I had just survived my first year of high school, and I was exhausted. I excelled in my advanced courses, immersed myself in extracurricular activities, and worked a full time job to support my academic travels and struggling family. Yet, it wasn’t the heavy workload or eventful lifestyle that was exhausting, it was the smiling and pretending through it all that had drained me.

In class, I was both the try-hard and the jokester. At home, I was the middle child, and, indeed, the instigator. Anywhere else, however, I was indiscernibly lost.

For the longest time, I refused to be recognized as anything but confident and collected. I refused to share my struggles in fear of diminishing my reputation as the strong-minded and independent young lady that others knew me to be. I refused to be vulnerable.

Like most 15 year olds, I thought I knew everything – and, like most 15 year olds, I was naturally wrong. I stuck with the notion that tangible success would ultimately balance the uneasiness that rented out the only vacant space in my mind. I casually ignored the constant urge to accept my inadequacies and, instead, survived off the praise from my many role models and supporters.

It was not until later that very summer that I met my match. I can recall my mother walking into my room, unannounced as usual. She asked me if I had ever wanted to travel to Peru, in which my teen self sensibly replied, “is that even a question?” She then handed me the telephone and excited the room.

The woman on the phone ardently informed me about Wellfit Girls, a new leadership and empowerment program aimed to inspire teen girls through an opportunity that would take the group from the beaches of Naples to the peaks of Peru. She also shared her vision of documenting the five-month journey through a full-length film, later titled “Warrior One.”

Little did I know that this overzealous woman would come to be the voice that finally balanced the uneasiness I had been hesitant to acknowledge existed. Little did she know, that this 15-year-old girl would continue to remind her four years later.

Jill Wheeler is what you call a visionary – a woman who demonstrates that ideas can become actions that will eventually blossom into movements. By founding Wellfit Girls, Jill founded a movement to empower girls to climb high in all aspects of life.

As a young leaders, I admired Wheeler’s tenacious spirit and impressive accomplishments. Contrastingly, I found it difficult to identify her weaknesses and, at times, even questioned if she had any. We bonded closely over our shared leadership qualities, and slowly learned of one another’s stories during our trek through the Lares trail.

From the first grueling workouts, to the final steps up Huayana Picchu, she taught me to embrace my inner warrior, and reach for life’s highest summits. She taught me that being a leader doesn’t mean being strong all the time. She taught me that allowing oneself to become vulnerable in powerful.

My time with the Wellfit Girls program has truly been a transformational journey of self-discovery, adventure and empowerment. I have been able to share my own leadership stories and generously listen to those who aspire to make their own. By venturing outside of my boundaries, I have found a new place within myself, and continue to support the movement to empower others.

I often like to say that I was raised by a village. And, while the bubble that is Naples may not speak to the imagery of a rural neighborhood or a small rustic town, it was nonetheless a village – a community that I relied on for the majority of my life. I have had many extraordinary villagers invest in my endeavors and serve as invaluable mentors to me over the years, but Wheeler will forever be that voice reminding me to “Go Within to Go Beyond.”


Riley Zuccarello participated in Wellfit Girls in 2015. She is currently studying international affairs at Florida State University.