I was first drawn to Rotary when I became interested in Rotary Youth Exchange as a teen. I was chosen to represent the brand new Rotary Club of Okanagan Mission and Canada in Kotka, Finland. The Rotary International theme for my exchange year was “Mankind is One–Build Bridges of Friendship Throughout the World.” I truly embraced that vision and in the intervening years that message summed up what my exchange meant to me. We were taught (and since we’ve hosted many students, and my own daughter has been on exchange as well, I know they’re still teaching) exchange students that the purpose of the Rotary Youth Exchange program is to send kids around the world to become part of a family (or several families) in a new place, so that when they return to their homes, they will be able to advocate for peace. They won’t tolerate bombs being dropped on their new families and friends. They will be instrumental in teaching tolerance and understanding. The exchange student mantra is shared: “Not better. Not worse. Just different!” Living in a new culture requires acceptance, openness and steadfastness. It is not an easy experience, but it is worthwhile. Leaving the new culture and returning to one’s original country, we are unable to see our own culture quite the same way as we did before we left. We become instruments for peace in our world. We are changed.
My daughter was raised knowing that we had ‘family’ in Finland. Every Christmas would come plates, glass, ornaments, and textiles from companies like Arabia, Iittala, Aarikka, or Marimekko. She knew they were very special people because they were my host families. We hosted many exchange students ourselves over the years, and the kids learned about other places, cultures and experiences from their foreign siblings. My daughter dreamed of becoming a Rotary exchange student herself. When the time came, she studied the history of Rotary, the purpose of exchange, and the projects of local clubs. As a result, she did well on her interviews, and was chosen to represent the Rotary Club of Salmon Arm (Shuswap) in Spain for 2005-06. During her year of preparation we were invited to attend several Rotary meetings. My past experience as an exchange student was made known. At one of those meetings a Rotarian asked, “With all your history with Rotary, why aren’t you a Rotarian?” I responded frankly, “Because I was never asked.” Needless to say, within a few months, I had become a member of the club.
Was it just nostalgia for my own involvement as a student? Perhaps. But I still believe in the things that I respected most about Rotary back in 1982. When I was a student, there were no women members in Rotary. When I heard on the news in 1987 that women were being accepted as Rotarians, my first thought was that it was now possible that I could actually join this amazing organizaation. It was a delightful prospect. Of course, it was eighteen years before the opportunity presented itself! I am fiercely proud of Rotary’s international and local service projects. I am honoured to be part of the battle to eradicate polio from the planet. I am thrilled to support literacy projects. I am delighted to see lives changed because of who we are and what we do. Our communities are better because of us.
My little club stuns me on a regular basis. The members are a poster for Margaret Mead’s famous quote, “Never underestimate the power of a small but committed group of people to change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” The twenty-five members raised over $40,000 to fund a CT scanner for our local hospital. We have built and maintained trails, built fences for a shelter, provided an industrial shredder that allows mentally challenged adults to do meaningful work. We support single parents going to college. We support innumerable community projects, particularly for youth. Internationally, we’ve provided funds to vaccinate twenty-six thousand children against polio in the last two years. We support mid-wife training in Guatemala, are putting two girls in Africa through high school, and have provided dental care to orphans in the Ukraine and to the poor in Ecuador. We have sent youth and young professionals to participate in year long high school exchanges, short term Ambassadorial Exchanges, Group Study Exchanges, and this year we sponsored a graduate student who is now a Rotary Peace Fellow. We are making a huge difference in our community and around the world.
That’s why I am a Rotarian.