When a serious illness stripped away many of her professional ambitions, Amanda Wirtz, a former U.S. Navy code breaker and professional violinist, turned to humanitarian service and Facebook to give her life new purpose.
Wirtz was in her twenties and pursuing a career as a fitness trainer when a sharp pain in her abdomen sent her to the emergency room. Expecting something manageable like appendicitis, she instead found herself facing a rare tumor disorder that required her to undergo 30 surgeries over the next several years.
Forced to rethink her life plans, Wirtz began focusing on how to help others, a quest that led her to Rotary.
"I met an older man with a Rotary pin," Wirtz recalls, "and I said, 'I love Rotary.' Ten years earlier as a Rotary Youth Exchange student, Rotary had helped build a hope and a future for me. Now, I found that through Rotary I could build hope and a future for others. And doing that, I found that I actually received it myself."
Wirtz launched the world's first Facebook-based Rotary club last year, United Services Rotary, after being approached by Rotary leaders who were seeking ways to make membership more convenient for U.S. military personnel. Their need to travel and relocate frequently can make it difficult for members of the military to commit to the weekly attendance that most Rotary clubs require. The leaders came to Wirtz because of her passion for service and her military background.
The club differs from a traditional Rotary club in that members log in to Facebook at any time during the week to view a high-definition video that reproduces many of the elements of a typical meeting: The Four-Way Test, sharing of Rotary moments, announcements, and a presentation by a main speaker. If there hasn't been time to record an original program, the weekly presentation may be a TED talk or other video on a Rotary-related topic that's available online. Members keep in touch through Facebook updates and by posting on each other's timelines.
Wirtz admits that meeting online comes with some drawbacks.
"There is nothing like being in the same room with another person. I don't think anything can replace one-on-one interaction," she concedes. "So it's, 'How can I get a sense of you truly to have the feeling of real fellowship in a remote location?' And honestly, that's something we are continuing to work on."
But she feels social media is too big a phenomenon for Rotary not to embrace it.
"I see a lot of missed opportunities, and my pain reminds me that time is short," Wirtz says. "Social media is a powerful tool. But it is more about embracing whatever strategy brings innovation, opportunity, and change. If we are to do anything about the mounting problems in the world, and the problems within Rotary regarding keeping members, we need to do whatever it takes to fully engage our evolution."
How Wirtz brought the idea to life
Wirtz used focus groups on military bases to discover what people would want in an online meeting. They didn't want to read a lot of text, they wanted to communicate very quickly, and they didn't want to go to a lot of places to do that.
On all counts, a Facebook platform seemed to fit the bill. It was convenient: Members can sign in to Facebook from anywhere in the world and stay connected without having to attend an in-person meeting in a set location every week. It cost nothing to set up. And because there's no meal, the club can keep expenses down.
Wirtz said she expanded the membership target beyond the U.S. military because she wanted to have as big an impact as possible and promote peace among military personnel everywhere. Through the focus groups and by promoting the idea heavily on social media, she assembled a core of members in and around San Diego, California, USA. Members in other countries, including Afghanistan, Germany, and Japan, signed up as they learned about it. Though military personnel were the initial focus, she notes that membership is open to anyone who shares the club's vision of building hope through peace.
Service its own reward
Wirtz's quest to help others has meant learning new skills. After working with an exercise physiologist to manage her pain, she enrolled at the University of Illinois to earn a degree in health education and graduated with top honors. She followed that with an advanced degree at the University of California, Santa Barbara. A motivational speaker, Wirtz now shares her story with audiences around the U.S., combining her new life philosophy with her other passion, playing the violin.
Before forming the Facebook club, Wirtz had already taken part in a trip to South America to help orphans find homes. She also participated in projects to rehabilitate a homeless shelter and distribute backpacks to low-income families.
"When I hear our motto Service Above Self, I am reminded of the words of Mahatma Gandhi, who said, 'the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.' I feel passionately that by serving we answer the most important question -- and that is, Who do we want to be?"
In its first year, United Services Rotary received a grant to build a memorial wall at U.S. Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton for those killed in combat. It has renovated elementary schools in San Diego and provided tsunami relief in Japan. It is also organizing a larger project that would gather Rotary members from all over southern California for an annual day of international service in Baja California, Mexico.
For other projects, members assist each other remotely.
"We have a member in Germany. If he wants to do a project for schools in Germany, I can find some way to facilitate that. Maybe some kind of exchange, maybe we get students talking to each other," Wirtz says. "It's a creative world. There are no restrictions to it."
"We are bringing social media and Rotary together in a way that has never been done before. Paul Harris said, 'This is a changing world; we must be prepared to change with it. The story of Rotary will have to be written again and again.' I think Paul Harris would have liked social media."