Singles group helps Rotarians navigate solo travel
Last fall, Gary Winzeler was forced to resign as president of the Rotarian Singles Fellowship International. There was no scent of scandal, no hint of disharmony, no crisis of leadership. Winzeler lost his eligibility for the fellowship for the simple reason that he was no longer “eligible.”
“I announced that I was getting married in my resignation letter,” explains Winzeler, a real estate broker who will be 60 this year. “People were happy for me but disappointed that I was leaving the group.”
Winzeler, a member of the Rotary Club of Morgan Hill, Calif., USA, says he is not the only Rotarian to resign from the singles fellowship because of a change in marital status; he knows of one or two others. They didn’t marry another member of the fellowship, he says, and neither did he.
“The singles fellowship was not intended as a dating service,” he says, emphasizing a point that is clearly stated on its website. “The idea was to help single people connect with other single people – to feel more comfortable at Rotary activities, especially when traveling.”
The fellowship is among 62 recognized by RI. Fellowships bring Rotarians, their spouses, and Rotaractors together to share common interests, explore new opportunities to serve, have fun, and promote vocational development through friendship.
The singles fellowship was inspired by “simple economics,” says Marlene Daniels, another real estate broker from Northern California and a member of the Rotary Club of Oakland. Traveling to the 2006 RI Convention in Malmö, Sweden, and Copenhagen, Denmark, she noticed that because of single supplements charged by tour companies, the cost for people attending alone is often higher than for those attending as part of a couple. Although she could afford the additional cost, Daniels was concerned that some other single Rotarians might not be as fortunate. She discussed the disparity with Russ Hobbs, then the governor of District 5170, and received his support in organizing the fellowship in 2007.
“The idea was to enable single Rotarians to find people who would be willing to share hotel rooms at conventions or take tours together,” Daniels says. “We would not put them together; we would just have the names of people who were looking to share.” At the 2008 Los Angeles convention, she says, “people were lined up six deep at our booth.”
Most of the group hails from the United States, particularly California. According to Madhumita Bishnu, the fellowship’s India-based secretary and a member of the Rotary Club of Calcutta Uptown, more than half of the 285 members are American. But like so much in Rotary, the fellowship is a global growth story, with members in 31 countries. In addition to a U.S. and California chapter, it has seven others – Ecuador, India, Italy, Norway, Pakistan, Russia, and United Kingdom. Its board members are from Australia, Chile, Ecuador, India, Italy, Norway, Russia, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
Reducing expenses was the spark that ignited the fellowship, but its potential for solving some of the social disadvantages of being single quickly became apparent. “You’d get to an event, and almost everyone would come marching in two by two,” says Daniels, 65, who was widowed in 2001. “It’s not much fun being number 9 at a table of 10.”
Astrid Urbye, a fellowship board member from the Rotary Club of Drøbak, Norway, adds: “There is no place where you feel so lonely as when you are alone among thousands of people.”
The fellowship, which has a membership fee of US$20, makes it easier for people attending events to find dining partners and companions for activities. “When you go to events, they’re more enjoyable if you’re not by yourself,” Winzeler says
His successor as president, Tris Tristram, of the Rotary Club of Petersfield, England, describes the fellowship as “a good way to meet others who may feel excluded from that ‘couples’ thing.” A Rotarian for 26 years, Tristram says he met Daniels and other fellowship members at the 2009 Birmingham convention and thought the group offered a chance “to meet other people in my situation from all over Rotary.”
Although it was not meant to be a dating service, Daniels points out that the fellowship has potential for bringing together Rotarians who are at least open to, if not looking for, relationships, particularly baby boomers and seniors.
Like many singles, Daniels has an account with an online dating site. Internet services can be “a wonderful opportunity, but people have to be careful, particularly women,” she says. “When you go on dating sites, you know there are going to be some scoundrels out there. When you meet someone within Rotary, you know that person at least subscribes to The Four-Way Test. A Rotarian is someone who shares your values to start with.”
Daniels believes that the singles fellowship “easily could become the largest fellowship in Rotary. A serious techie could take hold of this and make it as big as Match.com. It could be Rotary’s biggest recruitment tool. I don’t want to take away from the value of service projects as a reason to join Rotary, but if we are recruiting people under 40, the idea that single people might meet other like-minded singles could be compelling.”
Organizers of Rotary events could also increase attendance by offering singles tables, she says. “Many singles choose not to go to district events because they don’t want to have to pay for a date or go alone. They may not say that’s the reason, but for many of them, it is.”
However, Daniels notes that overall, the value and purpose of the singles group is exactly what it says it is: fellowship. “My experience is that friendships have been formed. If a friendship turned into love, that would be wonderful,” she says. “Another major component is the support system we provide as people go through serious health or personal issues.”
A fellowship member who has cancer “has had the support of other members whom she has never met but enjoys hearing from,” Daniels says. “This is the kind of support that we as singles sorely need and generally do not have. To me, this is the ‘hands around the world’ love that the singles fellowship represents. It’s what I dreamed of.”