Rotary Celebrates 100 Years of Volunteer Service 25 February 2005
On February 23, 1905, a young Chicago lawyer named Paul Harris and three friends formed a club to foster mutual trust and cooperation in business. Their goal was to recreate the atmosphere of camaraderie and friendship they experienced growing up in small-town America.
Because they rotated meetings between their offices, they called themselves the Rotary Club.
As the club grew, its members recognized their potential to help others and soon adopted community service as Rotary’s main objective. Early service projects included providing a horse to a local doctor and building downtown Chicago’s first public restroom.
This spirit of volunteerism, unique at the time, quickly caught on, and over the next 100 years Rotary grew from a single club into a diverse international network of 1.2 million business and professional leaders united by their commitment to service. Rotary International now supports more than 30,000 clubs in 166 countries. Rotary clubs work to improve their own communities and partner with other clubs on international service projects that promote world peace and understanding by addressing society’s most pressing problems, including hunger, poverty, disease, and illiteracy. Rotary is non-religious and non-political and welcomes men and women of all faiths, cultures, and ethnic backgrounds
As an organization, Rotary’s top goal is to halt the transmission of polio worldwide. In partnership with other major international groups and national governments, Rotary has helped immunize more than two billion children against this paralyzing and sometimes fatal disease. Since 1985, when Rotary launched its PolioPlus program, the incidence of polio has dropped by 99 percent.
Decades ago, as Rotary began to reach other parts of the world, some questioned whether the movement could succeed outside the United States. However, a Japanese lawyer and diplomat countered: “Rotary will bring about harmony and rightful understanding among peoples of the world who differ widely in descent, historical background, language, religious faith and economic conditions.”
History proved him correct. Through volunteerism, Rotary club members of diverse backgrounds learn tolerance and understanding by focusing on common goals rather than personal or cultural differences. This is what Rotary is about.
The thief is polio, a highly infectious but easily preventable disease forgotten by many in the developed world. Yet, polio continues to cripple and sometimes kill children in parts of Asia and Africa. But if Rotary International’s 1.2 million members have their way, this could be polio’s final year.
Rotary declared war on polio in 1985 with the launch of its PolioPlus program. Since then, Rotary members have devoted countless hours and contributed millions of dollars toward the goal of immunizing all of the world’s children against the disease. To date, Rotary has contributed over $500 million to the cause and has helped convince national governments worldwide to commit more than $1.7 billion. The goal is within reach.
“We’re in this until polio is declared a disease of the past,” vows Dave Groner, a Rotary club member in Dowagiac, Mich., who has led 12 teams of volunteers to India and West Africa for massive immunization drives.
For as little as 60 cents worth of oral vaccine, a child can be protected for life. “No child today should suffer from polio, because an effective vaccine has made this cruel disease totally preventable,” says Glenn E. Estess Sr., president of Rotary International.
Tremendous progress has been made. Rotary -- in partnership with the World Health Organization, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and UNICEF -- has slashed the number of cases by 99 percent since the 1980s, when approximately 1,000 children were infected by polio every day. In 2004, only about 1,500 cases were recorded worldwide.
Yet the final one percent is proving to be the most challenging. To achieve eradication, every child, even those in remote regions further isolated by poverty and civil unrest, must receive the vaccine. But Rotary remains determined to overcome any and all barriers.
In 2005, as Rotary members celebrate the organization’s 100th anniversary, they also celebrate their determination and vision to stop polio. Its eradication will be Rotary’s legacy to the world’s children.
One of Rotary’s strengths is its ability to effectively address the most basic human needs, so when Glenn E. Estess Sr., the organization’s current international president, learned how many families worldwide do not have access to safe drinking water, he took action.
“In the United States and other developed countries, people often take clean water for granted, but in many parts of the developing world, safe water is a scarce luxury,” says Estess, who made the issue a major emphasis for his term.
Worldwide, more than 1.1 billion people lack access to safe drinking water, according to Ron Denham of Rotary International’s Water Resources Task Force, and the toll on human health is enormous. The United Nations estimates that about 6,000 children die every day due to a lack of clean water, mostly from diseases spread through contaminated water. Some estimates are much higher.
And it’s not just a health issue. In many communities, women and children spend hours each day trekking to and from water sources, diverting precious time and energy away fro more productive activities, such as jobs, education and family life.
Denham notes that Rotary clubs now operate in 166 countries, many in the developing world where the water issue is a crucial concern. Clubs in developed countries often partner with those in the affected regions to address the problem.
Examples of Rotary club projects include:
“You might say each project is just a drop in the ocean,” says Denham. “But when we get so many clubs working on projects that may help a thousand people each, it does make a difference.”
About one billion people worldwide are illiterate, and Rotarians are determined to do something about it.
According to UNESCO, 98 percent of the world's illiterate population lives in developing countries, about half in India and China. In Africa, more than half of the population is illiterate. Most of them are women, and more than 130 million school-age African children do not attend classes.
In addition, millions more -- including people in developed countries -- are functionally illiterate, meaning they cannot read and write at the levels necessary to succeed in daily life.
“Literacy is primarily a chance for a better life,” says retired educator Eileen Gentilcore, a Rotary member and a leader in literacy programs. “We’re discovering that most Rotary clubs and districts are involved in some sort of literacy program.”
In the U.S., club projects include one-on-one mentoring, adopt-a-school programs, providing books to new mothers, and donating dictionaries and computers to schools in disadvantaged areas. International initiatives include:
· The Concentrated Language
Encounter (CLE) program, a low-cost, easily adapted method of teaching
basic reading and writing skills in developing countries. Developed
by Australian Rotarians, CLE has raised literacy rates in Thailand,
South Africa, Bangladesh and other countries.
Another international priority is to educate women and girls, who make up three fifths of the total illiterate population. Innovative projects focused on women are now underway in Nigeria and Afghanistan, among other countries.
“The possibilities are endless,”
Gentilecore says of Rotary’s literacy work. “There is
something for everyone. You can sign up to read to children for an
hour a day, or you can volunteer to go to another country and teach.
The hands-on aspect of what Rotary is able to do is simply bottomless.”
Rotary Centers Groom Tomorrow’s Peacemakers
In addition to promoting world peace and understanding by supporting humanitarian service projects worldwide, Rotary takes a direct approach by helping to educate future generations of leaders and diplomats.
Each year, up to 70 scholars enroll in seven Rotary Centers for International Studies in peace and conflict resolution, which offer graduate programs in conflict resolution, peace studies and international relations. The centers are located on the campuses of International Christian University, Tokyo; University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia; University of Bradford, Bradford, West Yorkshire, England; Sciences Po, Paris, France; Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, North Carolina; University of California-Berkeley, California: Universidad del Salvador, Buenos Aires, Argentina.
“Just imagine the impact that this international network of individuals, dedicated to peace and conflict resolution, can have on humankind,” says Duane Sterling, a member of the Rotary Centers Committee, which oversees the Peace Centers program. “I’ve met three classes of scholars so far, and there are some outstanding leaders that I believe we’ll be hearing about in the next 10 to 25 years.”
Before she became a peace scholar at
the Rotary Center in North Carolina, Edem Patricia Effiong directed
AIDS prevention and awareness programs in Lagos, Nigeria.
Arthur Romano, a Peace Scholar from the United States studying on the University of Bradford campus, hopes to make a difference by passing on conflict resolution strategies to young people.
“To be able to discuss ideas of what’s working and what’s not has been a tremendous experience,” says Romano, who has organized peace events in New York. “Being able to creatively solve conflict and promote peace is what I hope to do with my life.”
In December 2004, the Seattle University
graduate was in Sri Lanka on a research project when Southeast Asia
was ravaged by a giant tsunami that claimed more than 150,000 lives
and destroyed entire communities. Sri Lanka was especially hard hit.
Granted, Johnson’s tsunami experience was not “typical” for an Ambassadorial Scholar, but it does underscore the fact that the world’s largest privately funded international scholarships program for university level studies has the potential to change lives in very real ways. The purpose of the program, which sponsors undergraduates, graduate students and qualified professionals, is to promote international understanding and goodwill between people of different countries -- a goal Johnson’s impromptu volunteerism exemplified.
While living and studying abroad, scholars give presentations about their homelands and act as ambassadors of goodwill. After returning home, they share what they learned during their scholarships. The program was established in 1947 and has awarded over $428 million in grants to more than 36,000 scholars.
Many Ambassadorial Scholars have gone on to become government leaders and career diplomats. They include Vassilis Vassilikos, an influential writer and the Permanent Representative for Greece at the United Nations; Sadako Ogata, former United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees; Edward W. Gnehm, who has served as the U.S. Ambassador to Jordan, Australia and Kuwait; and Sir William Deane, former Justice of the High Court of Australia.
Another former Ambassadorial Scholar making a difference is Ling Ling Phung, now a technical designer for an international development consulting firm in Arlington, VA. As a scholar in Senegal in 2003, Phung helped to restructure the Dakar Women’s Credit Union. She and two other scholars also launched an elementary school lunch program that now feeds 166 at-risk children. The three continue to raise money for the school program.
“I wanted to know whether working
to alleviate poverty is what I want to do with my life, and I found
out that it is,” says Phung. “My time in Senegal helped
to define my path.”