Month: October 2019

Rotary provides millions in polio funding as wild poliovirus type 3 is eradicated

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US$50 million will impact over 38 million children as the program reaches two key milestones: wild poliovirus type 3 eradication and Africa reaching three years with no wild poliovirus transmission

EVANSTON, Ill. (October 30, 2019) — Rotary is giving US$50 million in grants to support the global effort to end polio. The funding will provide surveillance, technical assistance, and operational support for immunization activities, and will reach up to 38.4 million children with polio immunizations. The funding comes on the heels of the announcement that wild poliovirus type 3 (WPV3) has been eradicated globally.

WPV3 is just the third human disease-causing pathogen to be eradicated in history, and the announcement means that there is just one remaining strain of wild polio left that continues to affect children. Rotary and its Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) partners reached another major milestone in August, when Nigeria reached three years without a case of wild poliovirus, thus opening the door for the entire African region to be certified wild polio-free sometime in 2o20.

“Both of these milestones are critical steps towards the ultimate goal of a polio-free world,” said Michael K. McGovern, chair of Rotary’s International PolioPlus Committee. “The eradication of wild poliovirus type 3 and Nigeria’s good news demonstrate tremendous progress, but there is still much work to be done as we address the increase in cases in Pakistan and Afghanistan. In the face of challenges, reaching these historic benchmarks shows us that polio eradication is possible, and it’s important that we harness this momentum to secure the funding and political support needed to end polio for good.”

Grants announced today will support ongoing eradication efforts in Nigeria as well as other African countries. Grants will also be directed to efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Funding will be distributed as follows:

Country/project, Grant

  • African Regional Surveillance, $6.3 million
  • Cameroon, $4.1 million
  • Chad, $3.3 million
  • DR Congo, $3.4 million
  • Niger, $8.2 million
  • Nigeria, $491,153
  • Afghanistan, $4.6 million
  • Pakistan, $4.8 million
  • Somalia, $4.6 million
  • mOPV2 Stockpile, $10.3 million

Rotary has committed to raising $50 million a year to be matched 2-to-1 by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, amounting to $150 million for polio eradication annually.

While only Afghanistan and Pakistan continue to report cases of wild poliovirus, the remaining challenges to global eradication—like difficulty reaching children amid insecurity and conflict and weak health systems—have proven to be the most difficult. In order to meet these roadblocks head on and ensure the continuation of program efforts, the GPEI is hosting a pledging event at the Reaching the Last Mile Forum in Abu Dhabi, at which world leaders will gather and announce their commitment to ending polio for good.

Rotary has contributed more than $2 billion to fight polio, and countless volunteer hours since launching its polio eradication program, PolioPlus, in 1985. In 1988, Rotary formed the GPEI with the World Health Organization, UNICEF, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Gates Foundation later joined. Since the initiative launched, the incidence of polio has plummeted by more than 99.9 percent, from about 350,000 cases in 1988 to fewer than 100 cases this year.

About Rotary: Rotary brings together a global network of volunteer leaders dedicated to tackling the world’s most pressing humanitarian challenges. We connect 1.2 million members from more than 35,000 Rotary clubs in almost every country in the world. Their service improves lives both locally and internationally, from helping those 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.

Contact: Audrey Carl,

World Polio Day cheers major achievements toward global polio eradication

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By Ryan Hyland

Rotary and its partners in the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) are celebrating a major milestone this World Polio Day: confirmation that a second type of the wild poliovirus has been eradicated, which is a significant step toward the ultimate goal of a polio-free world.

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO), announced the historic feat in a video address during Rotary’s Global Online Update on 24 October. He said an independent commission of health experts certified the global eradication of the type 3 strain, which hasn’t been detected anywhere in the world since Nigeria identified a case of polio that it caused in November 2012. The type 2 strain was certified as eradicated in 2015.

“That leaves just wild poliovirus type 1,” Tedros said. He also commended Rotary’s long fight against polio. “Everything you [Rotary] have done has brought us to the brink of a polio-free world.”

Tedros balanced the good news with a note of caution, saying that the biggest enemy of global eradication is complacency. He encouraged Rotary members to redouble their efforts.

Rotary and its partners in the Global Polio Eradication Initiative have helped immunize more than 2.5 billion children against polio in 122 countries.

“We must stay the course. Together, we can make sure the children of the future only learn about polio in history books.”

“If we stopped now, the virus would resurge and could once again cause more than 200,000 new cases every year,” said Tedros. “We must stay the course. Together, we can make sure the children of the future only learn about polio in history books.”

Rotary’s World Polio Day program this year was streamed on Facebook in multiple languages and multiple time zones around the world. The program, which was sponsored by UNICEF USA and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, featured TV presenter and Paralympic medalist Ade Adepitan, supermodel Isabeli Fontana, science educator Bill Nye, and actress Archie Panjabi.

The program also featured never-before-seen footage of three Rotary members working to protect children from polio in their home countries of India, Pakistan, and Ukraine. In Pakistan, Rotarian Tayyaba Gul works with a team of health workers to educate mothers and children about the importance of polio vaccination. Dr. Hemendra Verma of India encourages his fellow Rotary members and our partners to make sure health workers and volunteers reach every child. And Ukrainian Rotarian Sergii Zavadskyi oversees an advocacy and awareness program that uses social media and public events to educate people who are reluctant to have their children vaccinated. These three heroes of the polio eradication effort show what it means to be a dedicated volunteer, and represent the efforts of Rotarians all over the world.

Rotary members and heroes in the fight to eradicate polio, from left, Tayyaba Gul, Dr. Hemendra Verma, and Sergil Zavadskyi.

Adepitan, a polio survivor who contracted the disease as a child in Nigeria, praised the efforts in that country, which hasn’t reported finding wild poliovirus in more than three years. “This is massive news,” Adepitan said.

Nigeria’s milestone clears the way for the entire WHO African region to be certified wild poliovirus-free next year. Adepitan reminded people just how far the continent has come, saying that even a decade ago, Africa reported nearly 75 percent of all polio cases worldwide.

“Today more than a billion African people are at the cusp of a future where wild polio is a disease of the past,” he said. “We’re not done. We’re in pursuit of an even greater triumph — a world without polio. I can’t wait.”

Scientist Bill Nye talked about some people’s reluctance to use vaccines, which he called a dangerous issue around the world. “As the conversation around vaccines becomes more hostile, we’re seeing an increase in outbreaks of preventable diseases. It’s not just measles. It’s rotavirus. Tetanus. Even polio,” he said. However, he said: “The science on vaccinations is settled. There is no dispute.”

Look even just at what Rotary and its partners have achieved since 1988, when the GPEI was formed, Nye said. Three decades ago, the disease affected 350,000 children in one year. Because of massive vaccination campaigns around the world, the number of polio cases has decreased by more than 99.9 percent.

“That’s about as concrete as evidence gets for preventative medicine,” Nye said.

[embedded content]

Rotary’s 2019 World Polio Day Global Online Update highlights the frontline workers who make polio eradication possible and the milestones that the program achieved this past year.

2019 proves that challenges remain

Despite these accomplishments, polio cases are rising in areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan that face tremendous challenges: They are difficult to get to and travel in, they are often not secure enough for vaccinators to do their work, and people are highly mobile. In all of 2018, these two countries reported just 33 wild poliovirus cases. The 2019 case count is so far 88, and health experts predict more cases to come.

Michel Zaffran, director of polio eradication at WHO, discussed the increased number of cases in Afghanistan and Pakistan. “At its core, polio eradication is very simple: If you vaccinate enough children in given areas, then the virus has nowhere to hide and eventually disappears,” Zaffran said.

It gets more complicated, he said, when thousands of children are not being vaccinated in some areas. “The reasons vary greatly, district to district, in both countries,” he added. “It could be because there is hampered access due to insecurity, lack of infrastructure, lack of clean water supply, inadequate planning of campaigns, community resistance, and other reasons.”

To combat any further spread of the disease, Zaffran says health workers are evaluating each area to understand why a child is missed and making customized plans to overcome the area’s specific challenges.

This approach is similar to how health experts overcame the last hurdles in India, which was declared polio-free in 2014.

“I encourage Rotary members everywhere to stick with it and stay optimistic,” Zaffran said. “Keep raising funds and awareness, advocate with governments. We truly are on the cusp of eradicating a disease for only the second time in human history.”

If it is eradicated, polio would follow smallpox as the second human disease eliminated from the world.

Rotary has contributed more than $2 billion to polio eradication since it launched the PolioPlus program in 1985, and is committed to raising $50 million a year for polio eradication activities. Because of a 2-to-1 matching agreement with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, that means that $150 million a year goes toward fulfilling Rotary’s promise to the children of the world: no child will ever again suffer the devastating effects of polio.

Join us for Rotary’s World Polio Day Online Global Update

Mark your calendar to join us on 24 October for Rotary’s World Polio Day Online Global Update. It will be streamed on RI’s Facebook pages in multiple languages and time zones around the world.

World Polio Day is an annual opportunity for Rotary members to rally the world around the fight to eradicate the disease forever. This year’s program will highlight the heroes of polio eradication, with stories from areas that have recently been affected and areas where polio is still endemic.

This year’s program, sponsored by UNICEF USA and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, features TV presenter and former Paralympian Ade Adepitan, supermodel Isabeli Fontana, science educator Bill Nye, and actress Archie Panjabi. Our partners at the World Health Organization and UNICEF will provide updates on the latest progress toward a polio-free world.

In 1988, when Rotary and its partners founded the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, the paralyzing disease affected 350,000 children. Our collaboration with the World Health Organization, UNICEF, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and later the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, local health workers, and national governments has helped reduce that number by 99.9 percent.

RSVP to your region’s global update on the Rotary International Facebook page.

Will your club or district host an event? Tell us about it and promote it to the world. Or find an event near you to attend. Be a part of celebrating the progress we’ve made toward eradicating polio.

Hoops on the Hudson

In Yonkers, New York, a new basketball court four years in the making provides valuable life lessons to the community’s kids — and its adults

By Bryan Smith

You hear the miracle before you see it. Shouts, laughter, the “thump!” “ping!” of bouncing basketballs colliding with a chain-link fence. The pounding of running feet, the shrill peal of whistles, the cries of encouragement.

“Nice job.”

“Pass and go.”

“You got this!”

Thump! Ping! Thump! Ping!

Only then do you glimpse the court, the long rectangle of brilliant blue and orange — the colors of the NBA’s New York Knicks — at Morningside Avenue and High Street in Yonkers, New York. Its surface glimmers like sheet cake in the bright sun.

And finally, the kids: short, tall, skinny, plump. They wear glasses and pigtails, silver-mesh headbands and multicolored T-shirts. They joke and smile as they run up and down the immaculate court, its regulation length bracketed at each end with an NBA-quality breakaway backboard. It’s as if they had been playing here their entire childhood.

Yet four years ago, the possibility that this picture-book basketball court might one day exist in a corner of Yonkers must have seemed as remote as the spires of downtown Manhattan, visible through the early summer haze some 15 miles south. Even a few months ago, the basketball court here at John Barton Memorial Park was a buckled concrete mess of cracks and pebbles and broken glass, splotched with clumps of sprouting grass and littered with discarded drug paraphernalia. During downpours, the rain would pool into a small lake, which left a coating of dirt and debris as it dried.

The court had been deteriorating for decades, and it might have moldered decades more had it not been for the efforts of Peter Spano. A member of the Rotary Club of Yonkers-East Yonkers, Spano dreamed of turning this neighborhood eyesore into a source of civic pride. He imagined a flawless new court where children and adults could play pickup games, but he also envisioned how that court might serve as a staging ground for basketball clinics and anti-bullying sessions. In short, as Spano explained one afternoon at a branch of the New York Sports Club, the court could provide opportunities “to teach life lessons through basketball” — which is, after a fashion, an abridged rendition of Spano’s own life.

That Spano chose basketball as the means to implement his dream should have come as no surprise to those who know him. (Nor was his choice of Knicks team colors for the Yonkers basketball court: He has been a hardcore fan of the franchise since the 1990s when the Knicks were led by Hall of Fame center Patrick Ewing.) Growing up in Yonkers, Spano attended Archbishop Stepinac, a Catholic high school for boys in nearby White Plains. Though he played three years on the school’s soccer team, basketball was his true love. He almost certainly would have been a star in that sport, too, except that the school wouldn’t let him play: Spano had a beard, which ran counter to team rules, and he refused to shave it. He still has the beard.

Sticking to his principles “helped develop my character,” Spano says today, but it slammed the door on any chance of playing basketball in college. He played in semipro and summer leagues for a few years until injuries kept him from progressing further. But along the way he learned to respect the lessons in leadership and teamwork that the game taught him. “I’ve been coached by some of my favorite players,” says Spano, who conducts basketball clinics and other events for kids at the New York Sports Club. “And I get to help coach some of their children and cousins and brothers.”

The lessons Spano learned on the basketball court he saw reflected in what he learned about Rotary. He first heard about the organization through the Steven Spielberg film Catch Me If You Can, in which one of the main characters is a member of the club in New Rochelle, a community on Long Island Sound that’s about 10 miles east of the Hudson River city of Yonkers. Spano joined the Yonkers-East Yonkers club in early 2015 as he was beginning to move forward on his plan to build the city a new basketball court. “I really love Rotary and what it stands for, and how many great things Rotarians do across the country and around the world,” he says. “We had a gentleman from Liberia join our club many years ago. We were able to help him build a school [in Monrovia] and sent a school bus there with some books and clothing.”

And sometimes a Rotary club’s focus is purely local, as Spano learned when he began looking for people and organizations to help him make his dream court a reality. “I see a lot of exciting things for the future of the youth through Rotary,” he says. “They are a great partner to have with these types of projects. I was lucky enough to interest them in what we were looking to do for the community.”

The Yonkers-East Yonkers club came on board in 2015; it provided a reliable source of man- and womanpower, as well as financial resources. The club contributed $5,000 toward the project, and a partnership with the Rotary Club of Yeocheon, Korea, led to an additional $16,000 in District Designated Funds (from Districts 3610 in Korea and 7230 in New York and Bermuda) and a $23,500 global grant from The Rotary Foundation. The Police Athletic League of Yonkers, the Yonkers YMCA, the WorldVentures Foundation (which assists children globally), and Sport Court, which builds outdoor basketball courts, also contributed to the project.

Spano’s most significant partner outside Rotary was another member of basketball’s Hall of Fame: Nancy Lieberman. A New York native and three-time All-American at Old Dominion University, “Lady Magic,” as she’s known, played and coached in the Women’s National Basketball Association, helped the U.S. women’s team win a silver medal at the Montreal Olympics in 1976, and became the first woman to play on a professional men’s team: the Springfield Fame in Massachusetts — and later, the Washington Generals, the perennial punching bag of the Harlem Globetrotters. In addition, she did a stint as an assistant coach with the NBA’s Sacramento Kings, and in 2018 she was named coach of the year in the BIG3, a three-on-three league of former NBA and international players.

Through her Nancy Lieberman Charities, she also worked to ensure that economically disadvantaged kids got educational and athletic opportunities, a goal she accomplished through basketball camps and clinics, college scholarships, and a program right in Peter Spano’s wheelhouse: Dream Courts. Lieberman and her foundation have built more than 75 basketball courts in underserved communities across the United States. After consulting with Spano, she agreed to help install a Dream Court in Yonkers — to the tune of $10,000. Nothing but net.

Early reviews of the new court were laudatory: “Good hoops,” said one young player. “I wish I could come here more often.”

Image credit: Fiona Aboud

As Spano explained, the court could provide opportunities “to teach life lessons through basketball.”

As the funding took shape, Rotarians began looking for a spot for the court. “Our concern was that it be put in an area that needed economic development,” says Alix Schnee, the 2017-18 president of the Yonkers-East Yonkers club. “The other thing was that we had to work with the city government to see if we could find a park that the city would work with us in developing.”

Spano approached the mayor of Yonkers, Mike Spano (no relation), and the city’s parks department. City officials settled on a suitable location in an economically challenged part of Yonkers, John Barton Memorial Park, a place badly in need of repair yet big enough to accommodate a regulation-size basketball court. Once all the permits were obtained, workers tore up the old concrete surface and replaced it with a durable layer of impact-resistant polypropylene tiles. (The perforated surface allows water and dirt to drain through the flooring system.) After the orange and blue surface was put in place, workers installed the NBA-quality backboards, as well as two long wooden benches for players and bleachers for spectators.

In February, city officials, Rotarians, and other Yonkersites gathered at the court for the official ribbon cutting. Lieberman, who attended the ceremony, singled out Spano for special praise. “You had a vision for this, you were determined, you weren’t going to let anybody steal your dream,” she said. “You fought for this court — and here it is.”

But building the court fulfilled only half of Spano’s dream. Like Lieberman, he and his fellow Rotarians envision sports as an arena that can do more than impart lessons about slam dunks and fast breaks. To that end, they launched a six-week session that paired Dream Court basketball clinics with anti-bullying lessons.

The sixth and final session takes place on a cloudless day in late June. Beyond Barton Park, a midrise tenement of dun-colored brick overlooks a monochromatic street studded with row houses clad in shabby clapboard. A group of Rotary volunteers, including Schnee, Sundra Lee-Ingemanson, and Barbara Hanna, arrive early to set up a registration table, bring in the first wave of snacks and bottled water, and, later, distribute Rotary T-shirts to the kids. At the start, only a few children take to the court, but within minutes, five become 10, then 20, then 40.

Dressed in long shorts, red compression sleeves, and an oversize white T-shirt stenciled with the words “Hoops Against Hate,” Spano patiently walks the kids through a series of drills designed to foster teamwork. “Three passes and a shot,” he instructs. At first, the drill has mixed success — “Do you ever pass the ball?” one teen complains to another, who only shrugs and laughs — but slowly the kids catch on. A footwork drill, in which boys and girls step in and out of a rope ladder, has better success. Some of the kids place their feet carefully between the rungs, while others tap-dance back and forth in a rapid-fire blur.

At each session, Spano has arranged for a guest to talk about bullying. Today’s speaker is Tim Hodges, first deputy chief of the Yonkers Police Department and a member of the Yonkers-East Yonkers club. Perched on the bleachers and eating pizza, the kids listen as Hodges, wearing his dress-white police commander’s shirt and his shield, explains how he once dealt with a bully — his former superior, who had different ideas about policing. “He was my boss, and he was really mean to me because I didn’t like to write tickets and I didn’t like to arrest people,” Hodges says. “I would rather play basketball with them or stickball or do fun stuff.

“So he got really mad at me,” Hodges continues. “He said, ‘You’re never going to amount to anything on this job.’ So I went home, and I was really upset. I didn’t realize it then, but he was bullying me. And I was an adult!”

Rather than keep those feelings bottled up, Hodges looked elsewhere for help. “What I learned is that if someone is treating you bad, you go to the person you have confidence in,” he says, seated alongside the kids. “Everybody has someone they have confidence in, right?” For Hodges, even as a grown-up, that person was his mom.

Her advice? Ignore the person. If he makes fun of you, walk away from him. It worked, Hodges tells the kids. Today, he’s the boss of the guy who once bullied him.

As with Spano and many of the other volunteers gathered at the court, Hodges understands how Rotary’s emphasis on Service Above Self influences his daily job as much as it does this afternoon’s courtside session. After his conversation with the kids, he stresses how important it is for police officers “to get along with everyone in the community, which we didn’t do years ago. We made so many mistakes; we thought we could arrest ourselves out of problems. Now, we’ve changed our whole concept.”

And unlike his former boss, Hodges has different advice for his fellow officers. “Go play with the kids,” he tells them. “Play with them in the streets.” That shift from an adversarial mentality seems to be working, he says, and he offers some statistics as proof. Shootings, he says, are at historic lows in Yonkers. “Ten years ago, we were averaging about 60 a year. We are now at 16 — and hopefully, this year we go even lower.”

Hodges takes a special pleasure in joining other members of the Yonkers community for today’s session on the new court. The global grant from Rotary, he acknowledges, was “an amazing thing for them to do. It just helps, me being a public servant and now being involved as a Rotarian. It adds a little more credence to everything.”

Rotarian Tim Hodges, first deputy chief of the Yonkers Police Department, speaks from experience on ways to deal with bullies.

Image credit: Fiona Aboud

“What I learned is that if someone is treating you bad, you go to the person you have confidence in.”

There are ample anti-bullying teaching moments on this Saturday — kids trash-talking, pointing, and laughing when someone misses a shot. Spano and the volunteer coaches counteract the negative energy simply through encouraging everyone, no matter his or her skill level. “We want to teach kids that they should fight for what they believe in,” Spano says. “But you can do that without picking on another child, without trying to make yourself feel superior by making someone else feel inferior.”

As the day’s activities wind down, Debra Hogue, who lives nearby, expresses her gratitude for the program. Standing on a tree-shaded hill overlooking the court, she says that she brought her three grandchildren to each of the six sessions. “It’s great because they get to know more kids — and everybody got along. It looks nice, too,” she adds. “I love it. I love it!”

Hogue recalls how at an earlier session she hadn’t paid attention to that day’s speaker. But Isiah, her eight-year-old grandson, “took in every word.” He even wrote a paper about the speech for a school project. “I was really surprised,” Hogue says as she points out her grandson, a boy in a red shirt darting back and forth on the pristine court, shooting layups, grabbing rebounds, and laughing with friends.

Another participant, 14-year-old Omar Jallow, takes a break after several pickup games. “I’m really liking this program,” he says. “I actually underestimated it. I was skeptical about the anti-bullying,” but now he admits he has learned from the speakers. What he really loves, of course, is the court itself. “Good hoops,” he says with a grin. “I wish I could come here more often, but my dad has to drive me here.”

It’s early afternoon when the program ends. Spano fist-bumps with the kids, some of whom stay to play a little longer. He explains how he hopes to build several more courts, one for each of Yonkers’ six districts. For now, however, as the “thump!” “ping!” of bouncing balls echoes from the beautiful court blossoming like a blue and orange flower, Spano and the kids seem plenty thrilled with the one.

Bryan Smith, senior writer at Chicago magazine, is the author of The Breakaway: The Inside Story of the Wirtz Family Business and the Chicago Blackhawks.

• This story originally appeared in the November 2019 issue of The Rotarian magazine.

The price of polio

The price of polio

Meet five Rotarians who understand the disease’s long-term consequences

as told to Vanessa Glavinskas
photography by Frank Ishman

When you go to your Rotary club meeting this week, look around at your fellow members and think about this: In North America, anyone younger than 70 likely doesn’t remember a time before the polio vaccine. Those under 40 were born after polio was no longer endemic in the United States. And among your club’s youngest members, the very word “polio” probably conjures a bygone age when children regularly died of diseases like measles, smallpox, or whooping cough. Now, however, we know that measles is staging a comeback. Tuberculosis, which might bring to mind 19th-century sanitariums, is gaining greater resistance to treatment. Until a disease is really gone, eradicated, extirpated from the planet, it will always be looking for ways to come back, for breaches in our defenses.

We’ve come very far in the 64 years since the introduction of Jonas Salk’s vaccine — and especially in the 40 years since Rotary decided to take on polio. Every day it gets easier to forget why it’s so critical that we eradicate this disease. Most of us don’t see polio in our daily lives. Whole generations have never experienced its terrifying power.

We let our guard down when we think that polio is a disease that happens only in faraway places, or that almost eradicated is good enough. But if we stop and remember what it was like when polio was everywhere and people felt powerless against it, we know that if we don’t finish the fight, we’ll soon be back where we started.

In the following segments, five Rotarians share their experiences with polio. Thanks to their willingness to recount painful memories, we know that we must keep fighting until polio is gone forever.

Ann Wade

Rotary Club of New Tampa, Florida

I felt like I was entering another world. Beds with paralyzed children lined every wall. I was put into a big room. There were rows and rows of children, probably about 50 children, and three or four nurses to care for us. I was seven when I was transferred to Hope Haven children’s hospital in Jacksonville, Florida, where I spent four months learning how to walk again.

I missed my mother so much. When she would visit, I’d ask her why she couldn’t come more often. But parents were only allowed to visit on Wednesdays and Sundays. I still don’t know why. I’d cry myself to sleep every night. The nurses used to get so mad at me. They’d say I was too old to cry.

I spent Thanksgiving, Christmas, and my birthday in that hospital. At first, I was bedridden. Polio had affected my legs, and I couldn’t walk. When I got the virus, I had extreme pain all over my body and a high fever. I couldn’t stand up. That was very scary.

My parents took me to the doctor on a Saturday morning; he examined me and immediately sent me to an isolation ward. I had my own room there, but only the nurses could be with me. There was a balcony that extended around the building, and each room had a window. There were two chairs on the balcony outside every room, and that’s where parents would sit and talk to their child, through the window. No one was allowed into my room, and I was not allowed out.

Once my fever broke and I wasn’t contagious anymore, I was moved to Hope Haven to learn to walk again. The therapies were painful. They would put hot, wet wool towels on my legs and then exercise the muscles. The nurses would also massage my legs with oil. Sometimes they’d use these electrical shock-type things to shock the muscles into use. They would take all of us to therapy once or twice per day. In between, teachers came in and we had school. They’d roll my bed to a huge room, and the teachers would be in there teaching. It was the beginning of second grade for me.

Once I started walking, I was released from the hospital, but I didn’t return to my old school until third grade. After I left the hospital, I tried to put it out of my mind. Then the vaccine was released, and everyone went to get it. It was being given at a school on a Sunday afternoon. They called it Sabin Sunday, after Albert Sabin, who invented the oral vaccine, and I remember standing in a really long line, thinking, “Do I really need to do this? I’ve already had polio.” But my mother was adamant that my brother and I get vaccinated.

Since then, I’ve done most everything I wanted to do in life. I became a teacher. I married a wonderful guy 53 years ago who is also in Rotary. I have three children and 10 grandchildren. Not many people know I had polio, except that one of my legs is smaller than the other and I have a slight limp. About 12 years ago, I fell and broke the hip in my bad leg. After surgery, I was able to learn to walk again, so now I can say I’ve learned to walk three times.

This year, I’m president of my Rotary club. I’m eager to make eradicating polio a priority and to raise money for End Polio Now. Until now, I haven’t told many people my story, but if it can help the eradication effort, it seems like a good time to start.

Carl Chinnery

Rotary Club of Lee’s Summit, Missouri

There were five children in my family, all boys. In 1942, every one of us got polio. My oldest brother, George, died. My middle brother spent months in an iron lung. I was so young that I don’t remember having the virus, but I grew up with its effects on our family all around me. George’s photograph sat on our fireplace mantel. He had been afraid of the dark, so my parents plugged in a nightlight next to it.

But as time went on, few people even knew I had had the disease. In 1999, I was appointed PolioPlus chair for my district. That’s when I asked my mother to tell me about our family’s experience with polio. At first, she said she couldn’t talk about it. It was too painful. But a few weeks later, she surprised me with a letter. I’m sharing it now in the hope that our story will help my fellow Rotarians understand why we must continue to fight this disease until it’s eradicated.

It must have been August 7, 1942, when Bill came in and announced he had “poliomyalitus.” I didn’t know where he had heard of such a thing, but I said, “If you have poliomyelitis, you go straight up to bed and stay there” … and he did! He really did feel bad! Then George became ill. I called Dr. Eldridge, our pediatrician. On the night of August 11, George couldn’t swallow his medication. It came back through his nose. I called the doctor again and he came right over. (Dad was on the road.) Dr. Eldridge took George and me to old General Hospital. (No other hospital in Kansas City would accept us.) They took George, but they wouldn’t let me stay. I went home and called Dad. He started home immediately, drove all night, and went to the hospital about 4 a.m., but they wouldn’t let him in either. At about 7 a.m. the hospital called us and said George was dying. When we arrived, George was already gone.

By that time, Richard, Larry, and Carl had also become sick, and when I got home from the hospital, Richard was much worse and we rushed him to the hospital. When we marched in, I informed them I was staying … I had lost one child and I was staying, no matter what! Dad and I took turns so Richard always had one of us there. One of Dad’s aunts had come to help us and stayed with Bill, Larry, and Carl.

Dad sent someone to take me to the funeral home to see George. When I got back to the hospital, Richard wasn’t doing well, and in the night, I saw his skin sink into his chest. All I could see were bones covered with skin, drawn tight. I ran as fast as I could down the hall, calling the intern. We ran back and this man picked Richard up and plunked him into an iron lung. His lungs had collapsed.

When we went home, we had to start the “Kenny” treatments. We had to tear wool blankets into strips and put them in boiling water, run them through a tight wringer, and place them on each child for so many minutes, and then off for so many minutes, then on, etc. Dad put a hot plate in an upstairs bathroom to boil the water. He put an old wringer over the tub with stacks of wool strips handy. Bill was on his way to recovery, but Richard, Larry, and Carl were the sick ones now. Dad hired nurses to help during the day, and my dear mother drove from California to help. People came from everywhere to give us hope and offer to help, but they couldn’t come in the house.

When the boys were well enough, we had to start therapy, compliments of the March of Dimes. I took my children and another lady in leg braces and her little boy three times a week. Richard has one leg a little shorter than the other. Carl’s chest didn’t fill out. Bill had many problems. And, of course, we have one little boy angel in heaven.

Jim Ferguson

Rotary Club of Bluefield, West Virginia

My mother was in her 30s when she contracted polio. I don’t remember her having the disease, but I do remember her coming home with a cast on her left foot after she’d had a corrective surgery. I was about four years old, and I remember her getting out the drill to make holes in the legs of a kitchen chair so she could screw casters into it. She sat in it and rolled herself around our kitchen while she cooked, rather than hobble on her crutch.

The surgeon had put a plate in her foot in an attempt to straighten it, but it didn’t work, and it left her in pain. Doctors wanted to amputate her foot, but she refused. These were the days before the Americans With Disabilities Act. Nothing was accessible. She would struggle on one crutch up and down the stairs to our apartment, down the street to the store, up the steps to get on public transportation. I only saw her ask for help if she really needed it. I really don’t know how she managed to raise nine of us children. Before she got polio, she was raising my older siblings during the Great Depression and while my father was away fighting in World War II.

We all grew up here in Bluefield, West Virginia. In the 1950s, people were afraid of polio and the atomic bomb. A nearby town, Wytheville, had more cases of polio per capita than any other place in the country. People would keep their windows closed and hold their breath just to drive through Wytheville. Everyone was terrified because they didn’t understand how the virus was being transmitted. City workers sprayed insecticide all over the trees and houses in case insects carried polio. All public places were closed — movie theaters, pools. Kids were quarantined at home. There’s still a museum in Wytheville that documents its polio epidemic.

I joined Rotary when I found out about their work to eradicate polio, because I thought it would be a way to make my mother proud. She died of lung cancer at age 56, though she never smoked. I wasn’t interested in networking; I joined Rotary to help immunize children against polio, and in 2011, I traveled to India to do that. We went to a little town between the Ganges River and Nepal where we immunized about 45 children who had been missed by previous vaccination campaigns. While there, I met a 16-year-old girl who had crawled her entire life because of polio. She was getting fitted for leg braces so she could take her first steps at age 16. I still get emotional thinking about her.

After that trip, I became an advocate for PolioPlus. I gave presentations across our district, raised money, and served as our district’s PolioPlus chair. I didn’t have any of those aspirations when I joined, but I can be very driven, like my mother: Even though polio left her physically damaged, it never took her spirit.

Julie Jenkins

Rotary Club of Cambria, California

I had never heard anyone called a polio survivor until I became a Rotarian in 2005. For me, I had polio, and life went on.

I contracted the virus when I was eight months old. The disease left me with a limp. My left foot is a drop foot, which means I can’t lift the front part, so I pick up my whole foot when walking to avoid dragging my toes on the ground. It was always clear that I was never going to be a lead dancer for the Bolshoi Ballet, but I chose my goals and went after them. I had a successful career in marketing for movie studios. It was always go, go, go, and there was a lot of travel. I left the industry at age 60 because the travel and hours were taking a toll on me physically. But at that point, I still hadn’t consulted with a doctor who knew anything about polio.

My dad died in 2008 after being bedridden for years. He had contracted polio at the same time I did, but the impact on him was more severe. It affected his right leg and right arm. In his name, I traveled to India to take part in a National Immunization Day in 2010 and again in 2012. What really shocked me in India was seeing polio survivors on the street. There was a young man, I’m guessing he was in his early 20s, who I saw at St. Stephen’s Hospital in Delhi. He is burned in my memory because of the way he was forced to walk.

In the United States, you might occasionally see a polio survivor who limps. But it was completely different in India. Going on an NID showed me what a polio survivor living in poverty suffers. They can’t work. Many are carried from place to place. It’s devastating.

In 2013, I climbed Machu Picchu. That night, I remember taking a shower and trying to walk 50 feet to dinner. I could barely get there. I used my walking stick, but I had to keep stopping. It was so hard to move. A few months later, I consulted with a doctor who explained to me how polio initially kills off nerves. Some of the surviving nerves grow little sprouts, and when those die off, they don’t regenerate. He said I should always use a wheelchair going through airports. He told me, “Your life is now a choice about what is worth killing nerve sprouts for.” He advised me that I shouldn’t do anything that I would need more than 20 minutes to recover from.

The biggest thing that concerns me today is that people here in the United States are not vaccinating. I’ve lived in Los Angeles for 38 years, and so many people come through this city. I worry about how easy it would be for the virus to travel back to the United States and affect a child who isn’t vaccinated. Yes, I survived and lived a full life, but I would have done more physical activities if I hadn’t had polio. I want every opportunity to be open to every child.

John Nanni

Rotary Club of Middletown-Odessa, Delaware

When I was 10 months old, I was paralyzed from the neck down by polio. I had been in the hospital for about a week when my great-aunt came to visit. She was a nun and had spent most of her adult life working as a nurse in a polio ward. She looked at my chart and saw that the doctors weren’t doing what they needed to do to prevent my muscles from atrophying. My great-aunt believed in a method developed by an Australian nurse named Sister Kenny. It was a physical therapy program for polio patients that manipulated and stretched the paralyzed muscles.

But at the hospital, they were putting kids in casts. It was the worst thing to do, but they didn’t know. Not moving the paralyzed limb caused the muscles to shrink and weaken, and those children had to have many painful corrective surgeries.

After my great-aunt visited, my mom decided to bring me home and perform the Sister Kenny method herself. She said I would wail in pain every time she exercised my limbs, and she had to do it every other hour, all day and all night, for six months. She was pregnant at the time and also had my three-year-old brother to care for. Without her strong will and determination, I never would have walked. I’m blessed that she had the fortitude to do that.

A year later, I took my first step. As I grew up, most people never knew I had had polio. My mom did such a good job, very few of my muscles atrophied. I played baseball, basketball, and football. I worked in restaurants, which is very physically demanding. I started a business. At one time, if you went to a Burger King anywhere between Maine and South Carolina, your receipt was printed on paper from my paper and ribbon supply company.

But when I turned 40, I started to have weakness, pain, and extreme fatigue. It got so bad that I had to retire. I went to 10 different doctors over two years before a doctor identified it as post-polio syndrome. Hearing “polio” hit me like a ton of bricks. I thought it had come back. But the virus hadn’t come back; the muscles that had compensated for my damaged muscles were starting to fail from overuse.

Now I’m in a wheelchair for all but about 200 to 300 steps per day. I’m in the chair to protect my ability to walk. I have to avoid overusing my muscles. I can’t lift weights or do resistance exercises. About 70 percent of polio survivors have post-polio syndrome, yet it’s still widely misunderstood and often misdiagnosed.

About four years ago, I attached a sign to my wheelchair that says, “This is what polio looks like when a child is not vaccinated.” I did it because I want to bring attention to the need to eradicate polio — and to the importance of vaccinations. A lady came up to me at Yankee Stadium recently to ask if she could take a picture of my sign. I said, “Sure, but why?” She said her daughter-in-law refuses to vaccinate her children, and the woman wanted to show her this picture. Here in Delaware, the combined vaccination rate is 77 percent, which is well below herd immunity rates for many diseases. As I’ve gotten more and more involved with PolioPlus through Rotary, I’ve become concerned with the declining level of vaccination rates in the United States.

I’m in this chair because there wasn’t a vaccine for polio when I got the virus in 1953. But no matter how dedicated Rotary members are to eradicating polio, many of them know very little about the disease. So I’m trying to do my part to educate people about my experience.

There is a lot of suffering for polio survivors. That’s why we have to keep fighting this disease. So many positives are occurring in the eradication campaign right now. We are very close to a polio-free world. The money is not going down the drain. We have to keep fighting. We have to keep the promise that we made to the kids of the world back in 1985.

• This story originally appeared in the November 2019 issue of The Rotarian magazine.

Aloha Rotary

Say hello to Honolulu, home to the 2020 Rotary International Convention. And the best way to see this island paradise? Hang with local Rotarians and Rotaractors.

Story by Diana Schoberg

It’s 8 in the morning on the island of Oahu, and Waikiki Beach is already bustling. People are clustered in the sunny patches between the shadows of the beachfront hotels: families with toddlers dashing in and out of the water; couples drinking coffee; surfers with their kaleidoscopic boards heading out to catch some early waves. Swimmers are bobbing lazily in the foam-flecked ocean or doing laps in the tranquil seas behind the breakwater known as the Waikiki Wall. The stands renting snorkels, canoes, boards, and other ocean gear have begun to open; a catamaran glides back from a morning sail. Yet despite all this activity, the only thing I can hear is the crash of the surf as it breaks upon the shore.

Green sea turtles, called honu in Hawaiian, are a symbol of good luck — and of the 2020 Rotary Convention.

Image credit: Shane Myers

I’m with my family taking an exploratory stroll before we meet with some new Rotary friends for lunch in Honolulu’s Chinatown. Our six-year-old daughter, Bea, rolls up her sparkly pink capris and lifts her legs high as she runs through the waves. She turns around every 50 feet to grin at me and my husband, Craig, before she starts running again, daring us to chase her across the warm sand before the waves obliterate her footprints.

This isn’t our family’s first trip to Honolulu. Bea has been asking to move here since we visited three years ago, when she fell in love with the temperate ocean, the golden beaches, and the perfect weather. When she found out we were making a return trip to the island of Oahu, she threw her arms around my left leg and squeezed, peppering my hip with kisses. “You’re the best, best, best, best mom ever!” she shouted. Who was I to disagree?

This trip would be a little different. This time, in anticipation of the 2020 Rotary International Convention from 6 to 10 June, we were on a scouting mission, and our guides were local Rotarians who provided us with an insiders’ perspective of this island paradise. I asked them to show us their Honolulu — their environment, their history, and their culture. We love the beach, but there are other sides of Hawaii that I don’t want you and your family to miss.

At St. Louis School in Honolulu, Bradford Ikemanu Lum sits at the front of a class of fifth-grade boys, pounding a gourd drum called an ipu heke. The boys chant in Hawaiian and dance, practicing for a May Day performance. They’re singing a song about pōhuehue vines, an indigenous morning glory found on sand dunes, that Hawaiian surfers slapped at the water’s edge to implore the gods for bigger waves. At the end of the song, Lum pounds a sharp staccato as, one by one, the boys in the front row squat down with their arms spread out wide. They look as if they are riding the waves themselves.

Contrary to the stereotype, hula dancing isn’t about a seductive sway of the hips; the motions go with the words of the songs. To thank them for their performance, Kanoe Cazimero chants and dances the second song of a trilogy about Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of fire and volcanoes. She moves her arms fluidly up and down to evoke the mountains and the sea. Like Lum, Cazimero is a Native Hawaiian and cultural expert; having trained and performed hula since the age of five, she will be organizing the entertainment for the Honolulu convention, which will include a performance by her brother, the singer and musician Robert Cazimero, hailed, along with his late brother Roland, as “a cornerstone of the Hawaiian music scene.”

Colorful surfboards of varying sizes are an omnipresent reminder of Hawaiian culture.

Image credit: Marco Garcia

That the class is learning about Hawaiian culture at all is a drastic change from when Lum and Cazimero were kids. Speaking Hawaiian in schools was banned in 1896, three years after the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii paved the way to annexation of the islands by the United States. As native people were encouraged to assimilate and adopt American ways, Hawaiian culture came to be viewed as backward and exotic. “I hated Hawaiian music; I hated hula; I hated everything Hawaiian,” says Lum. “It was because of the stigma. I didn’t want to show my Hawaiian-ness because I didn’t want to be shunned by my friends.”

It wasn’t until he was in college, where the only ethnic studies class available was devoted to Hawaii, that Lum began to embrace his native identity. Hawaiian culture experienced a renaissance in the 1970s through the efforts of people like Lum and Cazimero, sparking a renewed interest in the indigenous language, music, and art. In 1978, the state’s constitution was amended to mandate a Hawaiian education program, as well as recognize Hawaiian as an official language of the state.

When hula class is over, Lum and Cazimero take me to the Queen Emma Summer Palace, where a cool breeze provided royalty a respite from the heat and dust of the city. On this small island, it seems as though everybody knows everybody, and we discover that one of our tour guides is the son of the president-elect of the Rotary Club of Honolulu Pau Hana, where Lum and Cazimero are members. On display is a stunning yellow and red feather cape that belonged to Kamehameha the Great, who united the Hawaiian Islands into one kingdom early in the 19th century. Hawaii had no large mammals, nor precious metals or stones, so feathers were used to display wealth and power. “Bird catchers were really important to the king and queen,” Lum explains. “Hawaiians never killed birds. They would put honey syrup on the trees, the birds would fly in it, and they would pluck the bird feathers.”

Hawaiian culture has some key values, and, Lum points out, they dovetail with Rotary’s concept of Service Above Self. The concept of ‘ohana, or family, is very important, whether that’s your blood family, your work family, or your neighborhood family. So is ha‘aha‘a, or humility. And of course there is aloha, which many people recognize as a Hawaiian word for both hello and goodbye. But “aloha” has a much broader meaning, one that encompasses love, peace, compassion, and mercy. It’s so central to Hawaiian culture that the “Aloha Spirit” — defined as “the traits of character that express the charm, warmth, and sincerity of Hawaii’s people” — was codified in Hawaiian law. “ ‘Live aloha’ is something we say all the time,” Cazimero says. “It’s not just a phrase on a T-shirt. It comes from the heart.”

Clockwise from top left: Poke (rhymes with OK), diced and marinated raw seafood, is a staple of native Hawaiian cuisine — though its different incarnations come seasoned with a variety of sometimes spicy-hot ingredients; dabbling paddlers prepare to launch their oceangoing outriggers; diners enjoy an outdoor meal at the café in the courtyard of the Honolulu Museum of Art.

Image credits: Caroline Rougemont, Jim Feng, Courtesy of Honolulu Museum of Art

The Hawaiian Islands are such a beautiful place, they have been the setting for many movies and TV shows — and Tony and Joe Gedeon seem to know the location of every one of them. As we drive through East Oahu, the father-son duo, members of the Rotary Club of Waikiki, dazzle us with nuggets from their combined encyclopedic knowledge of Hawaiian pop culture. They point out the filming sites of Magnum P.I., Hawaii Five-0, and the famous beach scene in From Here to Eternity; we see the home of Tom Selleck, the site of the Real World: Hawaii house, and Bruno Mars’ high school.

Our tour culminates in a drive through tropical jungle and a series of hairpin turns to the top of Mount Tantalus, where we delight in the 270-degree perspective of the island. (We made the ascent by car; more adventurous visitors may choose to challenge the switchbacks on a bicycle.) From the Pu‘u ‘Ualaka‘a lookout, we can see Diamond Head, Punchbowl Crater, and downtown Honolulu — the same view enjoyed by Chad (Elvis Presley) and Maile (Joan Blackman) during their abbreviated picnic in Blue Hawaii. Hungry for a lunch of our own, we head back into town to sample some poke — diced marinated seafood. When you order, remember: Poke rhymes with OK.

We conclude our day with another meal — though with its combination of food and entertainment, a luau is far more than a meal. Hawaiians might host a luau to celebrate a birthday or anniversary the way people in other parts of the country might throw a clambake or a barbecue. The luau we attend is at Paradise Cove at the Ko Olina resort in Kapolei, and we arrive as two men pull a roasted pig out of the imu, a fire pit lined with banana leaves and hot rocks. To work up an appetite, we kick off our flip-flops — slippers in local parlance — and embark in an outrigger canoe, which has a spar or float (the outrigger) projecting horizontally from the hull to stabilize the boat in the rolling ocean. After some vigorous paddling, we pause to watch a spectacular sunset over the water.

Back on shore, beneath a glowing sky and a crescent moon, we eat a variety of traditional dishes, including the succulent kalua pig — kalua means “baked in an earth oven” — and poi, a purple dish made of taro. As a nod to this traditional family-and-friends luau, the emcee asks who is celebrating birthdays, honeymoons, or anniversaries. We see different styles of dancing from around the Pacific islands, and Bea leaps out of her seat when they ask for volunteers to hula, joining the other keiki (children) as they learn to move their hands to “stir up that bowl of poi,” “make the motion of the ocean,” and “cast out your fishing pole and reel in your fish.” To the hypnotic beat of island drums, the evening concludes with a man twirling sticks of fire, the audience cheering as he spins and leaps and cartwheels through the magical night.

  1. A statue of the legendary surfer Duke Kahanamoku; a hula dancer tells a sinuous tale.

    Image credits: Artyooran, Marco Garcia

  2. A sample of aloha “spirits”; a Kaka‘ako mural.

    Image credit: People Images

I am inside the Honolulu Museum of Art with Tina and Christina Bui. The twin sisters are both studying biology at the University of Hawaii with plans to go to medical school, and they are co-presidents of the University of Hawaii at Manoa Rotaract Club, which they joined after several years in Interact in high school.

The Buis exhibit pretty much every characteristic of identical twins I’ve ever seen or heard: They dress alike — all in black — and talk simultaneously using the same words. Sometimes I feel as if I’m listening in stereo. “I like how quiet it is,” Tina whispers as we examine the pieces in a room that traces the evolution of Buddhist art. “And the lighting,” Christina finishes. “Because it’s so quiet, you can think to yourself.”

The two young women wanted to show me the museum because it’s a favorite spot they like to visit with friends. As I wander about, I find myself lured into the museum’s Hawaiian room, which focuses less on historical Hawaiian artifacts and more on the way Hawaiian artists make sense of the modern world. The Buis in particular love the portrait gallery, where the juxtaposition of older and modern paintings accentuates the varieties of artistic styles. Interspersed among the indoor, climate-controlled galleries are themed courtyards that are works of art themselves; the Mediterranean courtyard, for instance, with fountains and teal tiles on the walls, and the Chinese courtyard, with a koi pond, provide museum visitors an opportunity to linger outdoors.

Afterward the Buis take me to see some street art in Kaka‘ako, a former industrial neighborhood about 2 miles from Waikiki now filled with craft breweries, coffee shops, restaurants, and, most famously, murals, making it a place to hang out that’s off the beaten path. “It’s young and open to everyone,” Tina says. Nearly every surface of every wall in the neighborhood is painted with murals that range from realistic portraits to cartoon “aloha monsters.” We encounter a few tourists taking selfies — and so do we. We can’t resist.

Clockwise from far left: The nearly one-mile trail to the summit of Diamond Head is strenuous and steep, but the stunning panoramic views from the platform at the top of the crater are worth the effort; an intrepid surfer challenges the waves on a boogie board; along with Diamond Head, the lush, corrugated Ko‘olau mountains are one of Oahu’s two National Natural Landmarks.

Image credits: Anouchka, Yin Yang

We’re jostling with the other tourists as we listen to an audio tour and meander through the exhibits at the visitors center at Pearl Harbor National Memorial. But as we reach the point where we stand along the shore and look out at the USS Arizona Memorial, I’m compelled to stop. I remove my headphones and shut my eyes to close off the rest of the world. I want to take a moment and try to fully comprehend the significance of this hallowed site.

This may be Oahu’s top tourist attraction — 2 million people visit the memorial annually — but it’s also the kind of place that can give you goosebumps even as you’re surrounded by strangers. It’s a solemn reminder of the tragedy of war.

But it’s also a symbol of the power of reconciliation. The Rotary clubs of Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima, Japan, formed a sister club relationship in 1982 to turn scars from the war into bonds of peace. Rotarians from the clubs visit each other’s memorial sites and plant peace trees that flourish in the two cities.

The USS Arizona Memorial straddles the submerged hull of the battleship, which sank in nine minutes during the surprise attack of 7 December 1941. The memorial was closed for repairs when my family visited. But it is anticipated to reopen in fall 2019, when visitors will once again be able to walk above the final resting place of the more than 1,000 men who died on the ship.

I wasn’t sure how much my young daughter would understand about all of this. But even Bea was moved by the sacredness of the site, and as we walked out, she held her hand over her heart.

The sun sets on a hidden Hawaiian cove; come June, those footprints in the sand could be yours.

Bea squeals at the waves crashing near the rock she’s perched on, spattering us as tongues of water lick the shoreline. “Oh yeah, there’s a big one!” she shrieks, beckoning the water. “Come by me!” Meanwhile, Del Green, the 2020 Host Organization Committee chair, is pointing out the green sea turtles underwater, backlit as the sun shines behind the waves. The excitement is contagious, and I scream too as I see an occasional flipper or head peek out of the water. “They bring out the child in all of us,” Green admits.

We’re on Laniakea Beach on Oahu’s North Shore, often called Turtle Beach for the green sea turtles that feed here. The turtles, called honu in Hawaiian, reach lengths of 3 to 4 feet and weigh in at 200 to 500 pounds. You can’t miss them at the Honolulu convention: They’re featured on the convention logo. (For more on Hawaii’s honu, see “Convention Countdown.”)

We’re midway through our circle tour of the island with Green, a member of the Rotary Club of Downtown Honolulu, and his girlfriend, Diana Doan, who’s a member of the Honolulu Pau Hana club. When they picked us up earlier in the morning, Green and Doan greeted us by kissing our cheeks and putting purple and white flower leis around our necks, a welcome we encounter several times on our trip. Hawaiians seem to give leis whenever they have an excuse: as a greeting, a thank you, or to recognize an achievement — “to share your aloha,” Green says. Lei shops can be found in Chinatown and at the airport, and the adornments can be made with not only flower petals but also nuts, shells — or dollar bills. The host committee, Green says, is planning to have Rotarians help make the world’s largest lei out of paper money from their countries, with the proceeds to go to End Polio Now.

As we drive from Honolulu, Green explains that people here don’t use the words “east” and “west” as directionals, as they do on the mainland. Instead they reference geographical landmarks: “Diamond Head” for east and “Ewa” (pronounced eh-va, for Ewa Beach) for west. And then there’s mauka and makai, which mean “toward the mountain” and “toward the sea.”

Along the way, we’ve passed so many gorgeous beaches that I’ve run out of colors to describe the water: It’s aqua and shimmering at a lookout past snorkeling hot spot Hanauma Bay — “Whoa, it’s like the water is glitter,” Bea exclaims — and the turquoise of a Blue Hawaiian cocktail at Sandy Beach Park, famous for its daring, and dangerous, bodysurfing. By the time we reach the Mokupu‘u lighthouse, where visitors can take a short hike up a paved path, I’m asking around for ideas. “Cerulean?” Craig suggests.

Between the beaches, we admire the majestic Ko‘olau mountains, verdant cliff faces with wrinkly folds like fingers that have soaked far too long in the tub. It’s just before lunch, and in the midday light the mountains look almost two-dimensional, as if they were a backdrop for a movie. (In fact, they were the setting for Jurassic Park, among other films.) Even Green, a local, stops midsentence at least three times during the drive to admire them. “Aren’t they beautiful,” he exclaims. We pass a parking barrier painted with the phrase “Aloha is a lifestyle” — a sentiment the people we’ve met on our trip fully endorse.

After we fly home to wintry Wisconsin and Bea goes back to school, her kindergarten teacher asks her to write in her journal about our trip. This time, it’s not the beaches, the ocean, or the incredible weather she recalls. Instead, she writes about our day hanging out with Del and Diana. Even my six-year-old recognizes that, as many natural wonders as the islands have to offer, the best part about a Rotary convention is the people you meet.

• This story originally appeared in the September 2019 issue of The Rotarian magazine.

• Top image: On Oahu’s South Shore, Diamond Head overlooks Waikiki Beach and the Pacific Ocean.

Discover aloha in Honolulu!

Register for the 2020 convention now and save up to $200. The early registration fee is $450 for Rotarians and $120 for Rotaractors through 15 December. Register at While there, download the promo kit to encourage your fellow Rotarians to attend Rotary’s biggest event of the year — or watch and share an enticing video that previews the Rotary Convention.

Experience the culture of Hawaii at events planned by the Host Organization Committee in Honolulu; they include a concert at the Waikiki Shell, a sunrise walk for peace, an ancient fishpond project, and a meal with local Rotarians.

Learn more at

The Rotarian Conversation: Denis Mukwege

The Rotarian Conversation:
Denis Mukwege

As a doctor, this Congolese physician cares for women brutalized by sexual violence; as their champion, he cries out for justice. His efforts nearly cost him his life — and earned him a Nobel Peace Prize

Denis Mukwege has talked about the horror of rape hundreds of times. He has testified in front of the United Nations, the European Parliament, and the U.S. Senate. He has given countless interviews to journalists and filmmakers, spoken at events for doctors, politicians, and laypeople, and trained other doctors to perform the lifesaving gynecological surgeries he’s famous for.

Despite all that, the Nobel laureate sometimes finds himself struggling to describe the terrible things he has witnessed. Last May, Mukwege, 64, sat down with The Rotarian to discuss his decades working in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and at one point words failed him. “If you can rape a grandmother who is 80 or 90 years old …” he began before his voice trailed off into silence.

Mukwege’s graphic accounts — and be forewarned, they are gruesome — come from the front lines of Congo’s ongoing conflict, “arguably … the world’s deadliest crisis since World War II,” according to a 2008 report from the International Rescue Committee. The report estimated that between 1998 (the beginning of the Second Congo War) and 2007, an estimated 5.4 million people died as the result of the violence. More than 2 million of those deaths occurred after the war technically ended in late 2002, as armed groups and militias continued to fight, perpetrating hideous and premeditated acts of sexual violence on innocent women and children.

In 1999, when he founded Panzi Hospital in the hilly outskirts of his birthplace, Bukavu — a city in eastern Congo that bumps up against the border with Rwanda — Mukwege intended to concentrate on reducing maternal mortality. That illusion didn’t last long: His first patient needed multiple surgeries after being raped and shot point blank in her genitals. He soon understood this was not an anomaly: Within three months, he had treated 45 women who had been raped, their genitals shot, burned, or sliced with bayonets. “At the beginning, I could not believe that a human could do these kinds of things to another human,” he says. “It was shocking to me.”

In 2010, a UN special representative called Congo “the rape capital of the world,” an epithet validated by another study — this one published in 2011 in the American Journal of Public Health — which estimated that 400,000 women in Congo were raped over a 12-month period in 2006-07. Over the past two decades, Mukwege’s Panzi Hospital has treated more than 50,000 victims of sexual violence.

Fueling this violence are ethnic tensions and a struggle to control the untapped riches that lie buried in the impoverished but mineral-rich eastern Congo. During the interview, Mukwege pointed the finger at one culprit in particular: coltan, a dull, black metallic ore (technically, columbite-tantalite) that’s an essential component of cellphones, laptops, and other electronic gadgets.

Mukwege began delivering speeches around the world about the problems in his country. In September 2012 at the UN, he excoriated Congo and the international community for lacking the political will to “arrest those responsible for these crimes against humanity and to bring them to justice.” A few weeks later, he survived an assassination attempt in Congo that left his security guard dead. Mukwege moved with his family to Belgium; he returned to Bukavu and a hero’s welcome in January 2013.

In 2018, Mukwege shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Nadia Murad, a young Iraqi woman held in sex slavery by ISIS before she made a nighttime escape; the Nobel committee saluted them “for their efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict.” Mukwege dedicated his prize to “women of all countries bruised by conflict and facing everyday violence.”

When they heard the news, “the patients and staff were singing and dancing and shouting out of joy and happiness all over the hospital,” says John Peter Mulindwa, a doctor at Panzi and a member of the Rotary Club of Bukavu Mwangaza. “The prize has impacted our everyday work. Everyone as a team is motivated and encouraged.”

Mukwege spoke with senior staff writer Diana Schoberg after his speech at the Rotary Peace Symposium in Hamburg, Germany. Nyenemo P. Sanguma, a regional grants officer for The Rotary Foundation who was born and raised in Congo, also sat in, expecting to serve as an interpreter — until Mukwege graciously agreed to conduct the interview in English rather than French.

THE ROTARIAN: You’ve been working on the issue of sexual violence against women in conflict for nearly two decades. But there are still mass rapes, and there are still thousands of women and children coming into your hospital as a result. Is there any reason to think things will improve?

MUKWEGE: Twenty years ago, no one could hear from me. It was taboo to talk about sexual violence, to talk about all these terrible things happening to women. Today I spoke as a keynote speaker about this issue. This is progress.

We have to understand that the world will not change in one day. But I can see that people are starting to really talk about this issue of rape in conflict, and rape generally. Because what is happening in wartime is also what we are living in normal life. In countries like Germany or France, one woman is killed every three days by her boyfriend or her husband, by her ex-boyfriend or ex-husband. Women don’t have the freedom of their bodies, of themselves.

TR: In some parts of the world, women are beginning to speak out about harassment. Are you encouraged?

MUKWEGE: Everywhere I travel, I see women struggling to get the right to be heard. Women are starting to shift the shame from victims to perpetrators. Men will start to think twice before perpetrating rape because they know that women will not keep silent. Silence is a tool that allows rapists to continue. When women keep silent because they may be blamed by police or their own families, it is difficult to have justice. And when a woman keeps silent, another woman will become the next victim.

TR: What needs to happen to effect change?

MUKWEGE: The relationship between men and women should not be a relationship of power and domination. It must be a human relationship, where we are equal. We need to start educating children about this earlier — from the crib. When you start to say this color is for boys and this color is for girls; when you have aggressive things for boys but all the kind things for girls, what are you teaching? We are creating a model where men have to be strong and aggressive, someone with power, to be a man. This has to change to get a world where our children will feel that they are equal so they can support each other.

My dream is to see a world where gender equality can be the general rule. Many of the bad things that are happening are only because men are making a lot of decisions themselves, and most of our decisions are made to get more power, to get more money, to be strong. But this is not the goal. The goal is how we can make decisions together.

TR: How did rape become a weapon of war?

MUKWEGE: We’ve done many studies on this. Rape is performed in war not as a sexual relationship, but as a weapon to destroy. Some of the perpetrators’ methods — raping women with sharp objects; burning or shooting a woman’s genitals — have nothing to do with sex. Rape is a way to terrorize. And it’s really an effective weapon because it’s not only women who are traumatized, but also their husbands and their communities. When men rape 100, 200, 500 women in one night, there must be planning involved. It’s systematic. It was planned to destroy a community.

I have treated women who were more than 80 years old. The first time I treated a 19-month-old baby, I just about lost my patience. How this can happen? When you see those kinds of things, you begin to question human beings. I am starting to get an answer. It’s a kind of terrorism, and terrorism has no humanity. It’s meant to destroy, to harm, and to make things painful for others. And when girls’ genitals are destroyed, it means their capacity to have babies is also destroyed. It’s a form of ethnic cleansing, which is what they did, for example, in Bosnia and Sudan.

TR: Where do you find your inspiration?

MUKWEGE: Most women who arrive at my hospital are completely destroyed, physically and mentally. Living through this terror changes their lives. I’m so surprised to see how these women can stand up and become agents of change in society. Women can be so strong. It pushes me to go on.

TR: You use the terms “victim” and “survivor.” What’s the distinction?

MUKWEGE: Victims are women who come to the hospital with their trauma and feel that nothing will change. But when they overcome that trauma and decide to lead a new life — one where they are not only living for themselves, but working to prevent what has happened to them from happening to others — they become survivors.

TR: Can you give me an example?

MUKWEGE: Every six months we take about 90 young women who went through terrible trauma and put them through a program called City of Joy, which teaches them skills and supports them psychologically. Most of those girls become leaders when they return to their villages. Today, one of them is an anesthesiologist. She told me, “I went through terrible pain, and I don’t want to see other women experience pain.” This is wonderful.

  1. Denis Mukwege founded Panzi Hospital in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo two decades ago; Mukwege and his staff perform up to 20 reconstructive surgeries daily to repair the reproductive and digestive systems of women who have been raped and mutilated by rebels and government soldiers.

    Image credit: Per-Anders Pettersson / Getty Images

  2. Mukwege and Iraqi human rights activist Nadia Murad received the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon in war.

    Image credit: Rune Hellestad — Corbis / Getty Images

  3. Well-wishers march in Oslo, Norway, after the award ceremony.

    Image credit: Tobias Schwarz / Getty Images

  4. Mukwege (receiving an honorary doctorate at Harvard in 2015) dedicated his Nobel to “women of all countries bruised by conflict and facing everyday violence.”

    Image credit: Paul Marotta / Getty Images

TR: Rotary builds international understanding on a personal basis. Can that be a model for others?

MUKWEGE: What I love about Rotary is how it brings cultures together. When you don’t know another person, you have an impression that he is dangerous to you. This is normal. And when you are afraid, you can do bad things. Rotary’s Youth Exchange is a good thing because when people can cross a culture and see what others are doing, they can change their point of view. I’m sure that if you put people from Africa and from Europe together, there are positive things in each culture that everyone can learn. They can understand each other better, and maybe together build a world better than we have today.

It’s possible, but you can’t do it when you are afraid about the culture of another. When you think that he is not like me, he is different from me, then you can’t build anything positive.

TR: What specific things can Rotarians do?

MUKWEGE: In Rotary, you have a worldwide movement with more than a million people who believe in what they are doing. First, if 1 million members of Rotary said the war in Congo over coltan has to stop, and if they pushed on companies, pushed on international organizations, pushed on the United Nations, it would take only one year before you got a result. Companies and politicians are afraid to have people talk badly about them.

It’s possible to get coltan cleanly, without resulting in the rape of women. The problem is that to get it cleanly, it means that we need to get companies who respect the environment and human beings. But this would cost a little more money. So my cellphone might cost me 10 or 20 percent more, but I would know that it is not harming anyone. It’s my responsibility to say I would rather pay a little more, that I can’t accept that a child be killed because I have to get a cellphone. It’s a social, moral, and ethical responsibility.

Second, in 2010, the UN released a report mapping human rights violations in the Democratic Republic of Congo from 1993 to 2003. It documented that hundreds of thousands of people had been killed. But nothing happened after the report was released. If there is no justice, people feel that they are authorized to do these bad things.

So Rotary clubs need to ask, why can’t we get clean coltan? Why can’t all these atrocities, these crimes against humanity, be prosecuted in Congo? We need people who can demand the implementation of the recommendations [about reparations and legal and security reforms] in the UN report. Rotary clubs can do this. That would make a big difference.

TR: People asked you to run for president of Congo last year. Why did you decline?

MUKWEGE: Residents of Congo have the impression that people become leaders as a way to become rich. When people have this impression, I think, I can’t run for that. What I’m doing is enough for me. I’m a doctor; I’m a teacher. I don’t need more.

TR: So as president, you would no longer be an agent for change?

MUKWEGE: I’m afraid things would remain the same. In Congo, we need a moral revolution. People have to think about how society should be organized. To go on in the same system, nothing will change. We need to work at the grassroots level. People have rights, but they don’t use them. Authorities or leaders should be accountable, but they’re not. How can you be a leader in a country where people don’t understand one another’s roles?

TR: What does justice look like?

MUKWEGE: Justice is not only a repressive tool; it’s also a tool to repair. Justice is a way to fight against repetition. It’s a way to respect the social contract and to guarantee the moral values in society. If you don’t have justice, everyone thinks that they can do what they want and that nothing will happen. We need justice to make people understand, to make people think twice before committing the crime of genocide. TR: What can Rotary do to make that happen? MUKWEGE: Rotary is an organization based on altruism, on trying to make the lives of others better. In Congo, we need to teach people to understand that you can win when you make others win. If you only care about making yourself better, everyone will be worse off. If you make life better for others, your life will be better. So what I can ask Rotarians in Congo to do is to teach others what altruism means.

• Illustration by Viktor Miller Gausa

• This story originally appeared in the October 2019 issue of The Rotarian magazine.

The grief that does not speak

While dining with an old friend, an acclaimed Chicago author witnesses the enduring repercussions of violence

By Alex Kotlowitz
Illustrations by Zulema Williams

Not long ago, over lunch at a restaurant, I asked Pharoah Rivers how much he remembered from a murder he witnessed 21 years ago. I’d written about Pharoah in my first book, There Are No Children Here, but the event I wanted to talk about happened after its publication, on a summer evening in Chicago in 1998. It’s at the restaurant that I come to realize how much that incident remains a part of Pharoah. “I can’t get it out of my mind,” he says.

The incident occurred on 19 August of that year. My wife, daughter, and I were visiting my parents in upstate New York when I received a phone call near midnight. The voice on the other end sounded familiar, but I couldn’t quite place it. “It’s Anne Chambers,” she said. Anne was a Chicago violent crimes detective whom I knew. She told me she was calling from the kitchen in my family’s home in Oak Park, a suburb bordering Chicago. She told me that Pharoah was there with her, and that he may have been involved in a murder. My legs buckled. I sat down to catch my breath.

At the time Pharoah, who had grown up in one of Chicago’s housing projects, had been living with me since he was 12 — a two-week stay that turned into six years. He had recently been accepted at Southern Illinois University and had decided not to visit New York with us during this summer trip because he wanted to get ready for classes that began the following week. And then I got this call.

I knew Anne from my time reporting There Are No Children Here. Here’s what she told me in that short midnight phone call: Pharoah had taken a taxi from our house to his mother’s home on the West Side, and when the cab pulled up, two young men pulled Pharoah out of the backseat and then jumped in. One of them held a pistol to the cabbie’s head, demanding his money. The cabbie must have panicked, and when he pressed down on the accelerator, one of the assailants shot him in the back. Anne told me that some detectives suspected Pharoah might have set up the driver. Fortunately, she knew him from her time in the projects and knew that he wasn’t that type of kid. I told her that I, too, couldn’t fathom Pharoah pulling such a stunt.

By the next morning, Anne and her colleagues had determined that in fact Pharoah knew nothing of the robbery. His sister had seen much of what transpired and could identify the assailants. For my part, I tried to reach Pharoah. This was before cell phones. His mother said he was out, but she wasn’t sure where. I tried calling regularly throughout the day. Both my wife and I were concerned. He’d just seen someone murdered. It wasn’t the first time, I knew, but I also imagined how disorienting it must be. Morning came and went. As did the afternoon. Finally that evening I reached him at our house.

Where have you been? I asked.



At Marshall Field’s. For school.

Shopping? I was incredulous.


Pharoah, how are you doing?

OK. Why?

Why? You just saw someone murdered.

I’m OK. I got to go. I need to get packed for school.

I hung up, shaking my head. I was dumbfounded — and angry. How could he not be grieving? How could he not be upset? Shopping? I told my wife that if it was me, I’d be curled up on our couch in a fetal position. I thought to myself, something must be terribly wrong with Pharoah. How can you not feel? How can you not cry? How can you not express gratitude for not getting killed yourself? Pharoah gets yanked out of the backseat of a taxi by two men with a pistol and then watches as they shoot and kill someone he’s just shared time with. Something, I thought, was off. Out of kilter. And for the longest time I thought Pharoah was without heart, that he’d become hardened, if not numb, to the violence around him. This of course is the mistake we all make, thinking that somehow one can get accustomed to it.

“The national grieving and questioning don’t extend to corners of this country where such carnage has become almost routine.”

The numbers are staggering. In Chicago, in the 20 years between 1990 and 2010, 14,033 people were killed, another roughly 60,000 wounded by gunfire. And the vast majority of these shootings took place in a very concentrated part of the city. Let me put this in some perspective, if perspective is possible; it’s considerably more than the number of U.S. soldiers killed in combat in Afghanistan and Iraq. Combined. And here’s the thing: Chicago is by no means the most dangerous city, not even close. Its homicide rate doesn’t even put it in the top 10.

But the city has become a symbol for the personal and collective wreckage — a kind of protracted cry of distress — in the streets of the nation’s most impoverished and segregated neighborhoods. Citizens killing citizens, children killing children, police killing young black men. A carnage so long-lasting, so stubborn, so persistent, that it’s made it virtually impossible to have a reasonable conversation about poverty in this country and has certainly clouded any conversation about race. One friend who worked for a local antiviolence organization — the fact that such groups even exist speaks volumes to the profound depth of the problem — calls it “a madness.” What’s going on?

Indeed, my latest book, An American Summer, is about death — but you can’t talk about death without celebrating life. How amid the devastation, many still manage to stay erect in a world that’s slumping around them. How despite the bloodshed, some manage, heroically, not only to push on but also to push back. How in death there is love.

It’s also about who we are as a nation. After the massacre at Newtown and then at Parkland we asked all the right questions. How could this happen? What could bring a young man to commit such an atrocity? How do the families and the community continue on while carrying the full weight of this tragedy? But in Chicago neighborhoods like Englewood or North Lawndale, where in one year they lose twice the number of people killed in Newtown, no one’s asking those questions. I don’t mean to suggest that one is more tragic than the other, but rather to point out that the national grieving and questioning don’t extend to corners of this country where such carnage has become almost routine. It’s in these, the most ravaged of our communities, among the most desperate and forlorn, that we can come to understand the makings of who we are as a nation, a country marked by the paradox of holding such generosity beside such neglect.

Look at a map of the murders and shootings in Chicago and it creates a swath through the city’s South and West Sides, like a thunderstorm barreling through the city. How can there not be a link between a loss of hope and the ease with which spats explode into something more? There was a moment when we were filming the documentary The Interrupters when Ameena Matthews, one of the three violence interrupters whose work we chronicled, reflected on what she called “the 30 seconds of rage.” She described it like this: “I didn’t eat this morning. I’m wearing my niece’s clothes. I was just violated by my mom’s boyfriend. I go to school, and here comes someone that bumps into me and doesn’t say excuse me. You hit zero to rage within 30 seconds, and you act out.”

In other words, these are young men and women who are burdened by fractured families, by lack of money, by a closing window of opportunity, by a sense that they don’t belong, by a feeling of low self-worth. And so when they feel disrespected or violated, they explode, often out of proportion to the moment, because so much other hurt has built up and then the dam bursts. They become flooded with anger.

Then there’s the rest of us, who, reading the morning newspaper or watching the evening news, hear of youngsters gunned down while riding their bikes or walking down an alley or coming from a party, and think to themselves, They must have done something to deserve it, they must have been up to no good. Virtually every teen and young man shot, the police tell us, belonged to a gang, as if that somehow suggests that what goes around comes around. But life in these communities is more tangled than that. It’s knottier and more lasting than readings of a daily newspaper or viewings of the evening news would suggest.

“You have to fight — and fight hard — not to let the ugliness and inexplicability of the violence come to define you.”

The numbers don’t begin to capture the havoc wreaked on the souls of individuals and on neighborhoods, nor do they grapple with the discomforting fact that the vast majority of the shootings are of African Americans and Hispanics by African Americans and Hispanics. What to make of all this? I don’t know that I fully know myself, but what I’ve come to realize is that if you’re black or Hispanic in our cities, it’s virtually impossible not to have been touched by the smell and sight of sudden, violent death. And again — and this seems rather obvious — the violence occurs in communities for which a sense of future feels as distant and arbitrary as a meteor shower, communities that in fact have been shunted aside precisely because they are black and Hispanic.

It’s my hope that by telling the stories in An American Summer, I will help upend what we think we know. Trauma splinters memory. Soldiers who have fought in war speak of holding on to fragments of remembrance, like a disjointed slide show that periodically gets stuck on a single image, on a single moment. The novelist and Vietnam veteran Tim O’Brien has talked about how the atrocities and nastiness of battle get in your bones. The same can be said for young and old living in certain neighborhoods in our cities. You have to fight — and fight hard — not to let the ugliness and inexplicability of the violence come to define you. With just one act of violence the ground shifts beneath you, your knees buckle, and sometimes all you can do is try as best you can to maintain your balance. There are those who right themselves and move on, but for most, their very essence has been rattled.

Over lunch at the restaurant, Pharoah recalls that violent evening in 1998. He says that the cabdriver, a middle-aged white man whose name I later learned was Michael Flosi, engaged him in conversation, that he wanted to know all about Pharoah. When Pharoah told Flosi he was headed to Southern Illinois University, Flosi told him, “God must have really blessed you.” Flosi shared with Pharoah that he’d been saving for years to move his family to Texas and that the move was imminent. “He seemed so happy,” Pharoah tells me. When they pulled up to Pharoah’s mom’s house, the young men leaped into the cab as Pharoah was getting out.

As he recounts this story, Pharoah seems in a different place. One minute he is sitting across from me in the booth, and then he scoots out as if he’s getting out of a cab. He recoils as if someone’s just jumped in front of him. He’s not present. Instead he’s there, in that moment. Pharoah tells me he ran to the porch, and then after he heard the gunshot he returned to the cab, which had rammed a parked car. Flosi, he says, was slumped over the steering wheel, and the windshield was splattered with blood. (What Pharoah doesn’t remember is that, according to court records, he later called the cab company to find out whether Flosi had lived.) Pharoah at this point looks around. His eyes are wide with fright. He’s hyperventilating. In the middle of the restaurant he’s crouching, as if trying to disappear. I tell him to sit down. I have to tell him again. “It’s like I’m there,” he says. “I’m out of breath.” The violence is in his bones.

There are so many like Pharoah who carry the violence, who keep moving forward enshrouded in its aftermath. Yet there doesn’t seem to be a sense of urgency, especially among the rest of us. “We’re in the midst of an epidemic,” Don Sharp, a Baptist pastor and longtime friend, told me. “If people were dying of some kind of disease, there’d be all kinds of alerts, but it’s become a way of life for us that’s dangerous.”

I often think of a Chicago Sun-Times front page from a number of years ago. The banner headline read “Murder at a Good Address.” The story reported on a dermatologist who was discovered bound and brutally stabbed at his office on luxurious Michigan Avenue. I admired the headline for its brazenness and honesty. Its subject was one of 467 murders that year in the city, though the others didn’t warrant such attention, mostly because who would want to read a feature with the headline “Murder at a Bad Address”? In Chicago, the wealthy and the well-heeled die headline deaths and the poor and the rambling die in silence — a silence that hides the screams and howling and prayers and longing that follow.

Over lunch that day, Pharoah told me, “There’s a lot of stuff I want to forget.” I’m telling his story with the hope that we won’t.

This story originally appeared in the July 2019 issue of The Rotarian magazine.

Read The Rotarian Conversation with Alex Kotlowitz or learn more about An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago and how to buy it.

Adapted from An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago, by Alex Kotlowitz. Published by arrangement with Nan A. Talese, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2019 by Alex Kotlowitz.

The Rotarian Conversation: Alex Kotlowitz

The Rotarian Conversation:
Alex Kotlowitz

No matter your address, economic status, or trauma history, we are all neighbors, insists this astute observer of social imbalance

Alex Kotlowitz is a scholar of inequity. A writer-in-residence at Northwestern University, he has spent his career investigating and reporting on America’s poorest neighborhoods. In the process he has shown that poverty is more than a lack of money. It is the absence of safety, opportunity, and, far too often, hope.

In his new book, An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago, Kotlowitz tells the stories of individuals altered by urban violence. There’s the high school student who pleads with another teen not to shoot his best friend; the mother who forgives her son’s killer because “he too was lost in a dark place.” No matter where we live, Kotlowitz reminds us, these men and women are our neighbors. “They are people,” he says, “just like you and me.”

Kotlowitz is the author of four books, including There Are No Children Here, which the New York Public Library identified as one of the most important books of the 20th century; it was adapted for a television movie produced by and starring Oprah Winfrey. He was a producer for the award-winning documentary The Interrupters, which was based on his article for the New York Times Magazine. His honors include two Peabody awards, the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, and the John LaFarge Memorial Award for Interracial Justice, as well as eight honorary degrees. His previous work for The Rotarian includes the 2012 essay “Defusing Violence” and a 2011 article on poverty in the United States.

Recently, Kotlowitz sat down at his Oak Park, Illinois, home with Shirley Stephenson, a frequent contributor to The Rotarian. A writer and poet, Stephenson is a family nurse practitioner at a school-based health center on Chicago’s West Side. There she works with adolescents who might have stepped out of the pages of An American Summer.

Like Kotlowitz, Stephenson has experienced violence and its aftermath. “I used to work in an emergency department, and I’d heard about the violence in Chicago for years,” she says. “But when you see a car pull in that’s just been shot up and you’re carrying kids out of it, you experience it in a different way.”

Illustration by Viktor Miller Gausa

THE ROTARIAN: When you look at a neighborhood, what’s the first thing you notice?

KOTLOWITZ: Whether there’s any activity. Whether there are people on the streets or on their porches, a sense that they have laid claim to this community.

TR: How do we know what community we’re part of? And do we naturally care about our community?

KOTLOWITZ: This is the great American paradox: For all the celebration of diversity in this nation and how we like to think we’re all in this together, it’s astonishing to me that we lead such disconnected lives. We end up settling in places where we’re among the familiar, among people who look like us and who dress like us. We need to recognize this paradox and find a way to address it.

TR: Your books depict Chicago neighborhoods plagued by violence and poverty. How does that affect the people living there?

KOTLOWITZ: A few years ago I went to a screening of The Interrupters at the Danville Correctional Center, a medium-security prison about 140 miles south of Chicago. Afterward, I talked with two of the prisoners. One of them had been in prison for 18 years, and the other for 21 years. They were both from Englewood, one of the communities featured in the film, and they were so distressed and saddened to see how much worse the neighborhood had become since they left for prison.

These are communities lacking in opportunity. Spend a little time there and it’s clear that the playing field is not level. You walk out of your home in Englewood and you can see the gleaming downtown skyline and know what’s not yours. It does build up a sense of resentment. And I think for much of America, it’s easy to look at the neighborhoods I write about in An American Summer and think, “Well, that’s not me.” So that’s one of my hopes for this book: that people will read these stories and see themselves in the people I write about.

TR: Do you think people are born with empathy?

KOTLOWITZ: Empathy is central to who we are as human beings. I talk about it as the centripetal force of storytelling. It’s also the centripetal force of community: It’s what holds us together; it’s what binds us. It’s part of what we are as humans, but it takes some effort. It’s not as if we’re naturally inclined to think of ourselves as somebody else. It takes a leap of imagination.

TR: When you spend time in other communities, is it possible to shed the experiences and perspectives accumulated in your personal life?

KOTLOWITZ: I tell my students that, as journalists and reporters, we must develop a level of self-awareness. We must be aware of our personal and collective experiences and how they influence the way we look at the world. We talk about objectivity in my profession, but there’s really no such thing. We’re not blank slates, so when we go in to report a story, the most we should be asking of ourselves is that we be absolutely honest and square to what we see and hear, and that we go in willing to have our assumptions challenged and to be knocked off balance. The only way that’s going to happen is if you are aware of all that you bring to that moment.

TR: Some children have the luxury of asking, “What do I want to be when I grow up?” Do the kids in An American Summer ask that question?

KOTLOWITZ: In There Are No Children Here, I asked one boy what he wanted to be when he grew up. He said, “If I grow up, I want to be a bus driver.” “If,” not “when.” Certainly among the young people I spent time with working on that book and this book, there is a sense that the future is really tenuous. Tomorrow is not promised to you — which for a young person has to be terrifying.

TR: Can survivors of trauma ever have confidence in returning to a normal life?

KOTLOWITZ: Trauma, especially the kind of trauma that I write about in this book — acts of violence, the loss of a family member or a friend, or yourself being a victim or perpetrator of violence — there’s no question it gets in your bones. It comes to shape you in some manner, and you fight vigorously to keep it from defining you. You see it in the people I write about in the book, and you see it in veterans returning from combat. It’s not to say they’ve left it behind, but most have gone on to have full and rich lives. The moment, though, never goes away, especially if you’ve lost a loved one. You don’t want that moment to go away; you don’t want to forget that person.

TR: Did writing An American Summer affect you in ways different from writing There Are No Children Here?

KOTLOWITZ: I remember when I first began spending time in the projects while reporting There Are No Children Here. The conditions were appalling, unlike anything I had ever seen. I felt this incredible sense of shame: How could I not know? I worked in downtown Chicago then, and the projects were only 2 miles from my office. I thought, “How could I have been so close and not had any idea?” Eventually my shame turned into anger, that in the world’s most prosperous nation we could have such profound distress, such profound poverty.

With An American Summer, that poverty obviously wasn’t new for me. The trauma came from talking with people about the most disturbing, unsettling, sorrowful moments in their lives. It was really hard for them. You’ve heard about “secondary trauma” suffered by those who work with people who have been traumatized. Anita Stewart and Crystal Smith, two of the social workers I mention in the book, both dealt with that secondary trauma, and there’s no question that when I was working on the book, I experienced it too. I still feel it in some ways, this sense of despair and deep sorrow.

TR: Based on your experiences in the streets of Chicago, do you think resilience can serve as an antidote to hopelessness?

KOTLOWITZ: We need to be careful about how we talk about resilience. Sometimes we talk about it in a glib or facile way, especially the resilience of children. But in my book I tell the story of Eddie Bocanegra, who, in an act of vengeance, shot and killed somebody when he was 18. He spent 14 years in prison. Eddie’s a remarkable human being, and his story is about trying to find a way to forgive yourself for what you’ve done. Today he’s doing some of the most important, inventive, original work around violence prevention in the country right here in Chicago.
But there’s a moment in his story where he’s really unsettled by a dream he has. His wife, who is a social worker, tells him that’s the price of resilience. She was saying that resilience isn’t a static notion; it’s something you’re constantly working at. It’s not as if we have a natural fortitude to overcome profound traumatic moments. We have to work at it constantly. So I want to be careful of this notion of resilience, the idea that you just buck up and make it work.

TR: If people feel that violence isn’t touching them, how do we engage them in finding solutions?

KOTLOWITZ: What I was trying to do in the book was remind my readers that the people I report on are our neighbors. It’s important not only to connect with them, but to care about their predicament. Maybe it’s naive, but I have faith that we have a capacity to reach out beyond our own lives, to reach out beyond all that feels familiar.

I tell stories out of the fundamental belief that life ought to be fair, and yet I often find myself in corners of this country where life isn’t fair at all. To paraphrase Studs Terkel, if the community isn’t in good shape, neither am I, and that’s partly why I tell stories.

TR: Rotarians are humanitarians. They are empathetic, but they are doers. They want to take steps. Are there interventions or actions you might suggest to Rotarians that would address poverty and violence?

KOTLOWITZ: One of the great things about an organization like Rotary is that it has an incredibly powerful collective voice. What’s more, Rotarians have a foot in two worlds. Presumably many Rotarians have reasonably comfortable lives, and yet they work in these different and unfamiliar communities around the world. It’s important they tell the stories of those people they spend time with. They can be a powerful voice on issues that are not a regular part of the public conversation. It’s incumbent upon those of us who have some standing to try to ensure that these matters become a part of the public and political discourse.

TR: In “Defusing Violence,” your 2012 essay for The Rotarian, you suggest that everyone needs a person who doesn’t give up on them, someone who treats them with a sense of dignity and decency, someone who never lets go. That level of commitment is overwhelming to a lot of people. Is there a middle ground?

KOTLOWITZ: There are institutions committed to this kind of work, and it’s incumbent on us to support them. One of those places is public schools. For all the talk about how dysfunctional schools are, they are a place where kids really want to be. And then there is the extraordinary example of Crystal Smith and Anita Stewart, the social workers who physically and metaphorically embraced all these kids in need of nurturing and support. You see it in the program that Eddie Bocanegra is running, Readi Chicago, where they provide young men with jobs and cognitive behavioral therapy. Or you see it at Mercy Home for Boys and Girls, a jewel in Chicago that helps kids like Marcelo Sanchez, another young man whose story I tell in my book. And there’s CeaseFire, now known as Cure Violence, whose work was featured in The Interrupters. These kinds of actions may be overwhelming for individuals to accomplish, but go out and support those institutions that are doing it and doing it well.

TR: How were you inspired to pursue your life’s work?

KOTLOWITZ: I dropped out of college for a while and ended up working in a settlement house in Atlanta. It was my first exposure to profound poverty in our cities. It was a transformative moment for me.

TR: Are you doing what you always wanted to do?

KOTLOWITZ: I didn’t realize this is what I wanted to do until I got a job with a small alternative newsweekly after college. It pushed me into places where I otherwise would never have spent time, introduced me to people I never would have had reason to meet. Once I realized how much I loved it, I thought, “This is what I want to do.” I get to hole up in my home office and write. And that’s when I feel alive: when I’m telling stories.

  • This story originally appeared in the July 2019 issue of The Rotarian magazine.
  • Promoting peace is one of Rotary’s six areas of focus. Learn more at

The wheel deal

The wheel deal

This 92-year-old Rotary club was once the place to see and be seen. But its numbers had dwindled. So one member took a unique approach to wooing new recruits, starting with the town’s civic leaders. Anyone need a badge polished?

By Kevin Cook
Illustrations by Greg Clarke

The mayor gave me a funny look. “You want to do what?”

“Fill some potholes, sir. I want to prove our Rotary club isn’t just talk.”

Mayor David Narkewicz and I sat in his office at City Hall in Northampton, Massachusetts, near a portrait of one of his predecessors, Calvin Coolidge. I told him I might also be good at stabbing litter with one of those spiked poles. I swore not to wound any of his constituents.

“It’s a nice gesture, but it’s really not necessary,” he said. His phone was ringing; he had a meeting to get to. But I wasn’t quitting yet. For once I wasn’t fighting City Hall, but trying to butter it up.

“If you give me something to do,” I explained, “you’ll have one more reason to send a city representative to our Rotary meetings. We both win.”

He shook my hand. “Let me get back to you.”

I belong to a small club in Northampton, a busy college town with a population of 28,000-plus. It was once home to a thriving Rotary club with 92 members: doctors, lawyers, bank presidents, even the owner of Northampton Cutlery, which supplied the U.S. Army with knives.

But over time the club lost members and influence. The mayor gives an annual talk at one of our Monday meetings, but he isn’t a member. Neither are the local bank presidents, partly because locally owned banks are becoming extinct — eaten up by global banks. Today our members include a bank manager, a couple of lawyers, and a chiropractor, but Rotary meetings — once held at the luxurious Hotel Northampton — were no longer the see-and-be-seen events they used to be.

Phil Sullivan, a six-time club president and a Rotarian for 45 of his 74 years, remembers when all of Northampton’s civic leaders were members. “But times changed,” Sullivan says. “We got older. I was the youngest one at the meetings when I began attending with my father in 1967, and when I turned 67 in 2011, I was still one of the youngest!”

Today our 92-year-old club has 30 members, up from its all-time low of 19. “It starts with one meeting,” Sullivan says. “First, you have to get people in the room. Maybe they join, maybe not, maybe they tell their friends. One way or another, you give them a taste of Rotary and take it from there.”

Thanks to Sullivan, our meetings definitely taste better than they used to. After years of steam-table lunches elsewhere, Sullivan moved meetings to a high-end Italian restaurant. Spoleto wasn’t open for lunch, and owner Claudio Guerra couldn’t begin to feed 20 or 30 Rotarians for the $20 per person the club had to spend. But he and Sullivan worked it out: The restaurant now opens early on Mondays exclusively for the Rotary club, with a limited menu that makes it affordable for both sides: a salad, a dessert, and a choice among four entrees, including one of the better chunks of salmon you’ll get this side of Boston. Holding meetings at Spoleto has boosted attendance and membership.

After Mayor Narkewicz, Police Chief Jody Kasper was next on my list. A Northampton cop since 1998, she has been the department’s chief — the first woman to hold that role — since 2015. We talked about the challenges a chief faces in a town like ours: the opioid epidemic; keeping officers from bolting to the state police for better pay; occasional sexism. Kasper said she enjoyed speaking to our club a few months ago and hoped we would support her department by liking its Facebook page, praising officers who do good deeds, maybe send a letter of support.

“We’ve got a Police Day coming up,” she said. “We invite the public into the station. Kids get to try on a uniform and learn what we do. Civic groups set up tables, meet people, get the word out about their causes. You can have a table if you’d like.”

“We’ll be there,” I said. “Meanwhile, has the mayor mentioned sending someone to our weekly meetings? You might be one of the people representing the city at our meetings.”

“Every week?”

“No, on a rotating basis. Maybe you’re there one week, someone from the fire department the next week, the mayor once in a while.”

“I haven’t heard about that,” she said.

“Does it sound workable? Will it help if I keep an eye out for crime?”

Kasper said that if I saw something, I should say something. Meanwhile, she thought her officers could handle the police work. As for attending our meetings, “Your plan does sound workable.” She was on board if the mayor was.

So was Fire Chief Duane Nichols, who described himself as a fan of Rotary. “Your club bought us some smoke detectors and defibrillators,” he said when I turned up at his office down the hall from the city’s four gleaming fire engines. In talks to groups like ours, Nichols emphasizes three steps toward fire safety: Every home should have working smoke detectors; every family should have an escape plan in case of fire; and everyone in the family should know where to meet if they have to escape. That last one hadn’t occurred to me, but it’s vital. “The last thing you want is for somebody to run back in to save somebody who’s already safe outside,” he said.

Nichols offered to speak to us again. “We’d like that, but this is about getting you to a meeting as a prospective member,” I said. “You, the mayor, other civic leaders — not just because you’re important but because you’re connected.” He had 68 firefighters working for him. The mayor oversees hundreds of full- and part-time employees. If people like them committed to Rotary, that commitment might resonate through our 365-year-old town.

“Makes sense to me,” he said. “I’ll come to a meeting.”

To say thanks, I took a tissue from a dispenser on his desk and polished his badge.

Next I swung by the Hotel Northampton, where guests through the years have ranged from Presidents Coolidge, Kennedy, and Nixon to musicians David Bowie, Bob Dylan, and John Mayer. I wanted to say hello to owner Mansour Ghalibaf, an Iranian immigrant who had worked his way up from accountant here in his adopted country. Ghalibaf lives an hour’s drive away, but he’s a member of our club. He invited us to use his posh hotel “for anything” at a reduced rate. A Rotary-themed paintball game in the lobby? “Well, almost anything.” I gave him a book I wrote about football, signed “to a Patriots fan and patriot.”

At Stop & Shop, the local supermarket, I confessed to Stop & Shoplifting. The deli department practically asks for it by displaying hot, spicy french fries right out in the open. I’ve been known to filch a fry. Manager Mike Renkie didn’t just forgive me; he promised to come to a Rotary meeting. He also gave us a table at the store’s annual Customer Appreciation Day and space in the front window. Our Chowderfest was advertised right there with the $8.99 sockeye salmon fillets.

At our next Monday meeting, I hear about other members’ recruiting efforts. Financial adviser Helen Blatz tells of a missed opportunity. “Remember the friend I brought to a meeting? I thought she was going to join,” she says. “She chose BNI instead.” That’s one of the hazards in a town like ours: In addition to Rotary, other service and business organizations beckon, including Kiwanis, Lions, Chamber of Commerce, and, in this case, Business Network International. “There’s a lot of competition out there,” says Blatz. “You’re looking for that twinkle in the eye when you invite someone, but it doesn’t always happen.”

Sullivan, who remembers when Rotary was men only, helped recruit Blatz and several other women members. Nodding toward Jenn Margolis, his successor as president, he says, “They’re taking over. Good for them.” He applauds efforts to diversify the club and to significantly lower members’ average age. “Now we’ve got people in their 30s like Jenn and Dan Shaver.”

Shaver, a chiropractor, wishes the club would get help from RI headquarters in Evanston to improve its website and reach young people online. Beyond that, he hopes to get Erica Olsen, director of the Safety Net Project at the National Network to End Domestic Violence, to join. She’s his wife.

Bob Mahar, a nonagenarian, leads our club in a song every week. He says he’s all for recruiting younger members, “but I’m not going to rap.”

Treasurer Julee Clement reports that we’ve lost several members, though she doesn’t bemoan their departure. “They were RINOs,” she says. “Rotarians in Name Only. They don’t attend or pay their dues, so we took them off the list.”

Then there’s Tara Brewster, vice president of business development at Greenfield Savings Bank. Brewster is in many ways the ideal candidate for membership: young, energetic, community-minded. But she couldn’t make a weekly meeting. “There’s a feeling we all have of not having enough time,” she says. “I’m very involved with various committee and board meetings and with philanthropic work. But in a world that’s increasingly virtual, real relationships matter more than ever, and that’s Rotary’s strength: making personal connections among Rotarians and between Rotarians and the larger community. The face-to-face interactions mean so much, not only for our business success but for our greater human longing to belong and know each other in a deeper way.”

A few days later there’s news from Brewster: Along with three of her colleagues at the bank, she is joining our club. Their business membership commits each of them to attend one meeting a month. Not only that, but Greenfield Savings Bank has stepped up as a sponsor of Chowderfest.

Including the ejected RINOs, our club has lost a half-dozen members in the past six months and gained seven. Nine more, including the mayor, police chief, and fire chief, will now share business memberships. It’s a start.

“Mr. Cook? Hello, it’s Annie from Mayor Narkewicz’s office.”

Yes, the mayor has gotten back to me. The next morning, I report for duty to the Northampton Department of Public Works, where Richard C. Parasiliti Jr., forestry superintendent and tree warden extraordinaire of the Forestry, Parks, and Cemetery Division, tosses me a fluorescent yellow vest. My job: spend a shift with one of his work crews.

Next thing I know, I’m bouncing through town in a truck with a 300-gallon water tank, visiting some of the hundreds of trees the city maintains. Riding with my burly partner for the day, Jon Althoff, I learn that the strip of grass between a street and a sidewalk is called the tree belt here in Massachusetts. I learn that trees suffer from beetle infestations, gypsy moth attacks, car and truck impacts, weed wackers, and mulch volcanoes. “There’s a mulch volcano,” Althoff says, pointing at a mound of mulch piled around a tree trunk at Stop & Shop. “They suffocate trees.” The mulch keeps water from reaching the roots. “What you want is a ring of mulch around the trunk.”

We park at an elementary school. Althoff fires up our truck’s pump and hands me a hose. Our town’s newly planted trees enjoy the opposite of a mulch volcano: a large green pouch called a Tree-gator. These Treegators hold 20 gallons of water that’s released slowly, to perfectly water the tree.

My tree is an oak sapling that isn’t much taller than I am. It takes a minute or two to fill the Treegator at its base. You can almost hear the tree say aahh. If all goes well, it could be more than 50 feet tall in 50 years. In 2069, I’m hoping there will be a 200-member Northampton Rotary club holding summer meetings beneath it.

Kevin Cook’s 10th book, Ten Innings at Wrigley, was published in May by Henry Holt and Co.

This story originally appeared in the July 2019 issue of The Rotarian magazine.

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