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Down to earth: Rotary Club of Morro Bay Sunset, California

“I can’t find my badge, but I guess that’s OK,” says 2017-18 Club President Jessica Weiss as she calls the meeting of the Rotary Club of Morro Bay Sunset to order on a Thursday evening.  

Weiss teaches digital arts at a technology-focused high school. Though she is less than half the age of the average Rotarian, she runs a meeting as a seasoned teacher runs a classroom. By the end of the hour, club members have discussed peacebuilding, economic injustice, fracking, solar power, and education. And they still have time for chitchat and snacks.  

From left: Morro Bay Sunset Rotary Club members Penny White, Lucinda Ware, Ruth Ann Angus, Jessica Weiss, Mary Hudson, and Trina Dougherty.

Darrell Sano

It happens to be International Women’s Day, and Deepa Willingham is also on hand to give a talk about child trafficking. She tells stories of families living in extreme poverty, families so desperate that they have sold their daughters into slavery. Willingham is a former governor of District 5240 and the founder of PACE Universal, a nonprofit whose mission is to end child trafficking by educating girls and women in impoverished communities. 

As the organization’s website puts it, “Change begins with girls.”

That message isn’t lost on this crowd. Of Morro Bay Sunset’s 13 members, only two are men. Women make up 21 percent of Rotarians worldwide, but this club has more than flipped that ratio. This is a club run by women who value action over ceremony. 

In the first 20 minutes of their meeting, members collect donations for End Polio Now, share information about a benefit concert and two fundraisers, and work on a matching grant that will bring solar energy technology training to Native American youth. They do not sing songs, pay fines, take attendance, or fret about missing badges. They get right down to the business of making the world a better place.

“It’s kind of like a fun sisterhood right now,” Weiss says. Then she jokes, “We might scare the men away because we have so many women.” 

Morro Bay Sunset was chartered in 2011 as the Rotary Club of Morro Bay Eco to attract younger, more eco-conscious members. While the droves of millennials never arrived, female Rotarians did. “Women are nurturers in a way that men aren’t always,” Weiss theorizes. “They’re more active in the environment.” 

The coastal city of Morro Bay lends itself to an “eco” mindset. Peek inside the garage of any of its roughly 10,000 residents and you’re likely to find a surfboard, paddleboard, kayak, or beach cruiser. The beaches here are famously mellow, much different from the crowded coastlines farther south. The estuaries attract a diverse population of birds (and birders). Boardwalk paths and sandy trails guide hikers through groves of coastal oaks. In the summer, tourists from the hotter inland valleys visit Morro Bay to meander along the waterfront and cool off in the fog.

In its early years, Morro Bay Eco participated in zero-waste events and planted trees in a local park. Members raised funds to send solar lights to developing countries, and they put on an Eco Faire to showcase green businesses, foods, and innovations. 

After a while, however, membership declined, and those remaining started to wonder if the environmental focus was limiting the club’s potential. “We wanted to do a lot more, even though ‘eco’ is still a big part of who we are,” Weiss says. 

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June: Landlocked Lobster 

Last year, members started participating in service events that aren’t directly related to environmental issues, such as volunteering at another Rotary club’s avocado and margarita festival. They pledged to support Rotary’s Peace Centers and became a Peacebuilder Club. 

Early this year, they changed their name to the Rotary Club of Morro Bay Sunset. 

Since then, the members have expanded their peacebuilding activities and adopted some elements of more traditional Rotary clubs. They sponsor an Interact club, contribute to the Annual Fund and End Polio Now, and sent a student to RYLA. 

None of that is a departure from their original mission, explains President-elect Ruth Ann Angus. Whether they’re tackling environmental issues, promoting education and leadership, or addressing extreme poverty, it’s all part of the same overall goal. “You have to be able to tackle all those things in order to achieve peace,” she says. 

At the end of the meeting, Willingham and her daughter spread out a selection of colorful purses, tote bags, and jewelry. The goods were handmade by women in India, who receive 100 percent of the proceeds. Club members – several of whom are already wearing scarves and blouses with exotic prints and peace symbols on them – peruse the offerings and make a few purchases. 

One of the men in attendance is District Governor John Weiss, who happens to be the club’s founder – and Jessica’s father. He watches proudly as his daughter leads the meeting and rallies the members around important causes, such as sponsoring two students to attend Willingham’s school. “Nights like this make me very proud to be a Rotarian,” he says.

– Kim Lisagor

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