Month: February 2020

Scientist, farmer, innovator, Rotarian

A plainsman with a PhD, Bob Quinn uses his 4,000-acre Montana spread as a laboratory to revive an ancient grain, rethink agricultural practices, and reinvigorate rural communities

by Bryan Smith
photography by NashCO

Quinn’s connection to Big Sandy’s Rotary club runs as deep as his connection to the town itself. His father, also a farmer, was a founding member.

The day slowly warms. It’s still summer, but in this late season of harvest, the mornings hold a stubborn chill that will not yield until the sun’s full appearance. Bob Quinn is dressed in his habitual raiment: soil-smudged cowboy hat, Wrangler jeans, Western shirt, work boots, thick belt with “Bob” tooled into the leather. He was awake before sunrise and now, as is often his routine, he pulls himself up a ladder inside a lookout tower he designed next to the handsome, sprawling farmhouse he helped build as a boy on a bluff at the end of a long upward-sloping lane. And there it is, spreading before him like an ocean of waving gold: the flaxen tips of spring wheat and spelt haired in rich amber, with the Bears Paw Mountains off to the north and east rising like a small fist of hazy purple on the north central Montana horizon.

There is work to be done. He will get at it in a minute, but he wants to savor the moment a bit longer. There is always work for those who look to the land for their keep, as Quinn has done for 40-odd years, and as his parents and his grandparents did before him — three generations of dryland farmers who have tilled this acreage since 1920.

Presently Quinn climbs down, grabs a basket, and heads toward his “test” orchard, where he experiments with 31 varieties of apples. He inspects the rows of trees one by one, then drops to his hands and knees and begins gathering apples that have plopped to the ground. “Some of them are bird pecked,” he says, holding up an apple and turning it in a work-weathered hand. “But that’s OK. These are looking pretty good.”

Quinn tosses the apple at me. “Just take a bite of this,” he says. On just about any other farm in the area, you would pause. Shouldn’t it be washed? Not here, for it, like everything on Quinn’s acreage, is organic — no pesticides, no herbicides, no chemical fertilizers. That’s the point; that’s his life’s work. It is why he looks out from his tower at the sea of grain surrounding him and worries.

For in this beautiful, sometimes punishingly harsh landscape, all is not well with the food that is grown, at least not from Quinn’s perspective. Like every-where, the fields are soaked in chemicals that, while allowing the corporations that farm them to cheaply produce vast stores of product, suck nutrients from the earth, from the food, and from the small communities that dot the plains. That includes the little town of Big Sandy, 10 miles north of Quinn’s 4,000-acre farm. He calls it the commodity mentality or mindset, “a high-input game [where] the prize is the highest possible yield” — consequences to small farms, small towns, and quality food be damned.

Redemption and renewal, Quinn believes, lie partly in this orchard and in his organic “oil barn” housed in a small building near his house. But more importantly, they rise from a long swath of land at the edge of his property, a pasture where this 21st-century plainsman grows an ancient Mesopotamian grain called khorasan that he believes holds no less than the power to change everything.

  1. A sign touts Big Sandy High School — “Home of the Pioneers” — which Bob Quinn attended.

  2. Quinn joined the town’s Rotary club in 1979.

  3. Bales of wheat straw, left over from the harvest, will later serve as bedding for cattle.

“The most successful businesses are the ones that are profitable but that also help improve the lives of other people.”

I meet Quinn on a Monday night at the weekly meeting of the Rotary Club of Big Sandy. Quinn’s connection to the club runs as deep as his connection to the town itself: His father, Mack, was a founding member. Quinn joined in 1979 after he returned from earning a PhD in plant biochemistry at the University of California at Davis. With crinkly blue eyes, a full head of silver hair, and a face that’s weathered without being quite craggy, Quinn looks as if he could have stepped out of the pages of a Zane Grey novel.

Like the high plains figure Quinn cuts, and like the town he calls home, the meeting seems a step back in time. Held in the senior citizens center at the end of the two-block downtown, it features on this night a dinner of fried chicken, cottage cheese, and potato salad, doled out from aluminum foil trays. There are cold pitchers of lemonade, and a seemingly bottomless stainless steel urn dispenses piping-hot coffee.

Fourteen people, including a visitor from Germany who uses Quinn’s grain, gather around a table where, after passing around worn copies of Rotary songs, they sing “Home on the Range” and “You’re a Grand Old Flag” before reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.

Quinn joined Rotary, he says, for reasons bigger than wanting to continue the family legacy. He finds that the organization’s Four-Way Test — with its emphasis on truth and fairness, goodwill and friendship, and a mutual concern for the well-being of all — dovetails with his own way of thinking. “My philosophy in work is ‘everybody wins,’” he says. “The most successful businesses are the ones that are profitable but that also help improve the lives of other people.”

In his 2019 book, Grain by Grain, which chronicles his “quest to revive ancient wheat, rural jobs, and healthy food,” Quinn writes: “As an entrepreneur and scientist working in the midst of rural American poverty, I have seen firsthand how putting food and other fundamental goods like energy at the center of a value-added economy can foster health, economic opportunity, and ecological regeneration, particularly in some of our country’s poorest com-munities. … I measure the success of my business by the degree to which it’s added economic, ecological, and nutritional value all along the supply chain.”

Today Quinn, at 72, travels the world spreading his gospel, which has as its premise that the way food is grown and produced — the Big Agriculture approach of making as much as possible as cheaply as possible, with a heavy emphasis on chemical pesticides and fertilizers — is destructive to the land, to communities, to farmers, and to our health. He also preaches the corollary: that organic farming not only is the right thing to do by consumers, but also is highly profitable for the farmer and a prescriptive for towns like Big Sandy that have found themselves struggling for survival.

The results have been as obvious as towering stalks of wheat, says Jon Tester, a U.S. senator from Montana whose life and career have also been closely intertwined with Big Sandy. “It’s simply undeniable what he’s done for the Big Sandy community,” Tester says. “He’s contributed jobs and a lot of economy to the town. We don’t have enough people like Bob. He’s fearless, a true entrepreneur who is not afraid to take risks, and at the same time he’s somebody who believes in rural America.”

Examples of Quinn’s entrepreneurial spirit, and the greater-good benefits that derive from it, bloom like apple blossoms across his property. On the occasional tours he gives, which draw workaday farmers and ivory-tower agriscientists, Quinn refers to his land as his laboratory. It’s clear why: There are his experimental gardens, of course, where he tries to see which fruits and vegetables can thrive in Montana’s notoriously fickle climate — if only, he says, “to show people we can do something other than wheat and barley.”

Ten feet underground, inside Quinn’s root cellar, bins of potatoes, all grown on the farm — Yukon Gems, Red Norlands, Red La Sodas, and Purple Vikings — are kept naturally cool. “Potatoes are particularly hardy for our northern climate, and they have an excellent shelf life,” Quinn says. A few hundred feet away is what he calls his oil barn. Inside, where Quinn milked cows as a boy, the seeds from farm-grown safflower are pressed into a cooking oil, which he sells to restaurants and grocery stores; it’s also used in the kitchens at the University of Montana, after which the waste is returned to Quinn. “The oil we get back from UM is enough to provide about one-eighth of the fuel needs for our farm,” he writes in Grain by Grain. (A pioneer in sustainable energy, Quinn played a leading role in creating the Judith Gap Wind Farm, which opened in central Montana in 2005.)

And then there is the ancient grain. Known as khorasan and rechristened — and trademarked — by Quinn as Kamut (pronounced kuh-MOOT), it likely originated centuries ago in the Fertile Crescent, that agriculturally rich region in the Middle East that gave birth to several ancient civilizations. Quinn was introduced to the grain at a county fair when he was in high school and an old man thrust a fistful of kernels in his hand and claimed they were “King Tut’s wheat.”

“I was amazed by how big they were: three times the size of the wheat we grew on our farm,” Quinn recalls in Grain by Grain. “I had no inkling that this grain would, some 25 years later, change the whole course of my life.”

Today, Kamut International is a global operation that, while promoting organic farming and healthful eating, also serves as a model for struggling farmers and small towns searching for a return to prosperity. “If you look at what Bob has pushed for and what he’s done, it’s not conventional,” allows Tester. “I mean, it’s not stuff that the university system would say, ‘Go do this.’ For example, in a time when [corporate farms] were shipping grain out in 52-car unit trains, he was setting up a cleaning plant to ship wheat out in 25-kilogram bags. He had a different vision for how you could market grain and make a few bucks off it and employ people.”

Jacob Cowgill, who worked on Quinn’s farm for two seasons before starting his own organic farm and bakery, marvels at Quinn’s willingness to try the unconventional. “The thing that I took away from working with Bob is the idea of experimenting,” Cowgill says. “He always has multiple projects that are still considered pretty radical and ahead of their time. In fact, it seems like anything that he jumps into is a radical idea — until it isn’t and more people are doing it.”

“He’s the most incredible idea generator I’ve ever met,” adds Bruce Maxwell, a professor of agroecology at Montana State University. “He has one after another — ways to make his own farm more sustainable and more profitable — but he’s also got a real dedication to his community.”

Since 1920, three generations of the family have tended the Quinn Farm and Ranch — and Quinn’s roots as a farmer extend back to his ancestors in 17th-century Virginia.

The Rocky Boy’s Reservation lies green and windswept at the foot of the Bears Paw Mountains, a flat table of land spread across Chouteau and Hill counties, some 50 miles south of the Canadian border. The last and smallest reservation created in Montana, it is home to about 3,000 members of the Chippewa-Cree tribe. Quinn, having grown up on the family farm, about 15 miles southwest, had long known about the struggles of the reservation’s people, such as poor health and high unemployment. Of particular heartbreak to him is that the reservation is a “food desert” — a community barren of quality grocery stores where the residents can buy the kinds of healthy foods that might mitigate some of their worst problems, such as rampant diabetes.

Quinn wanted to help, and believed he could, but the tribal council, to say nothing of the people of the reservation, were wary of a white man trying to tell them what was best for their Native American community. “It took years to win their trust,” says Quinn. “Now I’m invited to their sweat lodges, and I have a number of friends here.” It has taken another decade for real progress toward the goal of “food sovereignty”— where, rather than relying on outside grocers, the reservation can supply its own healthy food.

Tribe member Jason Belcourt grasped the implications immediately. “I met Bob back in January 2019, and I heard him speak and he just blew me away,” says Belcourt, a member of a food sovereignty team that includes representatives from the school health program, the tribe’s ranch and farm, the local college, and the reservation hospital’s diabetes program.

“Rocky Boy was an island,” he says. “There’s nothing available but processed foods and frozen food,” snacks and sugary drinks. “We’re trying to re-establish our relationship with Mother Earth so that, ideally, we can grow our own food and provide for ourselves. Hopefully we can have it turn into something that we can take pride in.”

As Belcourt speaks, Quinn walks through a 1-acre plot inspecting rows of winter peas and new potatoes planted a few months before. “I’m really jacked,” Quinn says, removing his cowboy hat and cradling it as he drops in the golf-ball sized spuds. “We’re going in the right direction.”

“What’s crazy is that Bob doesn’t have to come up and help us do this, but he has volunteered,” Belcourt adds. “We have no equipment, so he brought up his to help us weed, and he has given us advice all the way. He gave us the corn seed. That’s Indian corn over there, which I actually planted.”

The yield from those particular seeds is less than spectacular, but Quinn reassures Belcourt: “This is the first year. You shouldn’t be discouraged that it’s not perfect.”

  1. A combine dumps a load of harvested wheat into an empty truck.

  2. A selection of Kamut pasta from Italy sits on a shelf above a collection of grains and seeds grown on the farm.

  3. Randy Edwards prepares Kracklin’ Kamut wheat snacks at Big Sandy Organics.

This 21st-century plainsman grows an ancient Mesopotamian grain called khorasan that he believes holds no less than the power to change everything.

If Quinn initially faced mistrust from the residents of Rocky Boy, he encountered outright skepticism from the people of Big Sandy, including the farmers in and around the town who have spent most of their lives using conventional synthetic chemical agricultural practices. He still hears whispers that he’s trying to impose fancy big-city ideas on their small town — though even the most hard-bitten skeptic has been forced to acknowledge Quinn’s successes. “These young farmers are looking at his new equipment and talking over what’s going on, and they’re saying, ‘I don’t know if I can tolerate these weeds, but damn, he’s making money,’” Maxwell says.

Quinn is sympathetic to farmers wary of new systems. “I was raised farming with chemicals,” he says. “I never questioned our use of fertilizer and herbicide. These were the new tools that my dad quickly adopted after a little experimentation. He thought they could help us be better farmers and make more money.”

Grain by Grain is devoted to debunking that myth. Yes, the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers allows farmers to produce large amounts of food quickly, but the abundant supply continues to drive down prices, which reduces profit margins. That forces farmers into trying to produce even more. Eventually, small farmers are chased off their spreads, unable to afford the vast acreage needed to keep up with chemical commodity agriculture.

Those factors blew through Big Sandy and other small towns like tornadoes on the plain. For proof, you need only look at the past half-century of decline, Quinn says. When he was a boy, for instance, Big Sandy’s population was 1,000 — today it has dropped to below 600 — and it boasted a car dealership, two hardware stores, a couple of secondhand shops, a jeweler, a dry cleaner, a lumberyard and farm supply store, and a movie theater.

Quinn’s dime tour of today’s Big Sandy downtown takes a couple of minutes: Over there is the lone grocery store — a good one, he says, but the only one. The last hardware store closed months ago for lack of business. There’s the senior citizens center, the bank, and a combination bowling alley and restaurant.

“The driver [in] all of these social and economic losses to small, rural communities,” Quinn writes in one of his frequent blog posts, “is the quest for cheap food and cheap goods without regard of the cost to those that make them, not to mention the loss of friends and neighbors unable to support their families, which results in fewer jobs and smaller communities. It’s really too bad the true price of these cheap goods isn’t listed on the price tag. If it were, maybe we would think twice about who and what we really want to support with our purchases. It begs the question: How much is our community — our friends and our neighbors — worth to us?”

Quinn hands a newly dug potato to Jason Belcourt on the Rocky Boy’s Reservation, where they have both worked to establish “food sovereignty.”

Quinn dedicated himself and his career to farming without chemicals, making him one of the pioneers in organic agriculture.

Quinn’s own aha moment came a lifetime ago, in the 1970s while he was on a college field trip. He was a graduate student at UC Davis, one of the nation’s premier agricultural schools, and one class outing was to a peach farm. When he stepped off the bus into a “sea of peach trees,” he expected to be overwhelmed by a sweet fragrance. Instead, he smelled nothing. The reason, he learned, was a petroleum-based spray one of his professors had developed that made the peaches look ripe even though they weren’t — which explained why there was no rich, distinctive aroma. In that moment, Quinn says, he was certain of three things: that the spray couldn’t be good for the environment; that unripe peaches were not nearly as nutritious as ripe ones; and that when he returned to Big Sandy, he was going to find a better way.

From that moment sprang Quinn’s dedication to farming without chemicals, making him a pioneer in organic agriculture. (Winner of the Organic Trade Association’s 2010 Organic Leadership Award, Quinn helped draft Montana’s and the nation’s guidelines for organic farming.) “A lot of people said it couldn’t be done,” he recalls. How would you fight weeds and insects without synthetic pesticides? Ever the scientist, Quinn pioneered a system of soil building, green manures, and crop rotation to discourage the growth of weeds and insect infestations. “For many years, people thought I was spraying at night,” he says. “They couldn’t believe anyone could find success without chemical inputs.”

Once he started successfully growing the ancient khorasan wheat, he came up with healthy snack products made from the grain, opening a small plant in Big Sandy that added a few jobs to the economy. (Today his Kamut products are marketed as pasta, cereal, and other foodstuffs all around the world.) When he learned that buyers wanted wheat that had already been milled, he opened a milling plant in nearby Fort Benton to grind his healthier grains, adding jobs there.

Because Quinn doesn’t pay the exorbitant costs of “chemical inputs” — pesticides and herbicides — and because the demand for his healthier grains commands far higher prices from buyers, he not only hasn’t succumbed to the forces dragging down other family farms, but has thrived.

But old ways die hard. Despite Quinn’s successes and the jobs his new endeavors have created, some still cast a jaundiced eye. For one, Quinn committed what to some people is an unpardonable sin: He believed that climate change is both real and man-made. What’s more, he was convinced that the production and employment of the nitrogen-based fertilizers typically used by U.S. farmers generated the greenhouse gases that contributed to climate change.

“He has certainly encountered skepticism,” says Liz Carlisle, a lecturer in the School of Earth, Energy, and Environmental Sciences at Stanford University and the co-author of Grain by Grain. “But I think he recognized that commodity agriculture was not going to sustain his farm. Chemical inputs are getting more and more expensive, and we don’t like the government subsidies that essentially cover the cost of those inputs.”

More to the point, she says, “is that he’s thinking at the scale of his whole community. It’s not just ‘How do I save my farm at a time when agriculture is really difficult?’ But ‘How can I help create conditions under which our whole community can really thrive through a smarter, healthier food system?’”

  1. In Quinn’s apple orchard, piles of straw cushion the fall of ripened apples.

  2. The farm’s root cellar provides year-round storage for fruits and vegetables.

  3. In his dual role of scientist and farmer, Quinn carefully tallies the apple harvest.

The field lies vast and hot in the late afternoon, the sun pouring amber over the wheat, which is packed so tightly the landscape looks like a single golden bar. Quinn stands knee-high in the grain, cowboy hat tilted back, his shadow stretching three times his length. He reaches down and pulls a single stalk. Behind him, a combine scythes row after row of the season’s final harvest. He brushes the stalk gently as if it were an ancient artifact, which in some ways it is. “To me, there is something almost sacred about growing wheat,” Quinn writes in Grain by Grain. “Nearly every spring of my life, I have held in my hands a seed passed down over 500 generations, a seed that has nourished my fellow humans for some 10 millennia.”

Just as he likes to begin his days looking over the land from the tall white tower that rises next to his home, he can think of no better way to end them than to be out here, under the big Montana sky, with the golden dust thrown by the combine filling the air with shimmering confetti.

The following morning, he will rise early to make pancakes for a group of visitors. In anticipation, when he leaves the field tonight, he will grind some of his Kamut wheat in a flour mill: Two cups of grain make 2 1/3 cups of flour. He will add 2 tablespoons of the nutty-smelling safflower oil extracted from his homegrown safflower plants; he will add the same amount of honey, extracted from the honeycombs in his own bee farm, as well as two eggs hatched by his daughter’s chickens. He’ll spoon the batter onto a griddle and within a couple of minutes set steaming stacks of golden Kamut pancakes before his guests, along with small bowls of fresh raspberries and chokeberry syrup he made himself. The whole production will be a symphony of food sovereignty, with Bob Quinn as conductor.

For now, however, he shakes his cupped hands like a miner panning for gold until he has reduced the head of the wheat stalk to a small collection of grain. One by one, he pops the kernels into his mouth and looks out onto the fields, his seamed face smoothed by a contented smile.

In our November issue, Bryan Smith described how Rotarians brought a new basketball court — and an anti-bullying program — to Yonkers, New York.

• This story originally appeared in the March 2020 issue of The Rotarian magazine.

Crowned by the sun, Quinn basks in the afterglow of a successful harvest: “To me, there is something almost sacred about growing wheat.”


Since 2015, more than 4 million people have fled an economically devastated Venezuela. Tracking the stories of three who left puts faces on that staggering statistic

by Vanessa Galvinskas

Héctor Herrera was driving his father to José Tadeo Monagas International Airport in northeastern Venezuela when they approached a government food stand. Even at 5 a.m., the line was long. “I never thought I’d live in this misery,” Herrera’s father said. Suddenly a fight spilled out into the street in front of them as two men wrestled over a frozen chicken. “At that moment, my father said to me: ‘Son, if you have the opportunity to leave, go,’” recalls Herrera. “‘I will miss you, and it will be difficult, but this is already as low as a person can live.’”

That was in the summer of 2015. A teacher, Herrera was 28 years old and a member of the Rotaract Club of Maturín Juanico. A city that boomed in the 1980s as the oil capital of eastern Venezuela, Maturín is now crippled by the country’s collapse — an economic meltdown that, for the people living there, is worse than the Great Depression. According to a survey released in 2018, 9 out of 10 Venezuelans did not earn enough to buy food, and more than 17 million had fallen into extreme poverty. The BBC reported that desperate parents have been giving away their children rather than watch them starve.

  • 1.45million

    Number of Venezuelans taken in by Colombia, the most of any country

Those conditions are fueling the biggest migration in the history of Latin America as more than 4 million people flee Venezuela. Economists say the country’s collapse is the worst outside of war in at least 45 years, while the Brookings Institution predicts that Venezuela’s refugee crisis will become “the largest and most underfunded in modern history.” From a distance, those facts and statistics can be mind-numbing, obscuring the individuals caught up in this social and economic catastrophe. But the stark reality comes into focus in the stories of three people who fled.

Eduardo José Campechano Escalona, a Rotarian from Barquisimeto, fled to Peru after being targeted for speaking out against government policies. A onetime Rotary Youth Exchange student, Victoria Garcia Baffigo returned to the United States after her former host family grew concerned about her safety and her future in Venezuela. And taking his father’s advice, Héctor Herrera left for Mexico with only $200 and the promise of a place to stay. Each of them had ties to Rotary, which in the end would be their hope and, to an extent, their salvation.

Héctor Herrera in Mexico City

Photo credit: Pato Portillo

On 10 November 2015, the day Herrera left Venezuela, he took a photo of himself to remember the moment. “When I look at that picture now, I see fear, uncertainty, and sadness,” he says. Fortunately, he knew Ferdinando Esquivel through Rotaract.

Herrera had met Esquivel, now a member of the Rotary Club of Zinacatepec, on a trip to Mexico in 2013. The two men became close friends, and Esquivel offered to help Herrera if he ever decided to leave Venezuela.

At the time, Herrera thought things would improve in his native country. But two years later, life was much worse. “The stores had nothing,” he says. “Not even toilet paper.” He had a passport, but without access to dollars, he couldn’t buy a plane ticket. So Esquivel bought it for him and invited Herrera to stay with him in a small town near Toluca. After two weeks, Herrera thanked his friend and boarded a bus for the 40-mile ride to Mexico City, where he hoped to find a job that would give him a work visa.

When he got off the bus in Mexico City, Herrera started to panic. “Left? Right? I didn’t know where to go,” he recalls. “It felt like there was no floor beneath my feet.” He found a place to sit and pulled out his cellphone to text Alonso Macedo, a friend he had met at a Rotary event in Mexico. Macedo had agreed to pick him up and let him stay with him for a few days. But what if he didn’t come? Herrera thought. Where will I sleep tonight? And then, Macedo appeared.

 “After that I looked for work every day — anything that would give me papers,” Herrera says. “I couldn’t sleep, so I’d get on the computer at night and search for jobs.” Finally, a school run by Venezuelans that taught English asked him to come in for an interview, but the school was located four hours from Mexico City. Then another problem arose: He had nowhere to stay. His host was leaving on a trip.

 “That night, it was storming,” Herrera says. “I walked to a restaurant, opened my laptop, and started to send messages to people in Rotary and Rotaract whom I didn’t know personally, but whom I had a connection with through Facebook.” He had no choice but to ask strangers if they would be willing to take him in for the night. He finally got a response from Laura Martínez Montiel. They didn’t know each other, but they had several mutual friends on social media through Rotaract. She gave him her address and told him to take a taxi. Herrera wrote back and explained he didn’t have enough money, so they agreed to meet in a closer neighborhood where Martínez was heading to a Christmas party.

“I was in such a bad state,” Herrera remembers. “I was all wet, and my clothes were dirty.” He worried that Martínez would take one look at him and change her mind about hosting him. Instead, she took him back to her home and introduced him to her mother, who washed his clothes and fixed him something to eat. He explained that he had a job interview the next day, and together they mapped out how to get there on public transportation. At 6 a.m., Martínez gave him a ride to the metro.

“My plan is to get my family out. I don’t have any hope that things are going to change in Venezuela. The damage to the country has been huge.” — Héctor Herrera

When Herrera arrived for the interview, he saw a familiar face. It turned out he had reviewed the interviewer’s thesis a few years earlier. After talking awhile, the interviewer asked if Herrera could start on Monday. “No,” he replied, “I want to start today.”

Herrera’s job was to make hundreds of calls looking for clients for the school; if someone signed up, Herrera was paid a commission. He stayed with Martínez and her mother for another week and commuted four hours each way until he asked for an advance on his salary so he could rent an apartment closer to his job. “On 15 January, I got my first commission,” he says. “It was a relief, because as of the 14th, I only had $2.”

By April, Herrera was promoted to advertising manager, and in July, he finally received a work permit. Two years later, he found a job that better suited his teaching skills, working as a trainer for a company that advises businesses on streamlining their processes.

 “I started giving lectures around this beautiful country,” Herrera says. “But on 3 December 2018, I received an email from the national migration authority saying I had to leave Mexico in 20 days.” A migratory alert had been issued for him after immigration authorities visited his previous employer, the English school. When they rang the bell, no one answered the door, so they flagged it as a fake company. “I could not believe it,” Herrera says. “I was doing well, but now it was worse than the beginning because I no longer had papers. I had to start over.”

For the past year, Herrera has been fighting the alert with the help of a public defender. Each day that it remains unresolved, he’s at risk of being deported. He’s seeking asylum to be able to stay, but with Venezuela’s crisis worsening, his claim is one of thousands. “Mexico is now returning Venezuelans immediately when they arrive at the airport,” Herrera says. Still, he says he will not give up. “Until I have my dream of a visa, I will not rest.”

Eduardo José Campechano Escalona in Trujillo, Peru

Photo credit: Florence Goupil

Eduardo José Campechano Escalona started having anxiety attacks in 2015. “There were constant riots in my city,” says Campechano, a former member of the Rotary Club of Barquisimeto, Venezuela’s fourth-largest city. “My children could not attend school or go out. They had to live literally locked up in our apartment.”

Though he and his wife were university professors, their income no longer covered basic necessities. At the time, hyperinflation was 181 percent. (At the end of 2019, the International Monetary Fund estimated that the annual inflation rate was 200,000 percent.) What’s more, several incidents led Campechano to believe the government was targeting him.

 “I had questioned government policies,” he explains. “[Government-issued] textbooks omitted parts of Venezuelan history and only highlighted facts related to the government of Hugo Chávez,” the country’s president from 1999 to 2013. After speaking out publicly about the inaccuracies and biases in the mandated textbooks, Campechano says that he started being denied access to grant funding. When he and his family decided to leave for Peru, Campechano went to a state-run bank to get a credit card so he could access dollars for a plane ticket. Again, he was denied. “It was a way to intimidate me,” he says. When he posted about it on social media, he received a threatening email.

“It was painful to leave, but we are very grateful for the opportunity in this country. Now we feel safe.” — Eduardo José Campechano Escalona

Running out of options, Campechano asked a friend living abroad if he would be willing to buy him a plane ticket to Lima. Campechano had secured a position at Universidad César Vallejo in Trujillo, a city in northern Peru that he had often visited as a guest lecturer and where he had a work visa lined up.

Campechano moved to Peru in March 2017. Four months later, he brought his wife, their two adolescent children, and his mother-in-law, who was sick with cancer, to Peru. “During those first months, my family was the Rotary E-Club of Fusión Latina Distrito 4465,” says Campechano. When his mother-in-law died, their Rotary family consoled and supported them.

Campechano remains connected to the members of his former club in Barquisimeto, and he says they are still engaging in service, despite the hard conditions. “There is no Youth Exchange program anymore,” he says. “They are just trying to get basics, like food and medicine, to people.” Alberto Avelino Camacaro Zerpa, a former governor of District 4380 in western Venezuela, estimates that 20 to 30 percent of the country’s Rotary members and nearly 40 percent of its Rotaract members have left Venezuela. Yet many clubs continue to meet when members aren’t limited by access to gasoline and electricity.

“It was painful to leave,” Campechano says, “but we are very grateful for the opportunity in this country. Now we feel safe.”

Victoria Garcia Baffigo in Aurora, Illinois

Photo credit: Ramon Perez Palacios-Pelletier

“I think everyone who returns home after studying abroad gets reverse culture shock,” says Victoria Garcia Baffigo. “I had that, but worse.”

After spending the 2015-16 school year living as a Rotary Youth Exchange student with Dave Siegfried and his family in Aurora, Illinois, Garcia went home to the rapidly deteriorating situation in Venezuela. “Some days we didn’t have power for 10 hours,” she says. Hyperinflation had gotten so bad that her family could afford very little at the supermarket.

One day the phone rang. The caller told them they had her brother and demanded money for his release. Thankfully, they didn’t really have him, she says. Still, the call rattled the family.

Chris Olson, a member of the Rotary Club of Aurora Sunrise, had been monitoring the situation in Venezuela from Illinois. “Chris told us Victoria had gotten back to Venezuela and found things had changed dramatically from when she left,” says Charlie Schmalz, who, like Olson and Siegfried, is a member of the Aurora Sunrise club. “She had spent all that time studying here, and now her whole future was destroyed. It was a terrible thing. So a group of us got together and said we should do something.”

 “The first call that Chris made was to my mom, and then my mom talked to me about going back to the United States,” Garcia says. “I didn’t ever think about staying in the U.S. because my parents couldn’t afford for me to get an education there, and I wanted to get my college degree.”

Now Garcia had the opportunity to get her degree in the United States, fully paid through a fund the Aurora Sunrise club set up for her. “It’s still hard for me to understand,” she says. “I can’t believe that people who are not family are doing this for me.”

It took more than a year to make the arrangements. Much of that time was spent waiting to get a student visa. “Airlines started pulling out of Venezuela,” says Schmalz’s wife, Mary. “We were so close to Victoria getting the last papers, so Dave bought a seat on the chance that she could come. He bought the seat, and the day before the flight left, Victoria got her visa. It was a miracle.”

“Some days we didn’t have power for 10 hours,” Garcia says. Hyperinflation had gotten so bad that her family could afford very little at the supermarket.

Garcia is now in her third year of college, at Aurora University, majoring in biology and health science with a minor in biotechnology. She’s the first person in her family to go to college. Though the original plan was to rotate host families, she has stayed with Charlie and Mary Schmalz for more than two years now. “We’ve bonded over board games and watching TV,” Garcia says. Adds Mary: “She meshes so easily into our lifestyle. She’s like a grandchild to us.”

Still, the couple knows Garcia misses her family, so one Christmas, they surprised her with a ticket to visit her mother, who had recently migrated to Peru. When Garcia and her mother lived in Venezuela, they shared an apartment with her grandmother, who remains there. “Every evening, we used to sit on my grandmother’s bed, and my mom, my grandma, and I would talk about our day,” recalls Garcia. “Then I’d do homework and my mom would make dinner. My grandma and I used to read the same books and talk about them.”

Garcia is concerned about her grandmother’s health, but her uncle, a member of the Rotary Club of Valencia, has been crossing into Colombia to get her medications. “My grandmother worries about getting food,” Garcia says. “She worries a lot about money and if she’ll have enough. It’s really hard.” Garcia hopes to see her grandmother again one day in Venezuela after she finishes college.

Until then, she’s focused on her studies and talking to local Rotary clubs about her experience in the United States and the crisis in Venezuela, raising awareness about the people suffering in the country she loves.

“At the beginning, Victoria was often sad,” Mary Schmalz says. “She’d say, ‘There’s no way I can ever pay all of you back for this.’ I told her, ‘We don’t need to be paid back. What you need to do is, when you’re in a position to help someone, you do.’”

  • 89.00%

    Share of Venezuelans who do not have enough income to buy food

My father died in August,” says Herrera. “I feel 1 percent pain and 99 percent gratitude. I’m grateful for his love and that he was always there for us.” Herrera was unable to return to Venezuela when his father died; had he traveled there, he would have been denied re-entry into Mexico. He takes solace in knowing that his father would want him to continue trying to build a life in his new home. “My plan is to get my family out,” he says. “I don’t have any hope that things are going to change in Venezuela. The damage to the country has been huge.” The Brookings Institution estimates that the number of Venezuelan migrants could eventually rise to 8 million, even more than the 6 million who have fled Syria — yet Venezuelans have received less than 10 percent of the international aid committed for Syrian refugees.

“The hardest part of migrating is changing your heart,” Herrera says. “When I encounter Venezuelans in Mexico, the first thing they talk about is the bad things happening in Venezuela.” Instead, Herrera has chosen to honor his father by working toward his dream of success. He even started an Instagram page called “Migrating to Success”; he uses it to share inspirational quotes with his 4,000 followers. “Having to start over isn’t all bad,” read a recent post. “It’s shown me that anything is possible.”

Additional research and reporting by Claudia Urbano

• This story originally appeared in the March 2020 issue of The Rotarian magazine.

More than a library

After the genocide of 1994, Rotarians led a successful campaign to build Rwanda’s first public library. A bastion against ignorance and tyranny, it has become a gathering place where a culture of reading, the arts, and democracy thrives.

by Jina Moore
Photography by Andrew Esiebo

Twenty-year-old Noella Umutoniwase and her friends have been hanging out at the library for as long as they can remember. They come to study in its quiet spaces, chill at its rooftop cafe, or chat with friends in the garden. In fact, if you ask her whether she remembers Kigali before there was a library, Umutoniwase scrunches up her face in disbelief. “Before there was a library?” she asks, as if evoking the dawn of time.

For her, it might as well be. The brainchild of Rotarians in Rwanda, the Kigali Public Library was born, at least as an idea, not long after Umutoniwase herself. Back then, the Rotarians who proposed it must have seemed crazy. Only six years before, more than 800,000 people had been killed in an event known today as the 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsi. Farms and businesses were destroyed, basic infrastructure was broken, Rwandans were traumatized. A public library must have seemed like a strange priority.

In the stacks, a patron reads a book titled Transforming Rwanda, one of the library’s 19,000 volumes and 30,000 digital titles.

But the members of the Rotary Club of Kigali-Virunga, Rwanda’s first English-speaking club, thought the idea made sense. One of them was Beth Payne, an economic, commercial, and consular officer at the U.S. Embassy in Rwanda and a fan of libraries; she had put herself through law school partly by working at one. But it was more than a personal affection: “I had always believed that a free library is one of the cornerstones of America’s democracy,” she says. When the Rotary Club of Kigali-Virunga was chartered, in 2000, Rwanda was focused on its future — on ensuring peace and reconciliation, stability and security, and economic growth — and Payne believed it was the perfect time to think about how literacy and access to information could support those goals.

Payne taught a class about the internet to Rwandan businesspeople. “I watched how they responded to this wealth of knowledge and information all of a sudden becoming available to them,” she says. “So I suggested to our club that one of the ways to support stability and growth, even if it’s not as direct as other ways, is by having a place where people can come and get information and knowledge. And that captured people’s imaginations — although, I’ll be honest, I was thinking of something a lot smaller.”

Thinking small, however, wasn’t something that the country’s newest Rotary club wanted to do. Most of its members were Rwandans whose families had fled the country in 1959, in another episode of violence that many consider Rwanda’s first genocide. They had grown up on stories of Rwanda and dreams of return, and now that they had arrived, they had ambitious ideas and limitless energy.

Gerald Mpyisi, the charter president of the Rotary Club of Kigali-Virunga and a key figure in the library’s founding, was one of those people. He had grown up in Zimbabwe, gone to college in Uganda, and worked in Kenya, where he had loved the McMillan Library — Nairobi’s oldest — a neoclassical edifice filled with literary treasures. He drew on the inspiration he had felt while wandering its stacks to galvanize his fellow club members. “Those of us who had lived outside knew the importance of libraries,” Mpyisi says. “I said, ‘Guys, let’s think big. There’s no public library in this country. Does anyone here know a country without a library?’”

“You cannot learn when you’re in trouble. Psychologically, you just can’t. A library needs peace.”

Building a library was a daunting undertaking. But the club was new, energetic, and ambitious, and the members felt buoyed by the scale of the project. “Everyone was in unison; everyone thought it was a great idea, even though we didn’t have the means. But if you don’t dream big, nothing becomes a reality,” says Cally Alles, a member of the Rotary Club of Colombo, Sri Lanka, who lived in Rwanda for more than two decades and is now that country’s honorary consul in Sri Lanka. As a member of the French-speaking Rotary Club of Kigali, Alles helped start the English-speaking Kigali-Virunga club to channel the energy of the country’s earliest returnees, many of whom had grown up in Anglophone countries. The club received a $2,000 Matching Grant from The Rotary Foundation for a computer and other items and decided to raise the construction funds itself, tapping support from then-U.S. Ambassador George McDade Staples, himself a member of the Kigali-Virunga club, and the country’s president, Paul Kagame, who was the guest of honor at the club’s first fundraiser in November 2000. In one night, the club brought in $250,000 in cash and pledges, about 20 percent of the project’s total budget, Mpyisi says. “That boosted our morale,” he says.

Rotarians carried the message abroad, and soon they and their friends were donating hundreds of books to the future library. The club began hosting monthly used book sales of duplicate or unneeded volumes, putting the proceeds toward the costs of construction. At the time, books in Rwanda were difficult to find, and prices were far beyond the reach of ordinary citizens, so the club’s sales became hugely popular. Virtually all the books on offer would find homes, but some were more sought after than others. “This was when Americans were all getting rid of their encyclopedias,” Payne recalls. “Imagine, in Rwanda back then, seeing a whole set of encyclopedias, and you could buy it for $5. People ate those encyclopedia sets up.”

At one early book sale, President Kagame and his family showed up unannounced. His children picked out several books — and, Mpyisi remembers with a laugh, their father insisted on a receipt.

In fact, Kagame was a key figure in the library’s evolution. In his personal capacity, he was among its first donors. Later, when the global economic crisis stalled the club’s fundraising and slowed the library’s construction, the president stepped in to help keep things moving, according to Paul Masterjerb, a member of the Kigali-Virunga club and the current chair of its library committee. In 2009, Masterjerb says, Kagame donated $500,000 personally and asked the country’s ministers of finance, infrastructure, education, and culture to make a plan and allocate funds to finish building the structure.

In 2012, the library opened its doors. It is managed as a public-private partnership between the Ministry of Education and Innovation Group, a local company that offers online and offline creative platforms to communities. The partnership is overseen by a board that includes representatives from the offices of the president and the prime minister, as well as the Imbuto Foundation, a private foundation of first lady Jeannette Kagame that promotes literacy and other programs. The Rotary Club of Kigali-Virunga also has a seat on the board, held by the club’s library committee chair. Masterjerb says this form of partnership ironed out some early wrinkles in the library’s day-to-day functioning. Now, he says, it’s “perfect.”

“We all felt most comfortable at the library because it’s a public place suitable for equal discussion between equal parties.”

The Kigali Public Library has taken its place as a major institution in the now-bustling capital. On any given afternoon, the reading tables in the “study zone” are full of people in deep concentration, many of them secondary school or university students.

“The library came at the right time,” says Jenipher Ingabire, the Kigali-Virunga club’s current president. “We didn’t have places you could sit down and read. During summer holidays, when my three children are at home, I take them to the library. We borrow books; sometimes we sit there and read together. For adults, I see it as an opportunity, as a good place for us as Rwandans. As a club, we are really proud to have built that place, for having come up with an idea that not everybody would have thought of at the time as a priority.”

There are also older patrons for whom the library is part of a daily routine. Aime Byimana, 62, is one of them. He wants to start his own firm, and nearly every day for the past year, he has spent a few hours reading textbooks about information systems, corporate management, and business strategy. He finds the library, free and open to all, a hopeful and exciting place — and a reminder of how far Rwanda has come. “You cannot learn when you’re in trouble. Psychologically, you just can’t,” he says. “A library needs peace.”

Byimana doesn’t have the money for the membership fee of 12,000 Rwandan francs, or about $13, that is required to check books out of the library. But many patrons say they prefer to leave the books on the shelves — and hold on to an excuse to get out of the house and come to the library, where they can peruse the more than 19,000 volumes that are housed on three floors (the library also has 30,000 digital titles in its collection). Byimana spends his days upstairs in the study zone; that floor also holds a collection of French books and a corner that’s home to the Institut Français. The ground floor, or “interactive zone,” has a large, colorful children’s room, an internet cafe, and the Korea Corner, a kind of self-guided language and culture lab. The basement is the “collaboration zone,” with a large conference room and smaller meeting rooms.

That is where Joseph Kalisa, current president of the Rotaract Club of KIE, coordinated the team that planned a national trauma symposium in February 2019 that brought together mental health practitioners, social workers, and community leaders. The symposium, the first of its kind in Rwanda, was one of the events held in 2019 to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the genocide, and Kalisa says the library was a key force in making the symposium possible. “The planning team chose the Kigali Public Library for its neutrality,” he says. “We were 15 or 20 people from different organizations and NGOs, and we felt it was important to work from a neutral space where no one would be seen to be taking the lead. We all felt most comfortable at the library because it’s a public place suitable for equal discussion between equal parties.”

A thriving culture of arts and literature has also blossomed here. Huza Press, the first independent publisher in Rwanda, got its start in a library conference room in 2015. For several years, Huza Press offered a literary prize to encourage Rwandans to write their own stories and to identify emerging talent. Last year, on the library’s rooftop exhibition and events space, the publisher launched RadioBook Rwanda, a three-part audiovisual chapbook series of new fables written in the tradition of Rwanda’s old tales, the kind that Huza founder Louise Umutoni grew up listening to her parents read at bedtime. “The library is a space that’s been created as a celebration of books, as a celebration of storytelling, as a celebration of literature,” says Umutoni, who grew up in Uganda. “We’ve worked hard to reinforce that and to use the space that celebrates what we do as a publisher.”

“The regimes that were here knew that the best way to rule over people was to keep them ignorant. If you have a library accessible to everyone, it’s much harder.”

Solange Impanoyimana feels the same loyalty, born of the same appreciation. She’s a co-founder of Generation Rise, a local nongovernmental organization that uses literature as the foundation of a leadership curriculum that teaches girls in secondary school self-expression, confidence, and creativity through discussions, debates, and journaling about books. “The library promotes the culture of reading and helps people understand that reading is important, especially in the lives of young people,” Impanoyimana says. “When young people have access to books, they are exposed to different opinions, different stories, different places. They train their minds to imagine new things or to be creative, not to find themselves locked in one place. The more they read, the more they can believe in different possibilities, not just what they have seen in their families.”

Creating “a culture of reading” is precisely what Paul Masterjerb and his fellow Rotarians had in mind nearly 20 years ago. Though the young generation that fills the library’s corridors today doesn’t think in these terms, its elders believe that literacy is one of the most powerful tools to help fight the divisions that led to so much tragedy in the past. “The Rotarians thought that we need to boost a reading culture in our society so that the people can know more about what has been written historically in the world, and then they won’t be pulled so much toward committing genocide,” Masterjerb says.

Mpyisi, who chaired the club’s library committee for six years, says that preventing another genocide was “at the core of our thinking” from the start. “You know, it was easy for simple-minded people to be influenced by bad government. The reason why people were so quick to kill their own people was because the majority of the people in the country were illiterate. For them, any word that comes from the government at any level, that is the gospel truth,” he says. “The regimes that were here knew that the best way to rule over people was to keep them ignorant. If you have a library accessible to everyone, it’s much harder to keep people ignorant.”

For Nancy Wanny Mpadu, a 24-year-old medical student at the University of Rwanda, the tranquility that the library nurtures and protects for those who spend time there is like sunlight or oxygen — part of the invisible fabric of everyday Rwanda. She was born after the genocide, and heavy words like “reconciliation” and “stability” don’t weigh on her the way they do on the generation before her. For Mpadu, another value stands out: equality. When she first walked past the library a year or so ago, she didn’t know what it was or how it worked. “They told me the place is free for anyone to use,” she says. “And I feel good seeing so many people here. I even see my senior colleagues here, senior doctors. It’s a place any person, big or small, can come and mix with anyone else — a place that’s equal for everybody.”

Jina Moore, formerly the East Africa bureau chief for the New York Times, has been reporting from Africa for 15 years.

• This story originally appeared in the February 2020 issue of The Rotarian magazine.

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International delegation of Rotary leaders visits Pakistan in support of polio eradication

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Meetings with Prime Minister Imran Khan, Minister of Health Zafar Mirza and other Pakistani leaders centered around the country’s renewed effort to eliminate polio

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan. (February 6, 2020) – A delegation of Rotary International leaders from around the world traveled to Pakistan this week to meet with government leaders including Prime Minister Imran Khan, Minister of Health Dr. Zafar Mirza, Army Chief of Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa and Dr. Rana Safdar, head of Pakistan’s Polio National Emergency Operations Centre.

The Rotary delegation included Holger Knaack, Rotary International President 2020-21; K.R. “Ravi” Ravindran, Trustee Chair of the Rotary Foundation 2020-21; and Michael K. McGovern, Chair of Rotary’s International PolioPlus Committee. The group was accompanied by incoming Rotary Foundation Trustee Aziz Memon, who leads efforts for Rotary’s Pakistan PolioPlus program.

The government leaders praised Rotary for its prominent role in polio eradication and for providing vital financial support to Pakistan and other polio-threatened countries. Rotary members have contributed more than $2.1 billion dollars and countless volunteer hours to ending polio.

Rotary is the organization credited with initiating the global effort to eradicate polio. When Rotary formed the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) in 1988, there were more than 350,000 cases of polio annually around the world. Today, due to the efforts of Rotary, its partners and world governments, the incidence of polio has plummeted by more than 99.9 percent.

In this week’s meetings, the Prime Minister acknowledged recent challenges in the effort to rid Pakistan of polio, and confirmed that Pakistan considers polio eradication among its highest priorities. The Government of Pakistan has already taken a series of highly effective organizational steps to manage the polio vaccination program and provide much-needed resources to ensure the resurgence of polio in Pakistan is put to an end. General Bajwa assured the Rotary delegation of the unwavering support and cooperation of both the Army and the civil forces to ensure that every child in every community throughout Pakistan is reached with the lifesaving polio vaccine.

Dr. Zafar Mirza, Minister of Health of Pakistan confirmed the country’s improved efforts to eradicate polio, noting that during the last round of national polio immunizations, approximately 40 million children were vaccinated.

Mr. Holger Knaack expressed his satisfaction with the visit and efforts by the Government of Pakistan to eliminate polio, stating, “We are grateful to have had the opportunity to meet with key leaders in Pakistan to learn about renewed efforts to eradicate the disease once and for all. We’re confident that with the support of the government and the Army, that Pakistan will get the job done.”

Mr. KR “Ravi” Ravindran agreed, stating, “Polio eradication is a massive effort that will require all elements of society to band together and work towards our ultimate goal of ensuring no child ever again is paralyzed by polio.”

During their visit, the Rotary delegation met with local Rotary leaders from Pakistan, which is home to more than 230 Rotary clubs and nearly 3400 Rotary members. They engaged with some of the major donors of the GPEI, and visited the National Emergency Operations Centre, where a high-tech data collection system monitored progress in real time.

While only Afghanistan and Pakistan continue to report cases of wild poliovirus, the remaining challenges to global eradication—such as 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, funding and support from donors and world governments is imperative.

Anyone can be a part of the fight to end polio and have their donation to Rotary matched 2-to-1 by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Visit to learn more and donate.

# # #

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.

Our world: Halfway around the world in 36 days

Our World

Halfway around the world in 36 days

On 2 June 2019, Lee Harman and Bill Ward set off from the Great Wall of China outside Beijing. Their destination, the Place Vendôme in Paris, lay 9,779 bumpy, muddy, dusty miles away. Their vehicle: a car built before either of them was born. This was Day 1 of the Peking to Paris Motor Challenge, also known as P2P, a classic car rally that re-creates a 1907 race famed as one of the first automobile endurance events.

Harman and Ward’s P2P story began at a 2016 Christmas party of Morgan Owners Group Northwest — a club for enthusiasts of classic cars made by England’s Morgan Motor Co. After a couple of fellow “Morganeers” discussed their own experience doing P2P, Harman and Ward were captivated. Harman, a longtime member of the Rotary Club of Arlington, Washington, suggested doing the rally to raise money for polio eradication. “I’m a physician, and I’ve been involved with PolioPlus since I was a brand-new Rotarian,” he says.

When they crossed the finish line in central Paris on 7 July, Harman and Ward had raised an estimated $50,000 for End Polio Now.

There was just one problem: “We didn’t have a car between us that was appropriate for that kind of exercise,” says Ward, a retired U.S. Army field artillery officer who worked for the Washington state government. After much searching, they found a beauty: a 1931 Ford Model A Victoria — which they dubbed “Miss Vicky” — that already had some of the safety upgrades necessary for their epic journey. But there was much more tinkering to come.

Over the next two years, Harman and Ward made 54 major modifications to Miss Vicky. “The car was pretty much totally rebuilt with new parts or new pieces, including auxiliary fuel tanks and fuel systems and on and on and on,” Harman says. The original suspension got extra attention and replacement parts.

To verify that Miss Vicky could handle traversing Asia and Europe, Harman and Ward took it for what Ward called a “shakedown cruise” — a nautical term for a performance test of a ship. In 2018, they drove from Washington state to Toronto for the Rotary International Convention. “We went all the way up Pikes Peak and back to prove the car was ready,” Harman says.

Car guys like Harman and Ward know what it takes to drive long distances. Harman’s road warrior mentality even applies to other modes of transportation: He has flown a plane from London to Brisbane, Australia, and ridden a motorcycle from Kyiv, Ukraine, to Italy. But P2P isn’t like other long-distance travel. In fact, it’s not even a race — it’s a rally. In this kind of competition, the goal each day is not to arrive first; it’s to arrive at a specific location at a precise time. If a car arrives before or after its designated time, the team loses points, and at the end, the team with the fewest deductions wins. “If you show up early, it means you were speeding, and you get deducted a lot of points,” Harman says. “If you show up on time, you get deducted no points. If you show up late, you get deducted points, but not as many as if you show up early. By the third week we had 4,000 demerits, but we were still fourth in our subgroup and 18th out of 31 in our group of vintage automobiles. We didn’t do badly for novices.”

Another difference between road-tripping and rallying is the role of the passenger. In a rally, the person in the passenger seat is in charge of more than music and snacks — he or she is the navigator, a vital role. Each P2P team is given a tour book with detailed instructions that are accurate to the hundredth of a kilometer. “To get from point A to point B, there might be 300 or 400 instructions per day,” Harman says.

“We never failed to get lost going into a city or coming out of a city, because in most places we couldn’t read the road signs and the instructions were very tight,” Ward says. “You’re doing 35 miles an hour in traffic on a four-lane street. If you’re supposed to be in the left lane to turn but you’re not, you’ve got to backtrack and come back around. Those kinds of things keep you pretty busy.”

Breakdowns are also inevitable when you push an antique automobile to its limits. Along the route — which ran from China through Mongolia, Siberian Russia, Kazakhstan, back into Russia, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France — Harman and Ward had to make plenty of roadside repairs. There was a dramatic tire blowout, two ruptured hydraulic brake lines, a blown head gasket, a tailpipe that fell off. Outside Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, the team was on a highway when it hit a speed bump at the bottom of a hill and caught air. “But it wasn’t the first speed bump that got us,” Harman says. “That speed bump launched us into a second speed bump. It was like skiing moguls. We came crashing down. The metal part of the Model A is attached to a wooden subframe, which we broke. The doors wouldn’t close until we got it fixed.”

But for all the rough roads, most of the accommodations were surprisingly high-end — organizers put up the teams in luxury hotels. “One of the most luxurious places we stayed was in Erenhot, China,” Harman says. “It was absolutely amazing.” In the middle of Mongolia, hundreds of miles from any large town, the P2P participants camped out. Yet even here, teams enjoyed catered meals and bottles of fine wine at their campsites.

That was also the country that the two friends found most captivating. “Mongolia has magnificent scenery,” Ward says. Harman agrees: “It’s best described as what Montana must have looked like 150 years ago — no fencing, desolate and beautiful, just gorgeous.”

After 36 days, Miss Vicky crossed the finish line in central Paris on 7 July. Harman and Ward had raised an estimated $50,000 for End Polio Now, and they had accomplished their two other goals: “One, arrive in Paris having driven the whole route by ourselves under our own power,” Harman says. “There were 106 entrants: 103 made it to Paris, 21 under their own power who had never been towed or had ignominiously ridden on the back of a flatbed truck. Vicky was one of the 21.”

The second goal? “Arrive in Paris still friends.”


• This story originally appeared in the February 2020 issue of The Rotarian magazine.

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