed to participate.

The Rotary Academy can only accept 240 students each year, which is about 27 students from each school.

“The Rotarians really feel that kids are the future of this city,” says Johnson. “So, if we want our city to continue to grow and be a viable place for young people to live, we need to invest our money in youth and hopefully help them become leaders and citizens who are productive, who bring something positive to our community, who live here, come back here after college. So, it’s an opportunity to invest in the future of our city, and we think that’s a win-win.”