I was recently back in Pennsylvania to spend a week as a camp counselor for upcoming high school seniors. The camp is called RYLA and it stands for Rotary Youth Leadership Award. Both my older brothers and I attended when we were 17 and last year, I was fortunate to be able to go back as a speaker and present about The Smile Project.
I always talk about The Smile Project as being one of those things that changed my life, 180-ed my world, flipped me upside down. But The Smile Project wouldn’t exist without a four letter camp that would come to be the best week of my life. And that four letter camp wouldn’t exist without Frank.
Down the hill from my house stood an old blue farmhouse with a dried up swimming pool in the back and a gigantic farming shed to the side. There was an old well and an old bell and the Ginkgo trees assured that I had the coolest leaf during the foliage project in fifth grade science class.
There were apple trees off to the side and every season, we would go down and pick them, ducking from swarming insects who thought they were the rightful owners of the sweet fruit. The best apples would turn into pies and sauces – all homemade - but the bruised up apples, well, those went to Sweetie.
Sweetie was an old white horse who lived at the farmhouse. I would feed her apples and sugar cubes and I was taught from a young age that I had to keep my palm flat so she wouldn’t think my finger was a carrot and bite it.
Down the hill from my house stood an old blue farmhouse and in that old blue farmhouse lived an old man named Frank. Frank would show me how the old well would have been pumped and he let me ring the old bell. He showed me all the different trees in his yard and even let me climb onto the giant tractor in the aforementioned gigantic farming shed. I would bring him apple pie and he would let me feed Sweetie.
He was the perfect neighbor by every definition. He was like another grandfather to me, just one that lived right down the road. Growing up, I owe a lot of happiness to Frank. But as I’ve come to realize these past few days, he’s given me a lot more than just king sized candy bars on Halloween and cat sitting gigs in high school.
Frank was a member of Rotary. That means that he was eligible to nominate people every year for the RYLA camp. It was on his word that both my brothers and I got to attend. It was because of him that my entire life changed.
When I think of the single thing in my life that has had the most profound influence on me as a person, I can with confidence say it was my week as a camper at RYLA 7280 in 2011.
My week at RYLA as a camper was life changing. Yes, it was a lot of fun and I made friends from all over the state, but it was so much more than that. RYLA taught me the importance of kindness and patience and friendship. It showed me how to love limitlessly and how to listen to everyone’s story – what was said and what wasn’t. It taught me compassion and passion and how to believe in dreams. RYLA made me have dreams.
RYLA gave me confidence I didn’t know I could have. It made me the best version of myself.
And I owe that to Frank.
I took the feeling of RYLA with me everywhere I went and no matter what was going on in my life – I knew I had my RYLA family with me. They – knowingly or not – got me through some of the most difficult situations in my life.
RYLA also inspired me. And inspired doesn’t even feel like a big enough word, but without RYLA, you wouldn’t be reading this.
Because without RYLA, The Smile Project doesn’t exist.
I know that had I not had the amazing wake-up call kind of week that RYLA gave me as a camper in June of 2011, then I would have never had the joy in my heart to post a Day 1 of Happiness in November of 2011.
And I’ve written many times about how The Smile Project has changed my life – and it certainly has. But without RYLA it doesn’t exist and so for all the ways RYLA has changed my life and all the ways The Smile Project has changed my life I owe that to Frank.
Because without Frank, I wouldn’t have gone to RYLA. And without RYLA, I wouldn’t have created The Smile Project.
And so if you have ever had a bad day brightened by a “Happiness is” status than you too, owe that to Frank.
In September 2013, Frank passed away at the age of 90.
I wrote a short note around that time as a way of coping with his passing and ended with this paragraph:
"I believe he is the vision of success. Not only was he extremely dedicated and hard working in every aspect of his life, but he cared. He was kind. He took care of people. He was successful not only for what he was, but for his personality and how he treated people. I can only hope that in 71 years, I can look back at my life and be proud of what I did. More importantly though, I hope I can make a difference in the lives of my community just as Frank did."
I’ve always admired Frank for the good he did in my community, but in recent weeks, I’ve come to realize just how far his influence has gone.
He was one person. He did one thing. He sent me to RYLA. RYLA inspired me. I started a happiness campaign. Without knowing it, he was an integral part of the formation of The Smile Project as it stands today.
Any part of that success traces back to RYLA and any part of that traces back to him sending me there.
I will never be able to properly articulate how much this one-week summer camp means to me… so I’ll stop trying. But I do want to leave one strong message:
I am happy. And I owe that to Frank.
And if The Smile Project has ever made you happy, you too, owe that to Frank.
Because of merchandise sales over the course of one week, The Smile Project was able to donate $370 to the RYLA 7280 program to ensure that these high school students continue to benefit from the same organization that shaped me into the person I am today.
And that too, I owe to Frank.