Rotary News

Liberian nurse fights for peace

A nurse fights for peace

In a nation once wracked by civil war, Liberian Rotarian Elizabeth Sele Mulbah has spent much of her life leading efforts for peace and reconciliation.

A past president (2011-12) of the Rotary Club of Sinkor, Mulbah has a remarkable résumé. She began her career as a nurse, moved into teaching and administration, took on a leadership role at the Christian Health Association of Liberia, and worked at the United Nations Development Program.

She’s a co-founder of the Mano River Women Peace Network (Marwopnet), and through that organization played a major role in multinational diplomacy. She’s also an in-demand speaker, giving lectures at places such as the Carter Center and the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Illustration by Monica Garwood

Q: You started your career as a nurse but soon moved into administration, where you advocated for change in the profession. What were you seeking to change and improve in nursing? 

A: I’ve worked in training, counseling, and advocating for equal benefits, such as the right to the same period for maternity leave for working women whether married or not. I’ve advocated for on-the-job training for all, including support staff such as nurses’ aides. 

Q: You became active in peace work in the 1990s, during the Liberian civil war. How did that come about?

A: Women in Liberia were disappointed at the failure of previous peace conferences. Liberians were tired of war. In 1995, Marion Subah and I, who were working at the Christian Health Association of Liberia, were approved by heads of warring factions to facilitate a meeting to prepare them for the next peace conference. The planned one-day meeting extended to four days, and all parties were represented. It was successful.

Q: What are the origins of Marwopnet?

A: It began in 2000 when 10 women leaders from NGOs in the region came together to convince the leaders of Liberia and Guinea to return to the conference table until peace was achieved. We did this after learning that the two leaders had vowed not to sit under the same roof. They did return to the conference table, and peace was achieved. 

Today we shuttle between the leaders of the four Mano River countries (Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Côte d’Ivoire), and when the need arises, we serve as election observers in these nations. Women as mothers are born peacemakers. 

Q: After the Liberian civil war, you worked in reconciliation and trauma healing. What exactly were you doing?

A: We first underwent our own training and then provided training for those traumatized by the war. We focused on teachers, health workers, and pastors to make sure conflicts were not transferred to the hospitals, schools, and churches where victims and perpetrators were bound to come together or interact. The goal was forgiveness.

Q: What organizations are you most active in today?

A: I am vice chair of the Governance Commission, which was created by the Accra peace accord in 2003 after Liberia’s most recent civil war, to design policies and recommend strategies to establish an inclusive, participatory, just, and accountable system of government. 

Q: What is your guiding philosophy in life?

A: That it does not matter who gets the credit when something is done to benefit mankind. And that no one is here by mistake.

– Anne Stein 

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Rotary women celebrated for changing lives

World Bank and Rotary International celebrate International Women’s Day

By Ryan Hyland
Photographs by Karen Sayre

Three Rotary women were recognized on 7 March at the World Bank in Washington, D.C., USA, for their commitment to improving lives through innovative humanitarian projects. 

The celebration, hosted by the World Bank Group Staff Association, and sponsored by Rotary International and investment firm Oppenheimer & Co., was one of many events held this week to mark International Women’s Day, which is on 8 March each year. It highlighted the positive changes women make around the world. Annette Dixon, vice president of the World Bank for South Asia, moderated the event. 

  1. Dr. Geetha Jayaram, a member of the Rotary Club of Howard West, Maryland, USA, addresses mental health issues for poor women in developing countries.

  2. Danielle De La Fuente, a member of the Rotary Club of Coronado Binacional, California, USA, shares how her organization, The Amal Alliance, empowers refugee children around the world.

  3. Marie-Irène Richmond-Ahoua, past PolioPlus chair for Côte d’Ivoire, talks about the strides Africa has made toward becoming polio free.

Speaking to more than 300 people, with thousands watching the livestream, Dr. Geetha Jayaram, Marie-Irène Richmond Ahoua, and Danielle De La Fuente, all Rotarians,  told their stories and explained how their work helped poor women in India gain access to mental health care, vaccinate hundreds of thousands against polio in West Africa, and empower refugee children around the world. 

“These are women of action who are making a huge contribution to the world,” Dixon said. “They have given a lot of themselves to their initiatives and are playing a leadership role for many women.”

Jayaram, a member of the Rotary Club of Howard West, Maryland, USA, and a recipient of the Rotary Global Alumni Service to Humanity Award, told the audience that her mental health clinic has provided nearly 2,000 poor people, mostly women, each year with comprehensive care in more than 200 villages in southern India. 

The Maanasi Clinic, founded by Jayaram, has been recognized by the World Health Organization for its effort to advance mental health care in developing countries. Its services also focus on vision, hearing, geriatric care, and vocational rehabilitation. The clinic, which operates in partnership with St. John’s Medical College, has received funding from the Rotary Club of Columbia, Maryland, and Rotary grants. In total, the clinic has reached nearly six million housholds since it began in 2002.

“I never expected I would feel so fulfilled and gratified by these women who have so little, who will welcome you in their home and share their most intimate details of their lives,” Jayaram said. “That is a large gift to me and our workers.”

Jayaram is an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland, USA

Marie-Irène Richmond-Ahoua, a member of the Rotary Club of Abidjan-Bietry, Côte d’Ivoire, talks with audience members at the International Women’s Day celebration at the World Bank in Washington, D.C., USA.

Marie-Irène Richmond-Ahoua, a member of the Rotary Club of Abidjan-Bietry, Côte d’Ivoire, served as Rotary’s PolioPlus chair for her country and now helps coordinate immunization activities in West Africa. She is an international communications consultant and worked as an outreach adviser for the United Nations Operation in Côte d’Ivoire. 

Richmond-Ahoua was recognized by Bill Gates at the 2017 Rotary Convention in Atlanta for her role in polio eradication and peace.  

“Volunteering has brought me much happiness, and some tears. It has allowed me to see the world through different lenses,” Richmond-Ahoua said. “We must believe in what we are doing regardless of the challenges we will face.”

She adds: “And my greatest reward? The smile of a mother after her childr has just been immunized.” 

Danielle De La Fuente, a member of the Rotary Club of Coronado Binacional, California, USA, is co-founder of The Amal Alliance. The nonprofit group empowers refugee children around the world through social development and educational programs. She worked at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C., where she fostered good relations across the Middle East South Asia.

De La Fuente told the audience that 65 million people have been forcibly displaced worldwide, 77 percent of whom are children. “Imagine a world where children have no dreams,” De La Fuente said. “That is a reality I choose not to accept.”

“The need for compassionate people has never been greater than now,” she adds. “What is our future if our next generation is unable to dream? I call on all of you to take action and make a difference.” 

Watch the event

Nowhere to turn

As thousands of refugees streamed into Berlin, they strained the health care system. Rotarian and physician Pia Skarabis-Querfeld spent the last three years building a network of volunteer doctors to help those in need.

By Rhea Wessel
Produced by Andrew Chudzinski

On the nightly news and around her city, Pia Skarabis-Querfeld saw the refugees arriving in Berlin after fleeing war, persecution, and poverty in their home countries.

Wanting to help, she gathered a bag of clothes to donate and headed to a nearby gym filled with refugees.

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The Rotarian, a medical doctor, wanted to help, and she gathered a bag of clothes to donate to the refugees staying at a nearby gymnasium.

What began as a single act of charity eventually evolved into an all-encompassing volunteer project: Over the next three years, Skarabis-Querfeld would build and run a network that, at peak times, would include more than 100 volunteers helping thousands of refugees at community centers, tent camps, and other shelters across the city. 

Today, her nonprofit, Medizin Hilft  (Medicine Helps), continues to treat patients with nowhere else to turn.

That day she went to the gym was a few days before Christmas 2014. Skarabis-Querfeld had been busy with work and preparing for the holidays. She was looking forward to a much-needed break, and she thought clothes for the refugees would be a kind gesture befitting the spirit of the season. 

When she arrived at the gymnasium to drop off her donation, Skarabis-Querfeld found sick children, most of them untreated because hospitals in the area were overrun. Helpers were not allowed to give out pain relievers or cough syrup due to legal constraints. All they could do was send people to the emergency room if they looked extremely ill.

Seeing this, and knowing about the treacherous journeys the refugees had just made across land and sea, Skarabis-Querfeld, who is a medical doctor and Rotarian, returned that same afternoon with medical supplies and her husband, Uwe Querfeld, who is a professor of pediatrics and a Rotarian. 

The couple spent most of that holiday treating patients in the gymnasium. 

“The suffering of the people, their bitter fate, it wouldn’t let go of me,” says Skarabis-Querfeld.

‘You just don’t forget’

In 2015, the German ministry in charge of refugees received more than 1 million applications for asylum, straining the public health system. 

Germany was a popular destination during the mass migration of people from Syria and other countries with conflict, in part because Chancellor Angela Merkel embraced them. Unlike some other European leaders, Merkel said it was Germany’s responsibility to help, and she called on citizens to welcome those escaping hardship elsewhere. 

By 2017, the political winds had changed. Many Germans had become indifferent to or skeptical about the immigrants. The balance of power in Germany’s parliament shifted during the September election, and the country continues to grapple with the logistics and cost of helping refugees and their families.  

While the politics played out at the famed Riechstag building in the heart of Berlin, Skarabis-Querfeld and other volunteers were treating patients only a few kilometers away. 

“I had a young girl whose whole family was almost beaten to death because they were Christians,” says Skarabis-Querfeld, a member of the Rotary Club of Berlin-Tiergarten. “The girl began to have epilepsy after being beaten into a coma. I’m not used to seeing these kinds of scars and burns.” 

In another case, Skarabis-Querfeld treated a Syrian girl named Saida who had fever and bronchitis. When the examination was almost over, Skarabis-Querfeld noticed Saida was limping. She coaxed Saida to take off her shoes and saw both feet were infected. 

“I had seen a lot of children with small shoes on. Some had probably started walking in those shoes and worn them for one year,” Skarabis-Querfeld says.

“The soles of both feet were infected. These are things that you just don’t forget.” 

After she treated Saida with antibiotics, the girl from the war-torn country took an interest in helping at the clinic when the doctor was in. She would wait at the door half an hour before Skarabis-Querfeld arrived and delight in taking on small tasks, such as making copies. 

“Her biggest wish was to become a doctor,” Skarabis-Querfeld says. “I told her, ‘You’re a smart girl. You can do it.’”

Meeting the enormous need

In the weeks after Skarabis-Querfeld started treating patients in makeshift clinics, volunteers from every discipline began to show up looking to help the tens of thousands of refugees arriving in Berlin.

View Slideshow

Dr. Pia Skarbis-Querfeld’s Medizin Hilft project received the 2017 Berlin Health Prize for its care of refugees.

Photo by Gordon Welters/laif/Redux

During the peak of the 2015 refugee influx, Medizin Hilft had more than 100 volunteers, and she was receiving dozens of emails a day with offers of help. In addition to providing immediate care, the nonprofit conducted immunization campaigns and helped immigrants navigate the German health care system.

“Many of our volunteers felt compelled to help because we’ve got it so good here, living in a democracy with access to health care. They felt it is their humanitarian duty,” Skarabis-Querfeld says. “It became clear that we would need whole new organizational structures … to cope with this completely new situation.” 

The Rotary Club of Berlin-Nord was quick to support Skarabis-Querfeld’s nonprofit. National media took notice of her efforts. She estimated she was volunteering 20 hours a week in addition to working her regular job.

“I had moments when I thought, ‘I’m going to throw it all away, and then I’ll get my life back.’ But then my sense of responsibility kicked in again for this project that has grown so much and grown together,” she says. 

Treatment first

A steady stream of patients is treated at, a clinic funded by Medizin Hilft in the Zehlendorf neighborhood of southwest Berlin.

On a weekday in September, a Ghanaian woman named Anita visited the clinic, which consists of a few rented rooms in a naturally lit basement. Anita, a refugee, had come for pain and bleeding in her uterus, and the clinic was the only place she could turn to.

Anita lives under the radar in Berlin: unregistered, uninsured, and unable to pay for basic care. She has little chance of staying in Germany legally because Ghana is not on the government list of extremely dangerous countries.

Anita is among the roughly 15 percent of clinic patients who are either unregistered or homeless, says Dorothea Herlemann, the project coordinator.

Many patients are refugees living in temporary homes who have difficult medical problems, have not yet learned the German health care system, have no language support, or cannot find a doctor who will see them. 

Some have temporarily lost access to the health care system, usually because of paperwork problems.

“For us, it’s not important whether a refugee is registered or not. These are people who need help, and we help them. We also conduct information campaigns in their languages to help refugees learn how to use the regular health system. We are not trying to build up a parallel medical system here,” says Herlemann, whose staff position is made possible through a grant from Rotary.

Temporary home

Medizin Hilft works alongside Doctors of the World and other groups in refugee container villages.

At one such village in Ostpreussendamm in southwest Berlin, Medizin Hilft doctors see patients once a week. Meanwhile, other volunteers provide general support, helping residents to manage paperwork and begin building a life. 

The 280 residents at the Ostpreussendamm village come from Syria, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Eritrea, Somalia, Cameroun, Russia, and Togo. Many of them, including children, remain traumatized by what they experienced before fleeing to Germany.

Twenty-six-year-old Khalat Saleh is from Iraq’s Kurdistan region and uses a wheelchair. Wearing a black sweatshirt that says “Break the rules,” Saleh gives a friendly smile as he finishes a German language lesson conducted by volunteers. 

In broken German, Saleh, who has been granted political asylum, explains his daily struggle to wash and eat independently. Saleh has seen the Medizin Hilft volunteer doctors numerous times, and volunteers help him receive the care he needs. He hopes to eventually work with computers.

Karmen Ishaque is a 31-year-old Iraqi who fled religious persecution and has been approved to stay in Germany for three years. She was treated by Dr. Barbara Grube of the clinic for high blood pressure and borderline diabetes.

Ishaque lived in a camp in Zehlendorf for just a few months until she got her own room. It was a big step for Ishaque, who has been officially recognized as a refugee. 

She arrived in Germany at the beginning of 2015 and says she could imagine making her life here. She plans to get training to work as a kindergarten teacher. “I would like to marry, have kids, have a job,” she says.

Looking forward

Not every person who seeks refuge or a new life in Germany will get their affairs sorted as fast as Ishaque or have a real chance at integration. Many are being deported or asked to leave voluntarily. 

For Medizin Hilft, times have changed as well. 

“It’s much harder to attract volunteers now. On one hand, the political atmosphere changed, and on the other, news about refugees is not so front-and-center anymore,” said Dr. Laura Hatzler, who helps run the clinic.

For Hatzler, who was also part of the network from the beginning, helping Skarabis-Querfeld during those first days in the gymnasium, the work of Medizin Hilft is not finished, even if support and interest has dwindled. What keeps Hatzler going is the joy of taking action for something she believes in. 

“If you really have an idea in your mind, and you really want it, and you connect with people who have the same ideas or similar, you can really move something,” she says. 

“We have created something here that is very big and beautiful. And very needed.” 

A Rotary global grant of $160,000 will make it possible for Medizin Hilft to run the clinic and the information campaigns until March 2018. 

As Skarabis-Querfeld thinks about the ups and downs of the last three years, she worries about funding moving forward. She is also concerned about Germany’s massive task of integrating hundreds of thousands of immigrants into society and the economy.

“I am just as clueless as our politicians seem to be if you ask me where we will be in 10 years. No one can give us an answer,” she says. “But I still think about Saida, a special girl from Syria who wants to be a doctor, and I wonder what her future will look like.”

• Rhea Wessel is an American freelance writer based in Frankfurt, Germany

Rotaract: 50 years of changing lives

50 years ago, the first Rotaract club was formed to give young adults a place to connect and take action for good. Rotaract members from each decade share what the program was like and how it shaped their lives.

By Arnold R. Grahl

The year is 1968. 

A wall divides East and West Berlin, as the Cold War rages on. The U.S. and the Soviet Union are locked in a space race, and Apollo 8 becomes the first manned spacecraft to orbit the moon, sending back pictures of Earth from deep space.

And Rotary members in North Carolina, USA, charter the first Rotaract club, to provide young people opportunities for service.

A half-century has passed since those first Rotaract clubs began inspiring young leaders to take action to improve their communities. The world has changed, as has the way Rotaract members connect with one another. But the underlying values of the program, and what attracts people to it, remain remarkably the same. 

To celebrate Rotaract’s 50th anniversary, we asked former Rotaractors from six decades to share their experiences of the program and explain how it shaped their lives. 

Here are their stories.

Geetha Jayaram, a pre-med student in Bangalore, India, became charter secretary of an early Rotaract club in 1968. Her father was an influential businessman in the city, and he and his friends believed the program was the perfect place for their college-age children.

“They encouraged us to join as a group,” recalls Jayaram, who met her husband, Jay Kumar, the charter president, through the club. “We were all very happy to do it, because we were medical students, engineering students, and students of other vocations who got together and planned what projects we wanted to do. What enabled us to stick together was that on weekends we went around collecting funds for our projects and worked together.”

Within a year, Rotaract was already so established in India that a district conference in 1969 drew thousands. Jayaram believes the program took off so fast there because the need for helping others was so evident.

Geetha Jayaram, left, pictured at one of the health clinics she founded in India, was a charter secretary of a Rotaract club in 1968.

“It was visible, tangible,” she says. “It was not something you thought about doing for somebody in some faraway country. It was right there in front of you.” 

Rotary’s Four-Way Test, with its reference to “the truth,” also appealed to young people. 

“We were post-independence children and Gandhi followers, and speaking the truth was a big thing in those days,” she says. 

Jayaram says Rotaract benefited from Rotary’s reputation as a well-respected organization in India. People felt proud to belong to it. Participating in Rotary was a family activity, so many young people grew up experiencing Rotary events. 

“Every time we’d go to some picnic or concert or competition, there were always adults with children involved with all of the games and activities and food preparing,” Jayaram says. 

After finishing her bachelor’s degree, Jayaram came to the United States to pursue advanced degrees in medicine. She joined a Rotary club in Maryland in 1997 and founded the Maanasi Clinic in Mugalur, Karnataka, India, to provide mental health services to indigent women there. A former recipient of a Rotary Grant for University Teachers, she was awarded the Rotary Global Alumni Service to Humanity Award in 2014-15.  She is an associate professor in the departments of psychiatry, public health, nursing, and the Armstrong Institute for Patient Safety and Quality at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore.

“I’m really proud I’m a Rotarian,” she says. “At Johns Hopkins, I always talk about my humanitarian work and how Rotary has enabled me to do so much with very little overhead. It’s hard to find that anywhere else.”

Lunar rovers explore the surface of the moon. Skylab begins orbiting the Earth. The Vietnam War comes to an end. In Sudan and Zaire, the first outbreak of the Ebola virus occurs. On the entertainment front, the movie Star Wars premieres. The first videocassette recorders enter the market, and Sony introduces the Walkman. Disco becomes popular.

John Skerritt helped charter the Rotaract Club of Carlingford, New South Wales, Australia, in 1978, after reading a newspaper advertisement placed by local Rotarians wanting to start a Rotaract club.

“That was the way you did it before the internet or cable TV,” Skerritt says. 

The new club drew young people from many backgrounds. In Australia in the 1970s, Skerritt says, a significant number of teenagers left high school early to pursue a job in the trades, and fewer than today went on to college. And for economic reasons, many tended to live with their parents until they married or had established themselves in a career.

The Rotaract Club of Ipswich, Queensland, Australia holds a car wash as a club fundraiser in the early 1970s. Rotaract drew young people from many backgrounds.

“The area where we chartered was on the border of an affluent area, where most of the kids went on to college, but also an area that was more working class,” he recalls. “One of the exciting things about it was you actually got to meet people outside the social circles of your own suburb or high school.”

Another interesting aspect, he says, is that the club functioned as matchmaker. “We had probably seven or eight couples get married,” says Skerritt. “We had a pretty even number of boys and girls. I wasn’t one of the seven, but I went to many of their weddings and served as best man in some.”

In some ways, he contends, young people had more freedom then. He recalls two club fundraisers, one where Interact members sat on a platform on top of a pole for 100 hours, and another where the Rotaract members drove cars in a demolition derby. 

“Can you imagine a club doing that now?” he asks.

But it wasn’t all social. Members were also keenly interested in helping their community. “Bringing in speakers was a great way of exposing people to things, especially our members who’d had a more sheltered upbringing,” he says. “We had a speaker from a charity that looked after homeless people, and that was actually a great eye-opener. Many times we’d follow up with a fundraiser, like tossing burgers at the mall to raise money for the homeless.”

One charity his club supported ended up having a big influence on his career. The organization helped people with hard-to-treat epilepsy who lived in a specialized care community. Skerritt went on to research seizure medications as part of his doctoral studies, and today he is therapeutic goods administrator in Australia’s Department of Health. 

Ted Turner announces the creation of CNN. IBM begins releasing personal computers. India Prime Minister Indira Gandhi is killed by two of her bodyguards. Mikhail Gorbachev becomes leader of the Soviet Union, and the policies of glasnost and perestroika transform world politics. A nuclear accident occurs at Chernobyl. The Berlin Wall falls in 1989. Arcades are jammed with people playing Pac-Man, while elsewhere folks fiddle with the Rubik’s Cube.

In Colombo, Sri Lanka, in the early 1980s, most things shut down by 7 p.m. TV was still relatively new, and people did not own their own computers. As a result, young people turned to Rotaract for their nighttime entertainment.

You formed bonds that never go away. It’s been almost 40 years now, and we still pick up where we left off.

Nafeesa Amiruddeen

1986 Rotaract club president

Nafeesa Amiruddeen and her husband were invited to join Rotaract by another young couple they knew. “I lived with my in-laws, and they would look forward to having this group of young people over,” says Amiruddeen. “Almost every evening, we would sit for two or three hours, having little bits of snacks and tea, sometimes a meal. You formed bonds that never go away. It’s been almost 40 years now, and we still pick up where we left off.” 

At the time, since they were in the same district, Rotaract members from Sri Lanka and southern India traveled back and forth between the countries for regional assemblies and training events. This promoted cross-cultural understanding. Rotaract also served as a unifying force during Sri Lanka’s civil war.

“As Rotaract members, we were able to rally around and help quite a bit,” Amiruddeen recalls. “A lot of our members were affected by the conflict. But we were so close that although we all belonged to different minority groups, you could never tell it. We helped each other, we helped other clubs, we helped the community at large by organizing groups to go out and take food to families that could not go out of their homes.”

“When you think about it today, we, as a nation, are all about reconciliation, forgiveness, putting it in the past,” she says. “I think in Rotaract, we were doing it almost as soon as the conflict happened.”

View Slideshow

Rotaractors in England pull the Concord down a runway as a fundraiser and publicity effort.

In the early 1980s, Richard Blackman witnessed some of those unifying forces as a member of the Rotaract Club of Dover, England. His favorite memory involves helping a group of Rotaractors from the Netherlands cross the English Channel in their unique amphibious vehicle. The event was a fundraiser for Rotary’s relatively new campaign to eradicate polio, and it involved a large vehicle that seated more than two dozen Rotaractors who provided pedal power for propulsion.

Blackman helped make arrangements for the Dutch Rotaractors in London and put them in touch with a Rotarian who could get them access to the Hover port in Dover so they could get their vehicle into the water.

“There was a piece in one of the magazines with a picture of them cycling across the English Channel, and talking about this group of Rotaractors who didn’t understand that it couldn’t be done,” Blackman recalls. “And that pretty much summed up Rotaract. We rarely took no for an answer. In my experience, both then and now, Rotaractors are very forward thinking and very much have a can-do mentality.”

 “Most young people, in my experience, want to help others,” he adds. “It’s a case in a lot of instances of not knowing how to do it. Rotaract is an ideal opportunity to enable them to do something that they want to do but don’t know how.”

German reunification in 1990 ends 45 years of separation. Lech Walęsa becomes the first president of Poland since the end of World War II. The Soviet Union collapses on Christmas Day 1991. Nelson Mandela is released from prison and becomes president of South Africa four years later. The Hubble Space Telescope is launched. Pathfinder sends back images of Mars. The internet grows exponentially. Every kid wants a Furby, and Pokémon and Power Rangers rule.

Two monumental world events shaped Cyril Noirtin’s experience with the Rotaract clubs of Nancy and Paris Royale in France: the opening of Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the advent of the internet.

The Rotary district in western Europe was in charge of extending Rotary into Ukraine, and Noirtin was asked to establish Rotaract there. 

Rotaractors in Brazil circle a tree in 1993 for World Rotaract Week.

“We started from nothing,” he recalls. “We met first in Ukraine, which was just discovering the free world. It was interesting to build something together from scratch and see it evolve. They were eager to get in, and motivated like no one else I’d seen.”

The internet also began to connect the world. “When I joined, to communicate with other countries, you sent letters. If you were lucky, you had a fax,” Noirtin said. “By the end of the decade, most clubs had websites and email, and people were starting to speak of social media.

“It’s helped us reach out to others,” he adds. “Rotaract was almost a secret from Rotary. Most Rotarians didn’t know we existed, and I would meet some Rotarians who didn’t think Rotaract was a good idea. Ten years later, nobody questioned the value of the program.”

CEO of a private university in France and a Rotary representative to UNESCO, Noirtin says his experience in Rotaract benefited his career.

“I am convinced I would not be where I am today without my Rotaract experience,” he says. “It has also helped me as a manager and leader. And it has been a great opportunity to meet people from different cultures and make friends I would never have met otherwise.” 

The Y2K bug is less devastating than predicted. Russians and Americans work on the International Space Station. A working draft of the human genome is published. Terrorists attack the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The U.S. invades Afghanistan. The euro is introduced in 12 countries. Facebook is founded by Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg, YouTube and Twitter launch, and Apple releases the iPhone.

Andrea Tirone recalls cozy meetings in the Hart House student center during her early years as a Rotaractor at the University of Toronto.

“You stay together after the meeting and just talk about things that interest you, whether it’s Rotary-related or about your classes or work,” she says. “And you form friendships easily with these people you probably wouldn’t have met otherwise.”

The Rotaract Club of Downtown San Diego, California, USA, prepares for a life skills event in 2008 that provides professional development and leadership training.

Selected for an Ambassadorial Scholarship to South Africa in 2009-10, Tirone helped charter the Rotaract Club of Berea while there. But before she left, she attended the 2008 Rotary International Convention in Los Angeles, which changed her perspective of the organization.

“It was almost like a different chapter of Rotary started for me after Los Angeles,” she recalls. “I think being in LA and seeing the truly global reach of Rotary made me realize that it doesn’t matter where I am in the world, I can still be a part of Rotary.”

Social media and smartphones began to transform Rotaract in Tirone’s later years with the program. “When I started, Facebook had only just come into existence and was still very exclusive,” she says. “There were no pages or groups. No Twitter or Instagram. Certainly social media and the ability to be connected so quickly and easily with others has opened up new opportunities for projects and project ideas. Whether you are working as partners or forwarding ideas, it is completely different. With the connections I have now, I am never not next to my good friends in Rotaract.”

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As it begins its second half-century, Rotaract remains as appealing as ever to young people, says Laura Verdegaal, who, as a member of the Rotaract Club of Gooi- en Vechtstreek in the Netherlands, participated in a panel in December via Facebook on the state of Rotaract. 

  1. Rotaractors in Ukraine in 2012.

  2. Members of the Rotaract and Interact committee wear their 50th anniversary celebration shirts for a committee meeting in 2017. 

“I think in ways it’s even more relevant, as there is a movement back from globalization to knowing where your food and goods come from and knowing people in your local community who share your values,” she says. 

Verdegaal sees Rotary and Rotaract clubs enjoying a more equal and fruitful partnership, one in which members of Rotaract collaborate in decision making and planning, rather than serving in a subservient role. She cites a large project in her district where Rotaractors with web skills provided the main direction for the design and content of the project’s website. 

“If you want to serve your community on a local level, Rotaract is for you,” says Verdegaal. “When you want to develop your leadership, presentation, or organization skills, or if you are into traveling and meeting people from different cultures and backgrounds, it’s a great opportunity.”

7 things you did not know about Rotaract

7 things you don’t know about Rotaract

Decoding the secrets of their success

1. Rotaractors are experts in their fields

The mediator: Joan Nairuba 26, a member of the Rotaract Club of Kololo, Uganda, and a lawyer specializing in mediation

I work at a commercial law firm, but I do more mediation than litigation. My law firm advocates for the use of alternative dispute resolution, and in Uganda, it’s also a requirement by law that parties undergo mediation. There are many cases where there’s lots of screaming. Part of the job is that you have to let both parties make some noise at first.

Joan Nairuba: “I know I’ll always be working in mediation, because people will never stop getting into disputes.”

Then you begin to use the tools of mediation. The first thing you must do is explain to both parties that they have to meet each other halfway. They have to understand, from the start, that both sides will have to lose something to get somewhere.

The next thing you have to do is explain what happens if the mediation doesn’t work. We have a huge backlog of legal cases in Uganda, anywhere from five to 10 years, so if people can’t work together, they are going to have to wait a long time and pay a lot of money to their lawyers and to the court.

Then you ask each side to come up with a representative. This is very important, because when it’s a big group of people on each side, nobody wants to back down. It’s a lot easier to deal with individuals than with a group.

This is what I had to do with my most difficult case. It was a dispute about a local marketplace. A group of investors wanted to build a structure to house the market, and the local residents didn’t want it.

It was a tough case because it was a land issue, and land is sacred in Uganda. It’s something people kill for. So the only way to resolve this was to get two individuals who were committed to the process. You have to be patient, especially when the parties get impatient.

For me, there’s an extra challenge. I’m a young woman, and I may walk into a room where it’s all older men. So how do you get past that? The way you do it is you make clear that you understand the facts of the case and the legal issues, perhaps better than they do. You say, “I may look young, but I have the experience.”

There’s also a lot of suspicion based on tribal affiliation, so we have to reassure the parties right at the beginning that we are getting nothing from this process – no land, no money. We just want to help them come to a solution.

I’m in my second year of practice, so I have my whole career before me. I’m interested in working in the energy sector someday. But I know I’ll always be working in mediation, because people will never stop getting into disputes. This is just how life is, in Uganda and everywhere else.

The deal maker: Michael Stone,30, a member of the Rotaract Club of Birmingham, Alabama, and a vice president at Porter White & Co., an investment bank

When people find out I’m an investment banker, most of them think that I pick stocks. Even my father-in-law will ask me if he should buy some random stock. I have to tell folks that investment bankers don’t actually pick stocks. But it can be hard to explain my job, because I do a lot of different things.

Michael Stone: “It’s fun to work on a project when you know you’re not just raising capital but serving a public good.”

I raise capital to help businesses grow. I help evaluate potential deals and find investors to fund them. I work on mergers and acquisitions. And I provide long-term financial advice to municipal institutions, like the local airport and civic center and the university system.

I get the opportunity to learn something new every day. A couple of years ago, we provided financial advice to a waste-to-energy facility in the Pacific Northwest. I didn’t have any experience in that sector, but I had to learn enough to help them design a feasibility model for a new facility. The goal was to take food waste from restaurants that would otherwise go into a landfill and convert that waste into methane gas that could run an engine, or get cleaned up and fed into a pipeline. The byproduct of this process was nitrogen-rich fertilizer.

It’s fun to work on a project like that, because you know you’re not just raising capital but serving a public good. At the same time, it was kind of funny, because my wife’s cousin lived in that same city, and when he talked about visiting various restaurants and breweries, even though I’d never been to any of them, I knew the exact methane content of their waste streams.

A couple of years ago, I raised money for an Arizona tech company that found a way to print semiconductors that generated light. We think of lighting as an old technology, but this firm had figured out a way to literally print lights. That was my first big deal, and we helped them raise more than $11 million.

I also recently helped a client sell a galvanized metal facility. I’d never even been in a galvanized metal facility! So I had this crash course. But that’s the way I like it, because I get bored very easily.

It probably helps that I work in Birmingham. If I was at a big firm in New York City, I might be stuck crunching numbers, rather than getting to pitch clients. Plus, the Birmingham scene seems to be growing for startups.

Some of what I do is trying to figure out what the next wave of activity is going to be in the culture. Recently, I’ve started looking into the educational tech sector, and I’m now talking with a client who wants to use technology to provide affordable education. It’s incredibly exciting for me when I can see from my research that there’s a genuine need in the market, and then a client comes walking through the door who fills that need.

The diplomat: Egle Lauzonyte, 27, the president of the Rotaract Club of Chicago and the director of public diplomacy and cultural affairs for the Consulate General of the Republic of Lithuania in Chicago

When you tell people you work for the consulate, they often think you mean the embassy. But the embassy is in Washington, D.C., and the work done there is more political, dealing with Congress and the White House. The work we do in the consulate here in Chicago is more about cultural outreach and economics.

Egle Lauzonyte: “You can do great things when you bring so many people together.”

The consulate issues passports and visas and other sorts of paperwork. But the work I do is about engaging with the local community. That’s a big deal in Chicago, because we have the biggest population of Lithuanians outside of Lithuania. It’s hard to say the exact number, because so many people identify as Lithuanian even if they were born in the United States. They attend Lithuanian schools, they speak the language and sing the songs. We like to count them as Lithuanian.

My work is very busy. In one recent week, we had two big celebrations. The first was a parade, where we had 100 people, all in traditional costumes, with a huge Lithuanian flag. Then we had another event that was devoted to Lithuanian Jewish culture, with a musical concert.

We consider this a vital part of public diplomacy. As a country, Lithuania doesn’t have a lot of natural resources, so our biggest resource is ourselves, our people. Whenever a world-class musician or an artist or an intellectual comes to the United States from Lithuania, we try to set up local events.

I also work with local businesses to attract investors. People don’t always realize that the Russians left Lithuania in 1991, and we have been an independent country for 27 years. In that time, we have joined NATO and become a member of the European Union.

We do outreach with the intellectual community as well. It’s important for us to talk about what’s relevant today. Right now, for instance, one of the big issues that affects the United States and Lithuania and all of Europe, really, is Russian propaganda. So we’re working with local think tanks on this issue, in particular with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

One of the things I love the most about Lithuanian culture is that we have great festivities. Lithuanians especially love to dance. Ever since I came here, I’ve been doing traditional Lithuanian dance. You can’t believe how many people do this! We have a national expo where there are thousands of dancers, and thousands more watching. It’s a huge party. And for me, it’s like public diplomacy, because you see how you can do great things when you bring so many people together.

The transformer: Nichole Haynes, 23, a member of the Rotaract Club of Georgetown Central, Guyana, and an economist at Guyana’s Ministry of Business

When I started this job, I was 21. The first project I undertook was to make it easier to do business in Guyana. That has resulted in several collaborations and support from external bodies such as the World Bank. I’m very proud of that.

Nichole Haynes: “I appreciate that I get to be so directly involved in transforming our economy and in making the lives of the citizens of Guyana easier.”

Guyana is located in South America. We are not a country in Africa, as some think. We are a very small country – the population is approximately 740,000 – and we are largely agricultural. We have recently been classed as upper middle income.

Guyana has discovered oil, and the government hopes to use the returns for infrastructure and education. So we are excited about that. It means that there is a lot of attention on the department in which I work.

My work is largely structured around policy development. I work directly with the minister of business to assess critical factors influencing the business environment. One project that we’ve been working on is improving transparency and access to information within Guyana – information on how to start your business, how to register the forms you need, how to access your forms online. It’s a small step, but it’s a big step for Guyana. We are moving into the digital age.

Access to electricity is one of the biggest constraints to doing business in Guyana. We want to go green, so we are about to pursue hydropower and solar. Oil is another opportunity for us to reduce our energy costs. Access to credit is another issue, especially for small businesses. We have introduced a credit bureau, and at the Ministry of Business, we are leading the development of a secure system to allow assets such as cattle to be used as collateral for borrowing. In addition, we  provide grants to small businesses that are in keeping with the intentions of Guyana going green and supporting a sustainable economy.

I appreciate that I get to be so directly involved in transforming our economy and in making the lives of the citizens of Guyana easier. Anyone in the public sector needs to put their country first. You must be invested in making your country better, especially if you are directly involved in policymaking. Guyana has solutions. It has natural resources; it has talented people. I want to play a part in organizing those players and those resources for Guyana’s real development – that’s why I do this. You see the potential, and you want to help.

2. They think beyond their clubs

Holding life-size frames, people pose for Instagram photos as part of Rotaract Brazil’s Diversidade! project.

In 2014, Brazil weathered a contentious presidential election that divided the country politically along geographic lines. That split led to a discussion between two young Brazilians, Janeson Vidal de Oliveira, of the Rotaract Club of Pau dos Ferros, and Vanderson Valci Soares, of the Rotaract Club Manchester of Joinville.

“Janeson and I were talking about Brazil’s greatest need as a country at that moment,” recalls Soares. “We were at the height of the presidential campaign, and I being from the south and he being from the north, we were experiencing a great divergence of opinion. The north advocated one candidate, while the south advocated another, but not in a civil and polite way. The atmosphere was tense, and we often saw personal offenses against people and regions that disagreed with one another. We understood that this was an ideal opportunity to work on diversity as a cultural issue.”

To accomplish their goal, Soares and Vidal turned to Rotaract Brasil’s multidistrict information organization (MDIO), a network that connects Rotaract clubs nationwide. That organizational structure is not unique to Brazil. There are 23 Rotaract MDIOs spread across parts of Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, and North and South America. They expedite communication across district boundaries and effectively lend themselves to the exchange of ideas and collective action.

The campaign presented a chance for Rotaract to carry the flag of tolerance and respect for those who are different from us.

Janeson Vidal de Oliveira

Rotaract Club of Pau dos Ferros

As it happened, Vidal and Soares led Rotaract Brasil as president and vice president, respectively, from 2015 to 2016. With input from the country’s Rotaractors – Brazil has more than 750 Rotaract clubs – they settled on a theme for their year in office: Diversidade! O Brasil inteiro cabe aqui (literally, “Diversity! All Brazil fits here”). Through a variety of posters, pamphlets, and activities, which varied from district to district, the MDIO campaign targeted online hate crimes.

 “Clubs were encouraged to give talks at schools, universities, and other institutions,” explains Vidal. “In addition, we demonstrated our commitment to promoting peace on a local and global level and ensuring equal opportunities to all people despite their differences.”

 “It was a challenge to present the pre-judice and problems experienced by people of different religions or with disabilities, by Afro-Brazilians, by transsexual people, or because of the simple fact of being a woman,” says Daiana Suélen Brites Cicarelli, of the Rotaract Club of São Manuel. (Like Vidal and Soares, Cicarelli is now a Rotarian.)

In the end, Vidal estimates the Rotaract campaign connected with about 300,000 Brazilians. “The fact that Brazil is so large and Rotaract exists from one end of the country to the other” made the MDIO an ideal way to take on hate crimes, says Soares. “The campaign presented a chance for Rotaract to carry the flag of tolerance and respect for those who are different from us.”

3. They are redefining what it means to be a Rotarian

Though we might think of the progression from Rotaract to Rotary as linear, Rotaractors are in fact embracing dual membership. When the 2016 Council on Legislation voted to open up membership rules, many Rotaractors saw an opportunity to participate in Rotaract and Rotary clubs at the same time.

Muhammad Talha Mushtaq, a member of the Rotaract Club of Jhang Saddar as well as the Rotary Club of Jhang Metropolitan, Pakistan, leapt at the chance to participate at both levels. 

Muhammad Talha Mushtaq’s Rotaract club delivered backpacks filled with school supplies to children.

“Dual membership allows me to be a bridge,” Mushtaq says. “Each week in my Rotary club, I get to listen to speakers on a variety of topics, learn about what is going on in my community – and carry all that back to my Rotaract club. I share ideas with my fellow Rotaractors and encourage them to get more involved. Likewise, I have become the face of Rotaract to my Rotary club, communicating to them the issues that are important to Rotaractors. 

 “I decided to serve as my Rotary club’s membership chair next year, because there are many Rotaractors who are willing to join Rotary but need guidance. My Rotary club invited six Rotaractors to become dual members.”

César Bertini Camargo, a member of the Rotary Club of São Paulo-Vila Mariana, Brazil, and the Rotaract Club of São Paulo-Vila Mariana, says he and other dual members bring fresh ideas from Rotaract to Rotary. “Rotary could learn from Rotaract, and actually it’s already learning, how to engage more in local causes and have more interesting and fun meetings in order to be more attractive to potential members,” he says. “Rotaract is great at bringing youth volunteers together to engage in local projects. By encouraging Rotaractors to become Rotarians, Rotary is bringing these characteristics to the organization as a whole.”

Camargo is so passionate about this synergy that he wants to make sure participants in Rotary’s other youth programs aren’t left out: “We should be more in touch with Youth Exchange and RYLA. We should bring more alumni from these programs to Rotaract, just as Rotary is bringing Rotaractors to Rotary with the dual membership.”

Fernando Pinto Nercelles, a member of the Rotaract Club of Vitacura and the Rotary Club of Huelén, Chile, also sees benefits for clubs at both levels: “Dual membership in Rotaract and Rotary allows us to build more dynamic clubs that have a broader perspective, feature more debate and more ideas, and do more and better service in more communities.”

4. They excel at recruiting

Rotary clubs are always looking to expand their ranks. Here’s how Rotaractors get the job done.

5. They embrace the opportunity to learn

Rotaractors are eager to understand different perspectives and to experience new things. And almost all of them talk about gaining new skills through Rotaract. 

Justin Hadjilambris

 “When you are young, you tend to have less of a voice at work. Rotaract gives you a chance to be a leader and express your interests and your creativity, and to solve problems,” says Justin Hadjilambris, of the Rotaract Club of Nicosia, Cyprus. Amanda Firkins, of the Rotaract Club of Hawkesbury, Australia, agrees: “Rotaract provided the space for me to use my organizational skills. I’ve learned how to plan and execute events. And while I’m still developing my people skills and project management skills, I can confidently put my hand up and know that I’m capable.”

In addition to leadership, Rotaract offers instruction in life skills that universities don’t teach. “I entered Rotaract when I was 18,” says Lucky Dalena, of the Rotaract Club of Conegliano-Vittorio Veneto, Italy. “I learned everything from writing effective emails and managing a bank account to organizing big events to being a leader in both good and bad situations.” 

In addition to leadership, Rotaract offers instruction in life skills that universities don’t teach. “I entered Rotaract when I was 18,” says Lucky Dalena, of the Rotaract Club of Conegliano-Vittorio Veneto, Italy. “I learned everything from writing effective emails and managing a bank account to organizing big events to being a leader in both good and bad situations.” 

Many Rotaractors point to learning to speak in public as an essential part of their Rotaract experience. JM Cuales, of the Rotaract Club of Manila and the Rotary Club of Manila Magic, Philippines, says his Rotaract experience helped him develop his social skills: “I was an introverted individual, but through Rotaract I learned how to be an extroverted introvert. I learned how to communicate well with people and interact with them. Rotaract has given me the education and training to go outside my comfort zone.” 

And like Rotarians, Rotaractors find that membership has led to friendships with people from a variety of backgrounds and life experiences. Although Willow Pedersen, of the Rotaract Club of Virginia Tech, Virginia, has never traveled outside the United States, Rotaract has connected her to the world. “At the Rotary Convention in Atlanta, I met people from Uganda, the United Kingdom, and India. I had a great conversation with my new friend from South Korea using Google Translate.

 “Being able to understand each other using our iPhones,” Pedersen adds, “is an example of how we can use technology to build peace.”

6. They find creative solutions

The Rotaract Club of the Caduceus in Mumbai has 32 members. Yet when a service project demands attention, the club can muster hundreds of volunteers from across Mumbai and five other major Indian cities. It’s a good example of how Rotaractors maximize their numbers through the strategic use of technology.

“We maintain a very wide network,” explains Vidhi Dave, the 21-year-old president of the Caduceus club, which is made up of medical students and interns. (The caduceus – a staff entwined by two snakes and capped by a pair of wings – is a symbol of the medical profession.) “Every year, we find a representative from each of the [region’s] medical colleges. These reps have their own email and WhatsApp groups. We communicate all of our upcoming project information to them, and they pass it on to their colleges.”

Four of the club’s health care initiatives have earned Rotaract Outstanding Project Awards. One of those awards recognized the club’s collaboration with India’s Department of Public Health, the Indian state of Maharashtra, UNICEF, Harvard University, and others to design a real-time disease surveillance tool for use on the Android tablet. It’s called the Jana Swasthya project, which in Hindi means “public health and welfare.”

Project participants tested the tool during Kumbh Mela, a Hindu pilgrimage that draws millions of people to various rivers in India for religious bathing rituals. “From an epidemiological point of view, this could be a disaster,” says club member Ghanshyam Yadav. Historians have linked Kumbh Mela to the spread of cholera during the 19th century.

At the 2015 Kumbh Mela, which attracted millions of people to the city of Nashik, the Indian government set up health clinics to screen and treat pilgrims. “We trained doctors at those clinics to use the tool to record each patient’s ID, age, gender, medical complaints, and a provisional diagnosis,” Yadav says. Ultimately, project volunteers tabulated the results from 35,000 patient visits.

The Rotaract Club of the Caduceus in Mumbai offers time-strapped medical students opportunities to bond and learn.

By entering the data directly into the tablet, rather than first collecting it on paper, the Department of Public Health created a real-time database and surveillance system. Using that information, officials could track, for example, a spike in diarrhea cases – initiating an inspection of the local waterworks to look for the source of the outbreak.

In 2015, Rotary recognized the Caduceus club for its success in treating malnourished children. Surprisingly, many of the treated children were already participating in the government’s free midday meal program at school. “Because kids were getting the midday meal, they weren’t getting breakfast at home,” explains Yadav. “The family thought, ‘Oh, they’re going to get food at school.’ ”

Club members named the project the Breakfast Revolution, and they organized health screenings at area schools that recorded each child’s height, weight, and baseline body mass index. Malnourished children received fortified supercookies and soy milk for breakfast when they arrived at school.

The Caduceus club initially organized 75 health camps, and each camp screened hundreds of children. The club staffed the camps with doctors and medical students from its digital network. To pay for the supercookies and soy milk, the club organized a fundraiser with its sponsor club, the Rotary Club of Bombay Central. Working their connections, Caduceus members organized the Comedy Cereal, a night of standup comedy featuring five top Indian comics, who each performed pro bono. The event attracted 750 donors and raised $20,000.

 “We used the fundraiser money to pay for the first order of cookies,” Dave says. “But we knew the amount we had ordered would not suffice, so we immediately started hunting for NGOs to sponsor the project.”

The club established a research committee tasked with finding sponsors. “We found phone numbers to NGOs using everything from Google to word of mouth,” says Dave. The committee compiled a list of contacts into a spreadsheet, and club members called and emailed each organization on the list. Eventually, they secured a partnership with the Mumbai-based Decimal Foundation to pay for more supercookies.

Several months later, Caduceus volunteers screened the children again and saw significant improvements in their health. Teachers reported that the students were also performing better in school. The project continues today and has expanded to treat malnourished children at orphanages and people with tuberculosis. “The Breakfast Revolution has changed the lives of so many people,” Dave says.

In addition to the opportunity to participate in its projects, Caduceus offers time-strapped medical students opportunities to bond and learn. “We organize treks for a cause,” Dave says, explaining that the club schedules several hikes per year that include a medical-related discussion. “Every Tuesday and Thursday, we post rare cases to our WhatsApp group and discuss them,” Dave says. Because club members and people on their networks are studying in different medical fields, it makes for a lively online consultation.

 “Most medical students can’t commit to being a Rotaract member due to their schedule,” Dave adds. So the club focuses on the students in its network with one-off volunteer opportunities, as well as information about events and discussion groups that contribute to their professional development.

Even with the demands of graduate school on her immediate horizon, Dave, a physiotherapy student, plans to remain in Rotaract – and eventually she hopes to join a Rotary club. She asks: “What could be better than being a part of the same tree, just changing the branch?”

7. They know what they want

Vision Quest

President-elect Barry Rassin on where Rotary has been, where he hopes to lead it – and how the organization profoundly changed his life

President-elect Barry Rassin wants to explore ways of starting new Rotary clubs.

Photos by Alyce Henson

When Barry Rassin arrived at Rotary headquarters in Evanston at 4 a.m. for his first full day as president-elect, his security card wouldn’t work in the elevator. Just the day before, in a whirlwind process, he’d been nominated to fill the vacancy of Sam F. Owori, who had died unexpectedly in July. Now Rassin, a member of the Rotary Club of East Nassau, Bahamas, didn’t have the right credentials for all-hours access to the building. “I had to explain the situation to the security guard, who of course didn’t have a clue who I was,” he says.

Not much can stop Rassin when he wants to get something done. After making it up to the 18th floor of One Rotary Center, he set about compressing five days of orientation into a day and a half, planning the International Assembly, and coming up with his presidential theme: Be the Inspiration. “My personality is such that I want to hear all the options, make a decision, and go on to the next thing,” he says. “So we moved through the process fairly rapidly.”

Before becoming president-elect, Rassin was best known for leading Rotary’s relief and recovery efforts after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, which included 105 separate projects funded by Rotarians. “I had a spreadsheet with 132 pages and every detail of every project,” he says. “People look at it and say, ‘How do you do this?’ But I enjoyed that.”

Rassin’s leadership abilities served him well in his professional life as a hospital administrator. The first fellow of the American College of Healthcare Executives in the Bahamas, he recently retired after 37 years as president of Doctors Hospital Health System, where he still serves as an adviser.

Rassin has been a Rotarian since 1980 and received Rotary’s highest honor, the Service Above Self Award, for his work. He and his wife, Esther, are Major Donors and Benefactors of The Rotary Foundation. 

President-elect Barry Rassin and his wife, Esther, attend a celebration in their honor hosted by the Rotary clubs of the Bahamas. Nassau, Bahamas.

Editor in chief John Rezek and senior staff writer Diana Schoberg spoke with Rassin at his office in Evanston in October, shortly after a photo shoot in a local coffee shop. A birthday party had been booked in the shop at the same time, but the partygoers didn’t seem to mind. (“He’s movie star material,” one of them whispered.) Afterward, Rassin joked about the photo shoot: “It was like going to the dentist.”

Q: Rotary is not a disaster relief organization. As someone who has had a front seat to some of the worst disasters of recent times, do you think we should make any shifts?

A: Yes, Rotary International is not a relief organization, but I would like it to be a much better communicator and catalyst between disaster areas and potential donors. Rotarians around the world hear of a disaster and they want to help. We need a better way to communicate to them how to help appropriately. It’s not appropriate to go in your closet and send whatever clothes you have, because that’s not necessarily what’s needed. First we have to hear from people in the disaster area. Their needs can change on a daily basis, so that communication is really important. I hope we will have more up-to-date information on our website about every disaster as it occurs.

We have a Rotarian Action Group focused on disaster assistance. That group has a great opportunity working with the staff at Rotary International. We can respond more quickly than we do today. The first thing we have to do in a disaster is reach out and say, “Are you OK? We’re here, we care, what can we do to help you?” Just those words make people in that area feel less alone. Then we can advise them about how to get the immediate relief we can’t provide, through those agencies that we already work with.

Q: Is Rotary dependent on clubs for this information?

A: The clubs and districts are on the ground. They know what’s going on. They’ve got to know who and how and when to contact somebody at Rotary International for assistance. We have to provide that link. That’s Rotary International’s job.

If you live in that disaster area, you’re going to give immediate relief because your friends are hurting. That’s natural. Rotary’s bigger role is the next step, the long-term recovery efforts.

It’s been eight years since the earthquake in Haiti, and Rotary International is still there. A lot of other agencies provide immediate relief, and then they’re gone. We’re there for the long term. The Rotarians live there; they’re going to want to get their community back to where it was. Our role is to help them do that. Not necessarily with funds, but with advice, with guidance, and with empathy.

Q: You want Rotary to have a transformational impact. How should we allocate our resources to do that?

2018-19: Be the Inspiration

RI President-elect Barry Rassin’s theme for 2018-19, Be the Inspiration, asks Rotarians to inspire change in the world and in each other. “I ask all of you to Be the Inspiration to help Rotary move from reaction to action — to take a hard look at the environmental issues that affect health and welfare around the world and do what we can to help.”

Download his theme logo and materials

Download the presidential theme citation and brochure

Download his Rotary Days brochure

A: It’s OK to do small projects – don’t get me wrong. We’re always going to be doing them. But I’d like every club to think of at least one high-impact service project they can do to change people’s lives. They don’t have to cost a lot of money. I always use the jeep we provided in Haiti as an example. For $60,000 or $70,000, we provided a pink jeep to a group of midwives who go out into the community and give prenatal care to mothers who wouldn’t get it any other way. The mortality rate has gone down dramatically. That’s transformational.

The Rotary Foundation has talked about sustainability for a long time. To be sustainable – to make the good we do last – you should be transformational, so that fits well into what the Foundation’s trustees and global grants are doing. The districts could look at district grants and do the same kind of thing. We have the resources. We just have to think a little differently.

Q: Did the act of rebuilding in Haiti have a positive effect on Rotary?

A: If you go into certain parts of Haiti with the Rotary wheel, they’re going to say thank you, because they know what Rotarians have done. Rotary has provided them with food, with water, with a school for their children. When we talk transformational, one project we’ve been working on is to bring potable water to the entire country of Haiti. The prime minister is a Rotarian and past president of his club. He is working with us, and he’s got a government agency that’s going to work directly with us. That’s way above any global grant, but we can plan for that and figure out how to do it in chunks. I’m sure districts and clubs around the world would love to be a part of it. That’s transformational. That’s the kind of thing that could change a region for the better, forever.

Q: What other goals do you wish to accomplish during your year?

A: There’s a disconnect between what we do at Rotary International – and do really well – and what Rotary clubs are doing. I’d like to bridge that gap. One of our strategic priorities is strengthening clubs, which involves things like membership and Foundation giving. We’re not reaching the clubs to get them to understand why we need to do some of these things, and therefore some don’t do them.

I want to explore ways of starting new Rotary clubs. There are a lot of clubs out there. We keep telling them, “You’ve got to get new members.” But their club culture may not be attractive to other people. Fine – they should enjoy their club, and then start another club next door. We’re working on making sure everybody knows that Rotaract clubs can start Rotary clubs. We need to tell Rotaractors they can start a Rotary club they’re comfortable with when they move on after 30. Rotaract is our secret weapon, and we need to spend time developing the transition from Rotaract to Rotary in a different way.

We’ve got to get better at social media. When you look at our numbers versus a celebrity’s, we’re nothing. We need Rotarians and Rotaractors to access social media and use it to improve our public image. And that’s the other part of it: I don’t believe our communities understand what Rotary is. I want to hold Rotary days so clubs and districts can get into their communities and talk about Rotary – what do we do and why do we do it.

I want clubs to have leadership development programs for their members. Rotary’s new vision statement says: “Together, we see a world where people unite and take action to create lasting change – across the globe, in our communities, and in ourselves.” It is a great opportunity to remind everybody that as members of Rotary clubs, we’re also there for personal development. Young people are looking for ways to grow and develop, and that gives them another reason to join Rotary. Those are the key things I want to go with.

Q: You mentioned Rotary’s new vision statement. We already have a motto, Service Above Self. We have presidential themes every year. Why do we need a vision statement too?

A: A vision statement allows us to tell the world what our ultimate value is for the long term. It helps Rotarians and non-Rotarians understand what our goal is when it comes to changing our world. This vision statement came from Rotarians, who recommended each phrase. The end result shows our vision for the future and the path to get there.

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Q: Rotaract and Rotary clubs in the Caribbean have a good relationship. What’s the key?

A: My club is an example. When a Rotaractor comes to our club, they’re not our guest for the day. They sign in as a member. So right away they’re feeling like they’re a part of us. That’s important. We also make sure that a Rotarian from our club always goes to Rotaract meetings so there’s always a connection. In the last two years, I believe we’ve got 100 percent transition from Rotaract to Rotary. They come and join our club because they know us. We’ve got to keep that connection going.

Q: What have you learned from Rotaractors?

A: Rotaractors are energetic. They’re passionate. They want to do good, and they really like working with each other. The frustration is that they then find it difficult to transition to a different club that has a totally different culture, doesn’t have the energy, doesn’t even know how to use social media. Rotaractors are the Rotary of the future, and we need to help them get there. What are they going to want in a club when they’re 40? We have to come up with that answer and then create Rotary clubs, or help them create Rotary clubs, that can get them there.

Q: Imagine your life without Rotary.

A: Wow! That’s hard to do, to be quite honest. I have put my heart and soul into Rotary for 37 years, and without it I wouldn’t have the friends I have or the ability to do some of the things I can do. I always give the example of my first speech. I was holding on to the lectern reading the speech I wrote, and when I got to the bottom of the first page, I was so nervous that I couldn’t turn the page. But my club kept asking me to speak, so I kept doing it, and now I speak publicly with confidence. I couldn’t do that without Rotary.

Q: How do you begin a speech?

A: It’s important to recognize and acknowledge who’s in your audience. You want to connect with them in one fashion or another, either by saying thank you or it’s nice to be here, or by recognizing a particular individual. Whenever I make a speech, I want to make it as personal as I can.

Q: If there’s one thing you could change about Rotary, what would that be?

A: One of our challenges in Rotary is our Council on Legislation. We meet every three years to consider changing Rotary’s governing policies, but it takes more like four and a half or five years to accomplish this because of the deadlines to propose legislation. The world is changing far too fast for that. We need a way to make major decisions that affect the organization on a quicker basis. Our Council on Legislation needs to understand that maybe it’s time to make that change. I’d love to see our Council restructured. One way would be to conduct those meetings electronically every year. It would be a challenge because it’s hard to have a dynamic debate online, but I think Rotary is smart enough to figure out how to do that.

Q: Is there a Rotary tradition you would never get rid of?

A: I would never get rid of our Four-Way Test. I would never get rid of vocational service. Some of the traditions from weekly club meetings could go. I don’t think there’s a need to be that formal in a club meeting anymore. But when you look at core values or ethics or classifications, those are things that have to stay with us. That’s who we are and what makes us different, and we need to appreciate that and keep developing those principles.

Interota 2017 recap

2017 Interota recap

Rotaractors mark 50 years of Rotaract at their triennial meeting

In September, Rotaractors from around the world gathered in Taipei, Taiwan, for their triennial Interota convention. This year’s meeting was a special celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of Rotaract, and attendees marked the occasion with song, dance, parties, and projects. They also heard inspiring talks and participated in useful workshops that gave them new ideas to take home to their clubs. 

  1. Rotaractors dance during the opening ceremony of their triennial Interota convention in Taipei, Taiwan.

  2. Rotaractors pick up waste along the banks of the Annong River.

  3. At the opening night ceremonies, a musician plays a pipa, a traditional Chinese instrument.

  4. A “50” made of Legos celebrates Rotaract’s 50th anniversary. 

  5. Members of Rotaract from Beijing perform at a banquet.

  6. Rotaractors cross a scenic bridge on their way to the Interota service project. 

  7. Attendees collaborate during a workshop. 

  8. Rotaractors from Hong Kong take a break between workshops. 

  9. Canadian Rotaractors show some national pride. 

  10. Peace Fellow alumna Stephanie Woollard speaks at the opening ceremony. 

  11. A group selfie helps preserve the memories.

  12. Interota attendees at dinner in a rice paddy. 

  13. Interota Chair Elyse Lin jokes with the audience on the last day. 

  14. Past RI President Gary Huang addresses attendees at the opening ceremony. 

  15. Mitty Chang speaks at the opening banquet.

Rotary gives millions in grants to fight polio

Rotary gives $53.5 million to help eradicate polio

EVANSTON, Ill. (Jan. 25, 2018) — With 22 confirmed cases in 2017 to date, and just one case in 2018, the world is on the brink of eradicating polio, a vaccine-preventable disease that once paralyzed hundreds of thousands of children each year.

Rotary gives $53.5 million to help eradicate polio and challenges the world to continue the fight to end the disease.

Photo by Khaula Jamil

Rotary is giving $53.5 million in grants to support immunization and surveillance activities led by the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI).

More than half of the funds will support efforts to end polio in two of the three countries where polio remains endemic:

  • Afghanistan: $12.03 million
  • Pakistan: $19.31 million

Further funding will support efforts to keep 10 vulnerable countries polio-free:

  • Cameroon: $1.61 million
  • Central African Republic: $428,000
  • Chad: $2.33 million
  • The Democratic Republic of Congo: $6.48 million
  • Ethiopia: $1.82 million
  • Iraq: $2 million
  • Niger: $1.71 million
  • Somalia: $3.29 million
  • South Sudan: $835,300
  • Syria: $428,000

An additional $731,338 will fund research to be conducted by the World Health Organization (WHO), and another $518,000 will go toward technical assistance in West and Central Africa.

While significant strides have been made against the disease, polio remains a threat in hard-to-reach and underserved areas and conflict zones. Despite a historically low case count, as long as a single child has polio, all children are at risk, which underscores the need for continued funding and political commitment to eradication. 

Rotary has committed to raising $150 million over the next three years, which will be matched 2-to-1 by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, yielding $450 million for polio eradication activities, including immunization and surveillance. 

Rotary started its polio eradication program PolioPlus in 1985, and in 1988 became a partner in the GPEI, along with WHO, UNICEF, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation later became a partner. Since the initiative launched, the incidence of polio has plummeted by more than 99.9 percent, from about 350,000 cases in 1988 to just 22 confirmed cases in 2017 (as of 25 January). Rotary has contributed a total of more than $1.7 billion — including matching funds from the Gates Foundation — and countless volunteer hours to protect more than 2.5 billion children in 122 countries from polio. 

About Rotary

Rotary brings together a global network of volunteer leaders dedicated to tackling the world’s most pressing humanitarian challenges. Rotary connects 1.2 million members of more than 35,000 Rotary clubs in over 200 countries and geographical areas. Their work improves lives at both the local and international levels, from helping families in need in their own communities to working toward a polio-free world. Visit and for more about Rotary and its efforts to eradicate polio. Video and still images are available on the Rotary Media Center.


 Contact: Audrey Carl,, 847-866-3424

Healing scars of war

In the mountains of Poland, 26 children traumatized by violence get a chance to be kids again at Rotary camp

By Iuliia Mendel
Produced by Monika Lozinska

Beneath the emotional scars of living in a Ukrainian war zone, Mykyta Berlet flashes the same mischievousness of any other 12-year-old boy headed to camp.

He wants to laugh, play pranks and on the last night of camp “we will cover everyone with toothpaste,” he says excitedly.

Mykyta and 25 other Ukrainian youths headed to the resort town of Zakopane in the foothills of southern Poland are naturally focused on fun. But their two-week respite organized by Rotary members has a higher purpose: To help the children heal and cope with the trauma they may encounter when they go home.  

Each camper has a parent or sibling killed or injured in the fighting in Ukraine. Psychologists at camp will guide them along the way during an itinerary that mixes escape and therapy.

Olga Zmiyivska, a member of the Rotary Club of Kharkiv Multinational in Ukraine, has brought children to the camp for two years and has witnessed its impact.

“After the trip, they are more willing to make contact and open their hearts,” she said.

War came into their homes

Thousands have died and millions have been displaced by the fighting between pro-Russia rebels and the Ukrainian military in eastern Ukraine. 

Growing up in the shadow of that nearly four-year conflict, most of the campers don’t remember a life without war. They tell unrealistic stories about battles and keep silent about real horrors. Some are guarded and hypervigilant. Others endure sleepless nights or nightmares. A few withdraw and emotionally shut down.

In Zakopane, nestled in the scenic Tatra Mountains, Rotary members give the children a chance to heal in a peaceful setting. The children sleep in comfortable cabins along a pristine lake flanked by green, rolling hills.

The program, called Vacation 2017 Zakopane: Well-Being for Ukrainian Kids, includes traditional camp activities and field trips along with support from mental health professionals. More than 100 children have attended over the past four years.

Psychologist and art therapist Olha Hrytsenko helps children work through their grief at Vacation 2017 Zakopane: Well-Being for Ukrainian Kids.

This year’s campers visited a mountain village to learn about local traditions, toured historic Krakow, and saw the castles, salt mines and hot springs of southern Poland. The routine activities are simple but powerful.

Yuriy Paschalin and Vlad Tsepun, both 12, became close friends after their fathers were killed by snipers. The field trips helped both boys start to relax and act like typical, curious children.

“This program allows these kids to stay kids and to live children’s emotions,” said psychologist and art therapist Olha Hrytsenko.

“They will observe and absorb another culture, attitude, and language, (and) will be able to compare and make conclusions about what is good and what is bad. It will help them to find themselves.”

Breaking their silence

When asked about their families, the children often talk about their parents, siblings, grandparents, and even their pets. Then the looks in their eyes change. Glints of childish fun disappear, along with any fussing or fidgeting. Instead, there is obvious pain behind their faces. And silence.

Like many children, 11-year-old Dima Tkachuk doesn’t want to talk about his dad’s death. Talking about death makes it all too real.

His father was killed in a military conflict zone; Dima’s mother also serves in the Ukrainian army and has been sent to the same area where Dima’s father was killed.

A person will always remember the loss of someone whom he or she loved. The task is not to forget but to find the essence of this loss and to learn how to be happy after this.

Olha Hrytsenko

art therapist

Dima, though, shared a glimpse of the stress on his family. He explained that since their mother left to join the fighting, his 18-year-old brother has turned to smoking and drinking alcohol.  

“Sometimes he does things that one cannot be proud of,” Dima said.

The psychologists and camp staff know not to pressure the children to open up. Instead they build trust through group games, outdoor activities, art therapy, and individual counseling with psychologists.

Children are more vulnerable to the psychological trauma of war, often causing them to withdraw, experts say. Re-establishing emotional connections is critical to healing. If left untreated, isolated children are more likely to experience domestic violence, addiction, and job loss later in life, research shows.

When a breakthrough does come, therapists listen or just sit quietly as the tears flow.

“It always takes time to survive loss. This time is needed to run the processes that we name ‘grief work,’ ” says Hrytsenko.

“A person will always remember the loss of someone whom he or she loved. The task is not to forget but to find the essence of this loss and to learn how to be happy after this.”

Dreams and beliefs

At the Zakopane camp, Valerie Tkachuk, 12, from Dnipro, Ukraine, was slow to trust others. Her answers were often short and sharp.

Her father was injured in combat while her pregnant mother was home caring for the family. Valerie shrank into herself, stopped communicating with peers, and started sleeping in her father’s sleeping bag on the balcony.

“That year was the most difficult in my life,” Valerie said.

She was asked to close her eyes and remember the most pleasant memory of camp in an effort to make her smile for a photo.

Eyes closed, Valerie started crying and opened up in a way she had not previously at camp.

“I am disturbed about my dad, as he is stressed for mom. And he is forbidden to have any stress, as he can have a heart attack,” Valerie said.

Valerie dreams of following her father’s path and becoming a military officer. 

Many children who grow up with war are drawn to the military. Their vulnerability, feelings of helplessness, and lack of trust make the strong image of a soldier appealing, experts say. 

Dima is set on a career in the army. Sasha Kruglikov, 9, whose father was killed in the conflict, already views himself as a soldier. He likes wrestling and karate and said he wants to defend his country when he grows up.

Creating a place to heal

When the conflict in Ukraine began in early 2014, Rotary members stepped up to help.

“We thought, why not organize vacations for kids whose childhood was affected by war,” says Ryszard Luczyn, a member of the Rotary Club of Zamosc Ordynacki, Poland.

Barbara Pawlisz, of the Rotary Club of Sopot International in Poland, and Łuczyn got support from the Poland-Ukraine Intercountry Committee. Rotary’s Intercountry Committees are networks of Rotary clubs in at least two countries, and they often work together on service projects or to foster peace between the residents of countries in conflict. Rotary clubs in Belarus, Poland and Ukraine participate in the network.

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The Well-Being for Ukrainian Kids project started in 2014 with mixed results. The children, ages eight to 17, didn’t always get along. Their war trauma was recent, and communication between the age groups was difficult.

The Rotary members recognized adjustments were necessary, but they were not deterred. 

Since that initial effort, organizers narrowed the age range for campers to six to 12, and the number of Polish Rotary clubs that support the project has more than doubled to 83. 

Rotary District 2231 in Poland raised money to pay the travel and lodging expenses of the children and their caretakers. The project has also drawn support from clubs in Sweden and Slovakia. Ukrainian clubs were involved in selecting participants from all areas of the country. 

“It is always very difficult to find affected children in small towns and villages. So we appealed to all the Ukrainian Rotary clubs to help us,” says Anna Kaczmarczyk, a member of the Rotary Club of Zamosc Ordynacki, Poland. “Now we have children not only from large cities, but also from distant parts of the country.”

Does it work?

The changes in the children are obvious, Rotary members say.

Anna Kaczmarczyk, a member of the Rotary Club of Zamosc Ordynacki, Poland, is the first person to meet the children when they start their trip.

Kaczmarczyk is the first person to meet the children in Lviv, Ukraine, when they start their trip. They may be nervous, which can make them irritable and aggressive.

But after the program, they are relaxed, smiling, filled with a new self-confidence.

“We continue this program because we know how these children react, how they change, how they become more open to the world, and how they look at the world the way it should be for a child,” Kaczmarczyk says. “War takes from them their childhood. And they still have their children’s dreams.”

After the children return home, they send letters and pictures about their camp experiences to program organizers and Rotary members.

Children have drawn portraits, colorful scenes of nature, castles and the kings and queens who live in them, and dragons. Sometimes, they write letters about what they observed. One girl marveled at the clean streets and friendly people.

Whether they are magical stories or practical observations, the children carry warm memories home with them.

Kids who experience violence can be prone to violence themselves; this program shows them a different path.

“After such traumas as car crash, natural disasters, [or] wars, people often go to two extremes: Either they stop being afraid of everything or they start being scared of everything. I think these children will belong to the first category,” psychologist Hrytsenko said.

Saving mothers and babies

Have you ever decided to help someone and spent months planning the project, motivating and inspiring people about it, and securing funding for it? And what if you realized, once you’d put in all the work, that although the project was a nice idea, it wasn’t what the community really needed? 

That’s just what happened to a group of Rotarians from New Zealand when they set out to build a well in Mongolia. 

A project launched by the Rotary Club of Waimate  is credited with saving hundreds of lives through childbirth training in Mongolia. The team includes, from left, Jo Palmer, Julie Dockrill, Samantha Turner, midwife Bev Te Huia, Gary Dennison, and   Amarjargal Luvsandagva.

But instead of bringing clean water to a single community, the Rotary Club of Waimate developed a pioneering childbirth education program that has become a national model and that’s saved the lives of hundreds of mothers and babies.

“Maternal health … seemed to fit best with the needs of Mongolia,” says Gary Dennison, leader of the club’s Mongolian Maternal Health Project.

Dennison says the initial link to Mongolia came through a friend’s son, a geologist, who was working in the country’s mining industry and who raised the possibility of creating an improved freshwater supply for a needy community there.

But then the geologist’s wife had a chance meeting with an Australian who worked in a Mongolian maternity hospital, and that encounter led to a plan in 2013 to deliver much-needed childbirth education to Mongolian health workers to help reduce the country’s high infant and maternal mortality rates.

Infant mortality in Mongolia

  • 14.00 times

    the rate children born in developing countries are more likely to die in the first month

  • 300.00 times

    the rate women in developing countries are more likely to die in childbirth

Mongolia knew it had a problem. Mothers and babies were dying at an alarming rate. The government had signed the World Health Organization and UNICEF’s childbirth education agreement and had endorsed a “healthy mother — healthy baby” plan of action in 2011. The goal was to reduce infant mortality to 15 out of every 1,000 live births, compared with the 1990 mortality rate of more than 60 newborns out of every 1,000.  

The causes of infant death were clear: asphyxia, respiratory distress, and congenital defects . And the solution was equally clear: better childbirth care for both mothers and babies, because the health and survival of mothers directly affects the likelihood that their children will live to their second birthday. Babies whose mothers die during the first six weeks of their lives are far more likely to die before their second birthday than babies whose mothers survive, according to UNICEF

So Dennison and other Rotarians got to work, and in four short months, they had a plan .

Three phases to sustainable change

The Rotary club first dispatched a vocational training team consisting of a leader and five midwives from New Zealand and Australia. The team conducted training at three centers in various parts of the country and developed a childbirth education manual, which was translated into Mongolian.

Rotarians from New Zealand trained more than 300 maternal health care workers with three-day childbirth education courses and a one-day emergency skills clinic in Mongolia.

“Mongolia had just signed up to the World Health Organisation and UNICEF’s childbirth education agreement,” Dennison says. “So our timing in 2013 was absolutely perfect.”

Phase two of the Rotarians’ work was to bring a Mongolian health care worker to New Zealand to observe pre- and postnatal health care there.

The club selected Amarjargal Luvsandagva, a midwife and health care manager at Maternity Hospital No. 1 in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital. She spent a month in 2015 learning about the New Zealand maternal health system, both in hospitals and in the community.

The impact has been far greater than Amarjargal simply learning English and travelling to New Zealand, Dennison says. She’s now regularly attending training seminars and maternal health conferences around the world, including recently at Oxford University in England, Dennison says.

Mongolia’s infant mortality rate per 1,000 live births

2004: 55.45

2005: 53.79

2006: 52.12

2007: 42.65

2008: 41.24

2009: 39.88

2010: 38.56

2011: 37.26

2012: 36

2013: 34.7

2014 : 23.15

Source: National Science Foundation

After the 2013 visit, the team knew they had unfinished business in Mongolia so for Phase Three, they made a second trip to deliver further childbirth education and an updated manual with professional translations. 

The team also expanded the project to include a new training module in emergency clinical skills. To put the need into perspective, Dennison says, most Mongolian frontline maternal health care workers hadn’t even been trained in basic resuscitation.

Phase three became a reality when Dennison, along with Julie Dockrill, of the Rotary Club of Timaru, New Zealand; Jo Palmer; Samantha Turner, of the Rotary Club of Gisborne, in Victoria, Australia; and midwife Bev Te Huia, traveled to Mongolia with their new childbirth manual.

In just three weeks, with support from Rotary District 3450 in Mongolia, they trained more than 300 maternal health care workers with three-day childbirth education courses and a one-day emergency skills clinic.

“We were a bit blown away by the number of doctors, obstetricians – quite senior doctors – who were at the classes, saying they needed an update,” Dennison says. “And the manual, well that blew them away.”

Training spreads throughout Mongolia

Dennison is proud of the project’s rapid expansion and the evidence of its sustainability. The impact health care workers they trained.

For example, shortly after her training, the chief maternity lecturer at Ulaanbaatar University shared her new knowledge and skills at a session with 500 students. 

“That was a graphic display of how far the project’s impact is spreading, and how quickly,” Dennison says. “It’s like finger-like tendrils that are going out in all directions, and you can’t even guess as to the total effect it’s having. … It’s the snowball effect in action before your eyes.”

Julie Dockrill, of the Rotary Club of Timaru, New Zealand, traveled to Mongolia to train health care experts in childbirth education.

The childbirth manual was so good that the Mongolian Ministry of Health endorsed and adopted it as the nationwide standardized training curriculum for maternal and infant care.

The ministry also has made childbirth education compulsory for all of Mongolia’s expectant mothers. They’re now required to attend a minimum of three classes in order to qualify for the new welfare child support payments program.

Dennison attributes the project’s success in part to the hands-on, interactive training the Rotarian team has delivered. 

“The team delivers very much the interactive, participatory, experiential learning experience. The people in Mongolia weren’t at all used to that — they’re used to being ‘talked at’ in training,” he says. 

And the project’s impact, Dennison says, has been “mindboggling.”  

That gave us warm fuzzies. When you leave, you leave knowing you’ve made a difference and left a legacy, and that’s what we join Rotary for.

Gary Dennison

leader of Mongolian Maternal Health Project of the Rotary Club of Waimate

Between 2013 and 2015, Mongolia’s infant mortality rate dropped 66 percent, while maternal deaths plunged more than 70 percent, Dennison says.

“That gave us warm fuzzies,” Dennison says. “When you leave, you leave knowing you’ve made a difference and left a legacy, and that’s what we join Rotary for.” 

The Rotarian team from New Zealand’s District 9980 is planning a final trip to Mongolia in 2018 to build on the emergency obstetrics and clinical skills training, with an emphasis on resuscitation — and saving more lives.

“It sure as heck is already making a big difference. The statistics tell the story,” Dennison says.

• Read more about Rotary District 9980

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