(Mike Darnold, who founded RYLA in District 5320 and continues to oversee the program, has hundreds of these stories. I heard Paola speak at President-Elect Training Seminar (PETS) about 10 years ago. This is her story.)
Paola Ruiz was just 14 when her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Being the oldest child, she took over the cooking, cleaning, paying the bills and taking care of her younger sister and brother before tackling her homework each evening.
Her mom was insistent that Paola remain in school; telling her that education was the key to her future.
Early in her junior year at Paramount High School, Paola was selected by her Interact Club to attend RYLA. She and her mother were both excited about the opportunity.
Three days before the start of RYLA, Paola’s mother died. Paola felt she should stay home. And some of her relatives thought it was wrong that she was leaving to “have fun.” But her father explained to them that Paola going to RYLA was his wife’s final wish.
The first day at RYLA was really tough and Paola didn’t participate much. Her “RYLA Mom,” Rotarian Melody Saint John, asked her what was wrong so she shared about her mother's death.
Melody encouraged her to share her story with her RYLA family. She did and the other RYLA students gave her overwhelming support and lots of hugs.
When RYLA was over, Melody handed her an envelope. The Rotarians at RYLA had passed the hat and collected money to help pay for her mother’s funeral.
The following year, Paola fulfilled her mother’s wish by becaming the first person in her family to graduate from high school. Out of a graduating class of 2,000, she was the Valedictorian. She had also won a Gates Millenium Scholarship to attend college.
Rotary continued to be at her side all through college, helping with things not covered by her scholarship. Like a laptop. And a warm coat.
During her breaks at college she honored her mother by volunteering as a counselor at Camp Kesem, a student-run camp for kids of parents with cancer. A camp much like RYLA.
Paola graduated from college in 2016, again with honors and better than a 4.0 GPA.
She moved back to her family home in Paramount, Once again helping care for her family.
You see, her father had developed stage 4 cancer.
Paola went back to college in 2019. This time to USC, where she received her Masters degree. She currently works as Principal FTL Systems Engineer at Northrop Grumman.
Paola is just one story. There are hundreds more stories about the kids RYLA and Rotary has either helped or saved.