When Ione Cockrill thinks back on the 20 years she’s been a part of the Capital Rotary Club, she can’t help but tear up at the thought.
“My best Rotary memory was also one of the most difficult times of my life,” says Ione, who now serves as an assistant governor for Area 2 of the state. “When my husband passed away, they all showed up to my house with their Rotary pins. They were there to support me –– these people whom I had served with for so long. If you’ve been in Rotary long enough, you probably have one of these kinds of memories. It’s more than just an organization. Rotary is a family.”
The “Family of Rotary” — as it is often referred to by members — was first formed in 1905 by Chicago Attorney Paul P. Harris as “a place where professionals with diverse backgrounds could exchange ideas and form meaningful, lifelong friendships.” The name Rotary was adopted because of the group’s practice of rotating meetings among the offices of members and stuck, even as the organization spread to six continents within 16 years of being founded.
Today, Rotary Clubs operate in more than 200 countries with more than 1.2 million active members. Its many notable members include a wide range of professionals, from heads of state like U.S. President Warren G. Harding to artists like Austrian composer Franz Lehar.
In South Carolina, there are nearly 240 clubs, ranging in size from 270 members in one Midlands club to around 20 members in less populous areas of the state. In addition to size, the reasons people join Rotary Clubs are as varied as the members themselves.
“One reason is fellowship,” says Rodger Stroup, a 37-year Rotary member who served as president of the Columbia Rotary from 2011 to 2012. “You learn a great deal about the community and who’s doing what, so it’s a great networking opportunity. Of course, there is also the service aspect of being in a Rotary Club, the opportunity to give back and join with others in supporting worthwhile causes in your community.”
One of his favorite Rotary Club memories included an international member exchange program, which he helped lead for his local club.
“The team I remember the most was a team that came to South Carolina from Taiwan,” he shares. “The communication gap was pretty big when they arrived. But when we met with them at the end of the six weeks, it was amazing how much English they had picked up. For me, it was a great exercise in what Rotary is all about. It was an exchange of people for better world understanding and people coming together to make the community better.”
Rotary also places a high value on information sharing. Each week a speaker is invited to talk to members about businesses, events and issues in the local community. “There’s a wealth of information that’s shared through the clubs, from local organizations that come in and provide you with information to political figures and sports figures,” Rodger says. “There is also information sharing from member to member. That’s the strength of Rotary … its connection to the community, member to member.”
At the Heart of Rotary
A longtime focus of Rotary Clubs in the Midlands and internationally has been eradicating Polio, an incurable and potentially deadly disease still threatening children in some parts of the world.
In 1979, the international service organization launched a multi-year project to immunize six million children in the Philippines. Rotary expanded the project six years later, establishing its PolioPlus program to provide related health services like distributing bed nets to prevent malaria and assisting with common immunizations.
“We are on the cusp of making history,” says Mike McGovern, chair of Rotary’s International PolioPlus Committee. “Rotary is committed to ensuring that no child will ever have to suffer the lingering and disabling effects of polio. Rotary’s leading role is vital to achieve a polio-free world.”
Fundraising has been a significant tool in the organization’s effort to stamp out the disease, which now has a smaller global presence but is still recording cases in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria. Major donors include the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which first partnered with Rotary in 2007 by providing a $100 million challenge grant for polio eradication. Rotary has contributed more than $1.6 billion to polio eradication since taking on the virus in 1979.
“We started this more than 30 years ago,” Rotary International President John Germ shared during Rotary’s fourth annual World Polio Day event in Atlanta this past October. “We’ve stuck with it all this time. And soon, we’re going to finish it.”
In the Midlands, Rotary Clubs have raised awareness and funds to support the international initiative to eradicate Polio while also focusing on projects specific to local communities.
“Scholarships and programs to support low-income children are some of the top projects for Rotary Clubs in the Midlands,” Ione says.
For the Columbia Rotary Club, one of the most impactful projects has been the Columbia Scholars Program. “We provide four $5,000 annual scholarships to students coming out of Richland 1 to attend an in-state college,” Rodger says. “It’s a program that’s been going on since the 1920s, and one we’re very proud of because it directly impacts our community.”
Other global Rotary issues include providing clean water and economic development to impoverished countries. In the United States, southeastern clubs also have been focused on Alzheimer’s research.
“Every week at our meetings, we ask members to donate a dollar or loose change for Alzheimer’s research, which allows us to give grants to universities for research. That’s one we support a lot,” Ione says. “Every club has its own personality, but service is always at the heart of Rotary. We bring a lot like-minded people together who want the best for the community.”
‘Rotary Changed My Life’
There’s renewed focus internationally on recruiting new rotary club members.
“You have to get young people involved,” Ione says. “Interestingly enough, we’ve found that the millennials are very interested in civic engagement and community service. We try to recognize that opportunity and make sure that we engage them and pull them in.”
Rotary Clubs have also taken steps to modernize the organization, including the option to “make up” meetings online or at other clubs. Leadership roles for women have also been on the rise, since clubs started admitting women in the late 1980s. “It has broadened the number of people who are potential members of the club, and some of our strongest and best presidents and leaders have been women,” Rodger says.
Leaders hope modernization and positive changes will counter membership declines seen for all civic organizations. Rotary membership numbers are now beginning to stabilize in South Carolina due to active recruitment efforts by local clubs.
“At one point the Columbia Rotary Club had about 345 members. For a while, we were losing more members than we were gaining, until about four or five years ago when we stabilized at about 280,” Rodger says. “So, we are looking for ways to engage civic-minded individuals and convince them to ‘give Rotary a try.’”
During its 2015 convention, Rotary International unveiled an innovative new program called Rotary Global Rewards. Aimed at boosting membership and enhancing member satisfaction, the program offers club member discounts on products and services for travel, entertainment and merchandise.
“This innovative new program will allow Rotary members to connect with hundreds of businesses and service providers from around the world — and that number is growing,” says past Rotary International President K.R. Ravindran. “These establishments will offer Rotarians discounts and concessions on the everyday business that you do. And, in many cases, not only will you benefit, but our Foundation will as well, by receiving a contribution with each transaction.”
The changes have helped, but Rotary’s best recruitment tool remains one that has been part of the group since its beginning. In his farewell speech in June 2015, former Rotary International President Gary C.K. Huang echoed the life changing work of the clubs.
“Each time I witnessed projects, I always wondered: How many lives could we change for the better by bringing more people into Rotary?” he says. “We know great things don’t happen by themselves. We have to constantly challenge ourselves and others, and push the boundaries. Sometimes, all it takes is to ask someone to join Rotary.”
The importance of serving the community was a lesson Gary says he learned from his father. It’s also a lesson he hopes young people can learn and share through Rotaries.
“Rotary has shaped and changed my life,” Gary adds. “I want to use my story to urge Rotarians to continue to welcome promising young people in your communities to take care of those who need a little push from us. Someday, those we have helped might become a future president of Rotary International, a successful businessman, a mayor, or the president of a country. Within Rotary, anything is possible.”
On Dec. 9, an added excitement filled the Columbia Rotary Club as the group celebrated its 100 years of service with a gala featuring International President John Germ.
“It’s great to think of all the many lives that have been touched in the past 100 years,” says Rodger. “The motto of Rotary is, ‘Service Above Self.’ I’ve visited many clubs throughout South Carolina and had a chance to meet great people who live out this motto each day. I’m proud to call myself a Rotarian.”