Top: Tom Henderson. Bottom: Deepa Willingham. Both will be speakers at the RI Convention in Birmingham 21-24 June.
P repare to be inspired when Tom Henderson and Deepa Willingham take the stage at the RI Convention in Birmingham 21-24 June. As part of our ongoing countdown to the convention, Henderson spoke with Rotary World's Jennifer Atkin about his experiences, and Willingham shared her story with Abe Peck, professor emeritus at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Both are proof actions speak louder than words.
Tom Henderson understands outdoor survival equipment: He’s climbed the Matterhorn and served as a search-and-rescue diver with Britain’s Royal Navy. In 2000, the civil engineer founded ShelterBox with his Rotary Club of Helston-Lizard, England. The premise was simple: give disaster victims a package of customized survival tools, such as a 10-person tent, sleeping bags, cooking equipment, and a water purification system. The organization, which now has fundraising affiliates in eight countries, has aided more than 800,000 people. Henderson will give a keynote address on 22 June at the RI Convention in Birmingham, England.
One evening before Christmas in 1999, I watched a disaster unfolding on TV – I don’t remember where. A truck arrived, and people threw out loaves of bread. The people on the ground started scrambling for them. I said to my wife, “If you’ve lost everything, why should you lose your dignity?”
I decided I would try to change that. Within minutes, I’d written down “shelter, warmth, comfort, dignity.” I wanted to be able to hand a package of equipment to a family that would give them back their dignity. I envisioned a box that two people could carry. I thought, what would I need in a disaster? That was my benchmark.
I’m ex-military, so I’ve done the whole survival training thing. My role as a search-and-rescue guy was to go out in a helicopter to an overturned ship, jump out, and swim around to get the dead bodies out. It was front-end, serious stuff – blazing oil tankers, people stuck on cliffs, overturned yachts.
On a Tuesday evening a couple of months later, I pulled a box into my Rotary club and explained what I was doing. They said, “Okay, Tom. Off you go.” I became the guy with the green boxes running around the United Kingdom.
Before ShelterBox, I did all sorts of crazy things for my Rotary club. I built a powerboat and did an around-Britain powerboat race to raise money, only I ran over a submarine and sank off Scotland. Because I am who I am, I go off on things a bit. And I don’t like to fail.
We launched ShelterBox in April 2000, but it was the tsunami in 2004 that catapulted us onto the world stage. We had planned that year to do 1,000 boxes. We did 17,000. Imagine what that does to your business model. We also realized, in the first week of the tsunami, that we couldn’t send boxes to 4,000 miles of coastline and 11 countries without a monitoring system. So we kicked off our ShelterBox Response Team program. The team members are all volunteers. We have to be selective and put them through intensive training – we don’t want disaster tourists. We have to think, would this guy be safe in Sudan? We want people who can go out and perform. One minute you could be in a UN meeting, and the next up to your knees in mud, loading a donkey to walk up a mountain. We’ve got over 100 team members now.
We find the people who need shelter the most. Our Rotary friends tell us where they are. When our people arrive, they are met by someone who speaks the language and knows the area. In the 2008 earthquake in China, Rotarians from the Rotary Club of Shanghai got into four-wheel drives and traveled with the team as translators. They slept in the trucks, same as our guys. I can ring a Rotarian anywhere in the world and get information I can trust. I tell people I have 1.2 million friends in 33,000 offices around the world. And they’ve never failed me.
Deepa Willingham, founder of a school for girls in India, will address the RI Convention on 24 June. The winery owner, financial officer for BBW Energy, and member of the Rotary Club of Santa Ynez Valley, Calif., USA, established Promise of Assurance to Children Everywhere (PACE Universal) in 2003.
My father was president of a college. He taught me that education gives you the ability to find a job and to make important decisions. So, when [Rotary Foundation Trustee Chair and 2003-04 RI President] Jonathan Majiyagbe encouraged Rotarians to educate girls, I felt inspired. I talked to my husband, and then to my Rotary club. We partnered with the Rotary Club of Calcutta Metropolitan, and that was a blessing.
The board of directors at PACE thought it would be best to operate in the city of my birth. We built our first school 45 kilometers [28 miles] from Kolkata, in Piyali Junction. It is a simple building – a cement floor right now. It is a rented facility. We put the girls in one room, and we started educating them. Four or five months into it, we were able to separate them because they were learning at different speeds.
The center combines education, services, and community empowerment. You help them start climbing the ladder, and soon the community changes. Females who are educated are more likely to marry later, have fewer children, and launch businesses.
We lost two girls whose parents married them off when they were 13. Another girl, it took five years for her to tell the principal, “I need your help; my father rapes me every night.” After DNA testing, her father was arrested. Her mother wanted to sell her. The Kolkata Rotarians made arrangements so she is now in a licensed women’s shelter. Because of her courage, we are going to put a dorm in for the older girls.
In 2006, I took the first group of U.S. kids to go work at the school. It was one of the highlights of my year as Rotary club president. We raffled off a Mustang. We raised $45,000. We held a contest for all the juniors and seniors in the Santa Ynez Valley. They read The City of Joy , about Kolkata, and wrote a 1,000-word essay. Six kids were chosen to go work for two and a half weeks. The trip changed their lives.
We have about 100 girls at the school. More than 200 are on a waiting list. Each girl is sponsored by someone in the United States, who pays $180 per year to cover books, meals, lodging, and teacher salaries. I have donated $150,000, and other sponsors – including the Rotary Club of Santa Ynez Valley, my club – have brought the total to $500,000.
I go to the school two times each year. I just got back. We have a whole bunch of new girls. They call me Dida , which means “grandma.” My dream is to do five of these schools before I die. We cannot have a safe planet without eradicating extreme poverty.
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