Major donor's gamble benefits school children in China
A young scholar studies in an old primary school in Du'an County, China. Photo courtesy Bill Benter
I was about to turn 40 when I joined Rotary. The timing was perfect. I’d wandered into a profession, computer software development, where I was disconnected from any community.
I was developing a somewhat complex database program for betting on horse races, based on 70 variables for each horse that enabled me and my colleagues to determine its true odds of winning in any race, once we entered all the data and did our modeling.
My interaction was entirely with a computer screen. We didn’t have customers or clients, so I had little opportunity to connect with other humans. And I was living in Hong Kong, a long way from Pittsburgh, my home. Our goal was to handicap every Hong Kong racehorse based on past performance, track conditions, and so forth, and place strategic bets based on the results. It was a huge amount of work – but profitable and perfectly legal.
Our business lawyer, Gilbert Collins, invited me twice to join the Rotary Club of Kowloon North before I accepted. I must have had some trepidation; I’m not a joiner by nature. But before I knew it, I was on my way to becoming a member.
Rotarians respect the dignity and usefulness of all professions. There was no service component to mine, so I felt immensely honored to have been asked. In the first year after I became a member, I learned more about the Hong Kong community than in all the time I’d been living there. Looking back, it’s not surprising that I would become deeply involved in the club’s service projects.
I have a fondness and an aptitude for numbers, which helps – and, as I discovered through Rotary, a passion for putting my skills to work for causes I believe in. As the club’s international service director, I was charged with reaching out to join forces with clubs in other countries.
Bruce Stinson, past president of the Kowloon North club, had already made friends with Sai-Hong Choi, past president of the Rotary Club of Macau, and had visited impoverished Du’an County in southeast China in 1999. He’d been moved to tears by the condition of many of the area’s rural schools – the roofs and walls had collapsed, and there were no desks or seats, he reported. The Macau club lacked funding, and that’s where we stepped in.
I knew that it would be something of a gamble to make our way through the Chinese regional bureaucracy and ensure that the money we raised went where it was intended, but I’d been gambling successfully for most of my adult life. As I got to know the Chinese government officials in Du’an, my level of trust increased. They turned out to be sincere and honest and grateful for our help.
The government agreed to put up half the money if we put up the other half – a total cost of about $60,000 to rebuild each school. To me, this seemed like a slam-dunk, and thanks to the success of my business, I was able to donate a substantial amount of those costs on my own.
The Kowloon North club teamed up with the Macau club to build the first three schools in the region, and since then, our district’s clubs have been able to fund many more. Putting the money into bricks and mortar assured us we were creating something of lasting value, that the money wasn’t being frittered away. It was my kind of gamble.
For me, one of the most rewarding results of these service projects is to watch my perceptions bump up against reality. I expected China to be a tyrannical place, even brutal.
But my Rotarian colleagues and I learned a few things as we watched the Long’an middle school in Du’an being transformed from a dilapidated building into a functional structure. I asked the headmaster about discipline. “Do you spank students?” I wondered. He looked at me incredulously. “ Spank students?” He was shocked at the suggestion. Teachers and administrators are forbidden to employ physical punishment, he explained. “They do that in your country?” It was inconceivable to him that we could even think that was possible. So much for my concern about social protectors.
Now, about 11 years after the first schools were rebuilt, Du’an has become a thriving region. When we visited in 2008, schoolchildren no longer looked at our cameras in awe; they snapped digital photos of us with their smartphones. There had been an amazing upsurge in prosperity. Our first school project was dwarfed, in a good way, by high-rises all around.
Did I ever expect to become involved in so many projects, or to meet my wife, Vivian, in the Rotary Club of Kowloon North – she is a past president of the Rotary Club of Peninsula Sunrise, Hong Kong – and to marry for the first time at age 53? I wouldn’t have laid odds on any of those things happening.
But computer programs, even mine, have serious limitations. They couldn’t have predicted the adventures I’ve had or the personal rewards that have come my way through Rotary. I donate to The Rotary Foundation because I believe in its mission.
Read the full article in the November 2011 issue of The Rotarian