[dropcap]T[/dropcap]his weekend, the Ryan Nece girls and myself were given the life-changing opportunity to attend the first-ever Riley’s Way Leadership Retreat. I can’t exactly say what I expected from this experience, but I do know that my expectations were more than exceeded. Upon arrival, my jaw dropped at the serenity and beauty that Timber Lake had to offer. After settling into our cabins, we got the chance to explore the camp and take in all the fresh (actually fall-like) weather. Even though I was excited to be there, I was still a little nervous about what exactly the weekend may entail. I was somewhat knowledgeable about why exactly the Riley’s Way Foundation was created, but it wasn’t until Riley’s dad himself gave an emotional testimonial about the origins of this initiative that I truly understood the importance and dedication that he has for inspiring the next generation of leaders. Riley’s father was so raw about the experience that him and the community faced with the loss of Riley, and how their loss of such a kindhearted little girl was the reason for their burning desire to continue her legacy of kindness. Something in particular that he said to us that will stick with me forever is when her father said, “Riley was going to be a powerful leader like every one of you girls sitting here.” Though I didn’t know Riley personally, I felt such a connection to her and hearing her father’s words about her devotion to kindness and his faith in us made me realize how important this retreat is, and how necessary it is to continue her legacy of empathetic leadership. This emotional testimonial lit a fire under me and got me excited for how I may be able to carry out her kindness in my own ways. Throughout the day, we reflected on our vision for a greater tomorrow and attended various workshops about being an effective and empathetic leader, led by the staff and Ian, Riley’s father. Through these activities, I gained powerful insight on how to be a successful leader and make proper connections with people. Whether that be through LinkedIn, email, or through face-to-face interactions, there is always someone out there who is willing to help you carry out your passion, and that is something that I have found particularly helpful. I also learned that it’s okay to be unapologetic when it comes to making a plan you are passionate about come to life, which is something that I have struggled with. Part of being a leader is being strong-willed, and I’ve found that such advice will be really useful for me as I continue on my journey of being a community leader. A general theme of the whole weekend was that we are the next generation of powerful leaders and that we should feel empowered to change our world as Riley would have. The amount of support and encouragement I have felt from this experience is inexplicable, and it was so powerful to see other girls with a passion for leadership doing impactful things for their communities. Later in the day on Saturday, Kara and I attended a teen-led workshop by a girl from the Bronx in New York by the name of Nicole, that was about women being represented in literature. This girl had worked with her community to start up a book club and facilitate conversations about how lots of curriculum in schools today portray Eurocentric lives/people and fail to consider the portrayal of all walks of life. It was so fascinating to see how a young girl like us used her passion for reading to better her community and get people talking about the misrepresentation of minorities in “classic” literature. After the session, Kara and I were able to exchange book recommendations with other girls there, and it’s safe to say I’ll be busy reading for the next few months. The last session of the teen-led workshops I attended was that of a girl from Ohio by the name of Meagan who spoke on what it means to be a “changemaker”. This girl was so sweet and driven and gave us a comprehensive presentation on how to get your idea off the group, and how we could get involved in innovation organizations as she had. She started a nonprofit called “Books for Bedtime” which she has been devoting her time to for over 5 years, and has collected 100,000+ books for underprivileged students. It was so inspirational to see some of the ways in which these girls from all over the country were putting their passion to good use, and making a real impact on their communities. From that moment on, I knew I could do the same too. There is no act too small to make an impact. I also gained an even deeper appreciation for the Ryan Nece Foundation, and how empowering to be apart of. This weekend made me realize how valuable our work is, and how much I am going to miss the SSP once high school comes to an end. Not only did I learn so much about being a leader, but I also grew so much closer to all of the Ryan Nece Foundation girls as well. I want to personally thank Toiaya and Allison for coming with us on this trip, and being there for all of us 24/7. Also, shout out to Toiaya for saving us from the spider in the bathroom on Sunday. Anyways, I cannot express enough gratitude for the experiences I have been granted this weekend. I have been so touched by the sheer passion and drive I have seen from the girls here, and how dedicated the Riley’s Way Foundation is to inspiring the next generation of change-makers. I feel a new sense of empowerment, and truly learned what it means to me to be a kind leader. I will hold these memories and lessons with me forever, and I feel so blessed to get just a small glimpse of the powerful girls that are going to change the world with me someday. Riley’s Way is my way, and I can only hope that Riley’s kindness shines through everything I do.