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Ordinary Rotarians can find themselves in extraordinary circumstances. In their own words, they tell us

What it’s like to...

Survive the unimaginable
Gustavo Zerbino
Rotary Club of Montevideo, Uruguay

The moment before the plane crashed, I took off my seat belt, stood up, and held on to the ceiling. 

The plane hit the mountain and broke apart exactly where I had been sitting. My friend in the seat next to me fell out of the plane and died. 

Illustrations by Aad Goudappel

I was with my rugby team, the Old Christians Club from Montevideo, Uruguay. It was October 1972, and we were flying over the Andes on our way to Santiago, Chile, to play in a rugby championship. There were 40 passengers — teammates as well as friends and family — and five crew members. I was sitting by the window looking at the mountain peaks far below, when suddenly they began to appear closer. I asked my friend, who was sitting in the aisle seat, to let me by and I went to talk to the pilots. They said not to worry, but then they looked out and saw the high peaks and told me to sit back down. 

After the crash, I thought it must be true that the dead could still think, because I could not believe that I could be alive. All the seats were piled on top of each other. There were dead people, injured people, people struggling to get out. 

We had crashed on the Glacier of Tears. We had no food. Temperatures fell to minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit at night, when it snowed and there was wind. By day, when the sky was clear and the sun was directly overhead, it got very hot. 

There is so much to say about our 72 days in the mountains. There are hundreds of documentaries. There are the book and the movie Alive. 

We were very young and we adapted quickly, because we had no choice. The only clothes we had were the ones we were wearing: leather shoes, nylon socks, pants, a shirt, a blazer, a necktie. When another person died, you would put on their pants and you had two pairs of pants, or two pairs of socks. 

Every night we prayed the rosary. For three reasons: first, to thank God because we had survived that day and to ask for a next day just as good. The second reason was that saying the rosary was like having a windshield wiper for all of the negative thoughts we would have during the darkness of night. And the third reason was that every five minutes the rosary came back around to you. If you were to fall asleep, you would be frozen like a statue, so we would nudge each other to pray.

We put a radio together from the pieces of other radios and heard that the search had been called off. The world had abandoned us, so we built a solidarity where the only goal was to live. We learned that the important thing in life is not what happens, but what we do with what happens, which is the only thing that’s up to us.

There are no extraordinary human beings. There are only common, ordinary human beings, like you and me, who are able to do extraordinary things if we connect to love and to passion if we do things that are more important than ourselves.

We made a pact that if we died, our friends could use our bodies so they might live. We understood it as something logical. Our teammate Gustavo Nicolich wrote a letter to his mother, which I brought with me when we were rescued. He tells her that we had started to eat the flesh from the bodies of our dead friends. He says we asked God from the depths of our beings not to allow it to come to pass. But the moment arrived, and we had to accept it with courage and faith. 

This is something that makes us proud. We chose life and not death. Sixteen of us survived to tell our story.

Telling people about what happened to us has never bothered me at all. It is the best tribute we can offer our friends who died on the mountain, because they were wonderful human beings who gave us everything so we could live.

I never think about the fact that I was in a plane that fell. I take planes everywhere. I do things, I don’t worry about things. Today, I’m president of a multinational pharmaceutical company in Uruguay. I’m with the rugby union. I played for the Uruguayan national rugby team. I’m on the UNICEF advisory board. I work with a foundation called Rugby Without Borders. I’ve been a Rotarian for 23 years. I have six children. I have done many things. And the Andes accident is just one more thing that happened to me.

For the world, it was a huge thing. But people’s lives are all unique and unrepeatable. All the things you live through are unique to you. Life has been very generous to me. It gave me the opportunity to live, learn, share, and be thankful every day that I am alive.

— As told to Briscila Greene and Diana Schoberg

Visit Rotary clubs in 22 countries
Kazi Asma Azmery
Rotary Club of Greater Dhaka, Bangladesh

I’m in Azerbaijan right now. It’s the 96th country I’ve traveled to since 2009; I’ve visited around 50 Rotary clubs in 22 of them. Where I grew up, in Bangladesh, it was a great honor when I became a Rotarian, because all of the Rotarians were my mom’s friends, my dad’s friends, my uncle’s friends. I was 26 years old when I joined. At first they didn’t want me because I’m so young and wear jeans. My country is a very conservative Muslim country, and they did not want people to dress like this at Rotary. But I worked hard to establish myself as a modern Rotarian.  


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I have a small travel agency. In 2014, I planned to travel by road from Los Angeles to Brazil for the World Cup. When I was in LA, I noticed that the guy sitting next to me on the underground Metro was wearing a Rotary pin. We chatted and I ended up visiting his Rotary club. 

It’s like that most of the time. I meet people by looking for someone with a Rotary pin or T-shirt or hat. Or I’ll go to one Rotary club meeting and ask for a recommendation for another club to visit. In 2016, I was at a restaurant in Montenegro and saw the Rotary flag. I asked the owner about it, and he was a Rotarian. I was in Australia on Australia Day, and the Rotarians in Perth were selling sausages on the street. So I met them and through them found another Rotary club to visit. On a bus trip in Peru, I met a district governor and his wife because he was wearing a Rotary hat. I met them in Cuzco, and then followed them to Lima and visited five Rotary clubs with them. Later, when they traveled to Bangladesh, I introduced them to Rotarians in my country. 

A lot of times Rotary clubs don’t have the right information on their website. Many times in many countries, I’ve gone to the restaurant at the time the website said and there was no meeting. They may not have the right phone number, and sometimes they take a week or a month to check email. So now I try to use Facebook to contact clubs. It’s quicker. 

Last year I joined the International Travel and Hosting Fellowship. We have more than 1,000 members, and we host each other. Or sometimes we just pick each other up from the airport or meet and show each other the local places of interest, the food, and the culture. It’s a great way to connect with a lot of different Rotarians. 

Rotary is one family. I remember one Rotarian in Guatemala who helped me get a visa for Nicaragua. The Nicaraguan embassy told me I couldn’t get a visa for 14 days. I called the Rotarian, and he talked to the officials in Spanish. I had the visa in an hour.

In San Diego, a Rotarian I met told me I was crazy, that I couldn’t travel by road to Brazil. It took me 3 1/2 months, but I did it. I sent him an email when I got there.

— As told to Diana Schoberg

Fall in love through Rotary
Jessica and Jim Aiello
Rotary Club of Harrisburg Keystone, Pennsylvania

Jim: I got selected for Group Study Exchange in 2012. The Harrisburg Keystone club was sponsoring me, so I figured I would go thank them. Jessica was the president. I sat down, and I was like, “That woman is really pretty. I need to come back here.”

Jessica: He went to Scotland, and when he came back, we formed a friendship. For those first few years, we both dated different people off and on. When those relationships ended, we would sit down over a beer and complain about how dating was so stressful. Meanwhile, one of our mutual friends in the club was putting bugs in our ears: “What about Jim? What about Jessica? Why isn’t it something more?” 

Jim: There was an undercurrent in our club of members trying to get us together. I was like, “Wow, she’s beautiful,” and I enjoyed being with her, but I didn’t want to mess up a friendship.

Jessica: I found a great job in Virginia, so I decided to take it. While I was getting ready to move, Jim and I spent more and more time together. I started to realize, “This guy is a wonderful friend, but I see that there could be something more.”

Jim: It was a glass of red wine that was the turning point. 

Jessica: We had dinner one night, and that led to a kiss. At first I said, “Let’s back off; I want to get settled in Fredericksburg first.” But after not talking to him for even a few days, I missed him so much. That led to a decision to try out a long-distance relationship.

Jim: A week before she moved, we were at a Rotary party, and I was like, “I’m just going to kiss you in front of everyone.”

Jessica: That sort of let the cat out of the bag. We dated long distance for almost two years, and finally I moved back to Harrisburg. At every club meeting, members can give a “happy dollar” to our sergeant-at-arms, and then you get 15 seconds to make an announcement. So Jim gave a happy dollar and said, “I proposed to Jessica, and she said yes.”

Jim: Our wedding officiant worked Service Above Self into his speech, and we had about 20 Rotarians there.

Jessica: Rotary has strengthened our relationship, because we can volunteer at the food bank or pick up trash together — something active that’s making the world a better place. I’ve always wanted to be with somebody who cared as much about others as I do, and I’ve definitely found that in Jim. 

If I meet somebody I think would be good for a fellow Rotarian, I’m not shy about saying, “Hey, would you want to have a drink with this person?” We have not had any club members get engaged through our setups yet, but we’re working on it. 

Jim: I’ll get one before the end of the year. I feel it.

— As told to Anne Ford

Fly around the world alone
Ravi Bansal
Rotary Club of Buffalo, New York

Some years ago, my sister-in-law died of cancer. I wanted to find a way to raise awareness of the disease and to raise money for the charity hospital in my hometown, so I got the idea to fly around the world. It was an extremely ambitious plan for me, something like climbing Mount Everest — except that more than 4,000 people have climbed Everest, and more than 500 people have gone to space. But only 126 people have flown around the world solo, and I’m the only person of Indian origin to do so.  

Ready to take flight? Chart your course with the International Fellowship of Flying Rotarians at

Part of the reason it’s so hard is logistical. I flew more than 26,000 miles in six weeks, and I had to acquire numerous documents for each trip, customs clearances, and insurance. If you have a problem with a single-engine plane and you’re flying over land, you can usually land safely on a road or a field. But when you fly around the world, 70 percent of the time you’re flying over water. 

The scariest part of my trip was flying over the northern Atlantic, from Labrador, Canada, to Greenland. It was my first time over the ocean, and almost immediately my GPS went out. I later found out that this often happens at higher latitudes. But when I first lost the signal, I got extremely scared. When I looked down, all I could see were icebergs — millions of icebergs. I thought, “Where am I? Where do I go?” My GPS was out for no more than two minutes, but I can tell you: Those two minutes felt like two years. 

As a businessman, I had been to many countries. But I had never been to Greenland. When I finally got there, I could see these huge mountains of ice and that tiny runway, and it was the most beautiful moment of the trip. 

Another sight that I’ll never forget is flying from the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia over to Alaska. You fly over the Aleutian Islands, and there are hundreds of them. They are part of the so-called Ring of Fire, because of all the volcanoes. You’ve never seen so many volcanoes! Most of them are dormant. But many are active, and you never know when they might erupt. When you fly in a commercial airplane, you’re up at 35,000 feet, so you can’t see them. But I was flying at 10,000 feet and some of these volcanoes were just a couple of thousand feet below me. It was unbelievable. I’ve never been to space, so I don’t know how an astronaut feels when he or she looks down upon the earth. But for me, the journey showed me how just how beautiful, and how fragile, the geography of our planet is. 

There is so much technology available to pilots today. I had a satellite tracking device that plotted my position, so all my family and friends could find out where I was. During most of my flights, I spent the first hour texting people on the ground to let them know how I was doing and to check on the weather and make sure officials at the next airport knew I was coming. 

Before I flew out of Kamchatka, I had my logistics support person in Russia arrange to ship two barrels of special aviation fuel to the airport. After I fueled my plane, a ground official there suggested I check the dates on the barrels. It turned out the fuel had expired three years before. He recommended that I drain it from the plane. But I didn’t know when I might be able to get another barrel, and the fuel looked good to me. I decided to take off anyway. The man made me sign a liability waiver. For a second I thought, “Oh my God. What am I doing?” But you have to take some chances — without being foolish, of course. I knew, for instance, that I was going to have to circle the plane for 10 minutes to get high enough to clear the volcano next to the airport, so I had a chance to make sure the fuel was OK. 

When I first mentioned flying around the world, my wife did not want me to do it. My kids did not want me to do it. My son wouldn’t even make a website for me. He said, “Dad, I won’t do it, because I don’t want you to go!” But once they saw that I was going to do it anyway, they became a part of the team. It’s something I’d been dreaming about for years. Now, it’s been a year since I finished my flight. I don’t have a desire to do it again at the moment. I’m almost 70 years old. But I’m in pretty good shape, so you never know.

— As told to Steve Almond

Go undercover for the FBI
Michael Kesti
Rotary Club of Perrine-Cutler Ridge/Palmetto Bay, Florida

I got to a place in my career as a lobbyist where I was getting tired of the corruption I was seeing. I had politicians asking, “What’s in it for me?” Through my friends in other agencies of the government, I asked to be introduced to an FBI agent in the public corruption unit. I began working with them on sting operations around the country, giving them advice on how best to plan and to proceed.

Ethics and The Four-Way Test are part of Rotary’s DNA. The Ethics Fellowship of Rotarians has resources at

At a certain point, I said, “What about all the corruption in South Florida, where I live?” The problem was they couldn’t find someone who would cooperate with them on undercover operations. Finally they said, “We do know of one lobbyist we might ask.” I asked who. They said, “Go home and look in the mirror.” They wanted me to do covert operations myself! I grew up in a patriotic family, with a sense of duty to country, so I did not hesitate. I knew it was the right thing to do.

I had never done anything like they were asking — wear a wire and give bribes! The tough part is that I really had to play a certain role. The best way I can describe it is that I had to become an actor. I had to convince these politicians that I was getting paid a lot of money from my clients, who were actually undercover agents. So I would be driving a Porsche, or other luxury car, and taking these guys out for fancy dinners. I would make comments like, “Anything you need, Mayor, you just tell me. Anything!” I had one mayor who insisted he wanted to go to Las Vegas to have fun. You can imagine what he meant by that. 

It took time to set up these stings. We had to establish fake businesses and build relationships. I’d say something like, “We’re going to make 50 grand from this one project, and 10 is yours if you want it.”

There was one operation where the target got suspicious and he showed up to a meeting with a police officer. Another time, a politician called me back and said he needed to return the bribe he’d taken from me. I wondered, if I show up, is someone going to do harm to me? One of those being investigated acted and talked just like a mobster from New Jersey. I said to the agents I worked with, “Hey, I want to make sure this guy’s not connected to organized crime, because if he is, I’m out of this operation.”

But I never doubted that I had protection. The feds were always listening on the wire. I also had a code word I could say if I got a bad feeling. And they always had agents close to me. If we met at a coffeehouse, they would be sitting two tables away. At dinner, they might even be the waiter or the busboy. 

When my name leaked in the press, all hell broke loose, because nobody knew what I’d been up to, not even my family. I had a lot of explaining to do. My mom called and said, “Are you going to jail?” I said, “No, no, no, Mom. I’m one of the good guys.” 

This kind of work does come with risks. My wife and I have been followed. We’ve had our tires slashed. I had my gas tank sugared. And a lot of people in lobbying, and in the political world, were upset with me. But the way I look at it — and a lot of this goes back to the philosophy of Rotary — you have to do the right thing and stand up. If you don’t stand up for something, you’re going to fall for everything.

— As told to Steve Almond

Bring comfort after tragedy
George Rabiela
Rotary Club of Chicago

I’ll never forget the smell. The stench at ground zero was horrible. It smelled like old meat that had been left in the sun for days.

In 2001, I had been a firefighter for 25 years. I was no rookie, but I’d never seen the amount of destruction like I did in New York after 9/11.

The emergency response was huge. Firefighters came in from all over the world. Finally the New York City Fire Department said they didn’t need any more volunteers — all they were looking for was people with search and rescue dogs. That’s when I decided to go. At the time, I had a three-year-old German shepherd named Moses that I’d trained for search and rescue. Southwest Airlines flew us to New York at no charge. When we arrived, the police drove us to ground zero. 

I got there on September 15th. It was my first search and rescue, and I really wasn’t prepared for what I experienced. The area to search was so huge that the rescue teams took sections. I would stand by until the officer in charge would yell, “We need a dog over here!” Then there was so much debris and rubble to climb over. My dog cut his paw and had to get stitches. There was a vet on-site, so Moses got a red-white-and-blue bandage and continued working. Later, people started sending booties for the dogs to wear. 

At first, we hoped we would find people alive, so we were searching for people who’d been buried in the rubble. A dog and his handler are as effective as 30 teams of two humans searching. But we were only finding parts of people. Every time we found a part of somebody, we would honor it. We had a funeral for a finger. It was overwhelming, and after a few days, I was emotionally depleted. 

I slept on a cot in a firehouse surrounded by men who were traumatized. So many firefighters, their friends, had died. In total, 343 firefighters died. Moses was a great comfort to me in New York. I noticed that other responders wanted to be around him too. In the midst of the devastation, he brought comfort. People would stop to pet him or take pictures with him. The comfort Moses provided people at ground zero gave me the idea for the therapy dog work I do today. 

Now I have a Dalmatian named Brady. We are part of an organization called Canines for Christ. We go into hospitals, nursing homes, schools — any place where people need comfort. I was a chaplain with the Fellowship of Christian Firefighters, and after I retired, I still wanted to help people. So now I offer tours of Chicago in a fire truck — my company is called O’Leary’s Fire Truck Tours — and I use part of the proceeds to support the therapy work I do with Brady. We flew to Las Vegas in 2017 to comfort the victims of the mass shooting there. I just felt compelled to go. People light up when they see Brady. 

I witnessed a lot as a firefighter. I’ve pulled kids out of buildings who were badly burned. I couldn’t save a woman who was mangled by a train. I can still see her face. I’ve never been diagnosed with PTSD, but I know Brady helps me get through the day. He has a naturally calming effect on people. I guess that’s why they say dogs are man’s best friend.

— As told to Vanessa Glavinskas

Advance under enemy fire
Hershel “Woody” Williams
Rotary Club of Milton, West Virginia

I was raised on a dairy farm in West Virginia, a long ways from any military installation. I knew nothing about war. I was in Montana working in the Civilian Conservation Corps when Pearl Harbor was bombed. I joined the Marines not because I wanted to go to war, but because I wanted to protect America. I thought at that time we would stay in the United States, but I learned very quickly that we were going to a foreign area that I’d never heard tell of, to fight an enemy I’d never heard tell of. 

In 2010, Woody Williams established the Medal of Honor Foundation to erect memorials to honor Gold Star families. To learn more, visit

I fought in two campaigns against the Japanese, first in Guam, then on Iwo Jima. The Japanese had 18,000 soldiers on Iwo Jima and miles of tunnels. They had all the advantages and we had none, so it was a terrible, terrible situation when we arrived ashore. So many of our own had been wounded or killed, and there was no place to inter them. My outfit was able to move forward to the edge of an airfield, but we ran into difficulty there, because the enemy had built these concrete reinforced bunkers. They called them pillboxes.

I was at the edge of that airfield when they raised the American flag on Mount Suribachi. Seeing Old Glory flapping on that mountaintop did something for me and every Marine on that island. It said — at least it said to me — we’re winning. We’re going to take this island. At the same time, my commanding officer had lost a great number of Marines and most of his officers. I was the only member of my special weapons unit left, so he asked me if I could use my flamethrower to eliminate some of the pillboxes that had us stalled. 

Well, I can tell you this: Marines don’t back off. That isn’t our game. In four hours, using six flamethrowers, I eliminated seven pillboxes and we were able to move forward. The Marines thought me worthy to receive the Medal of Honor. But I have no memory of much of what happened, no way of explaining how I did it, why I wasn’t wounded, where the energy came from.

One thing that does stick in my mind is that I’m trying to reach a pillbox and the Japanese are shooting at me with a machine gun and the bullets are ricocheting off the steel tanks that are on my back. I remember that very well. Another thing I remember, exceedingly well, is that I was trying to reach another pillbox and I crawled around to the side where there were no weapons. It was covered with sloping sand. I had seen some smoke curling out of the top of the pillbox, so I was reasonably sure there was an opening up there. I climbed to the top and there was indeed a vent pipe, because the Japanese lived and cooked in those pillboxes. So I stuck my flamethrower down that pipe and eliminated those enemies within.

Another very vivid memory is of me approaching a pillbox when a group of Japanese soldiers came flying out and charging toward me. I don’t know whether they ran out of ammunition or just decided as a group they could get me, but I remember seeing them running toward me with their rifles and bayonets and, again, I used my flamethrower. So, yes, those are memories that have stayed with me all my life, and they keep coming back. They’ll always be there, I suppose. 

Later in the campaign, we were trying to break through another heavily defended area, and I slid into this little dug-out area just as an explosive went off. A piece of metal buried itself in my left thigh. It didn’t hit a vessel or bone. I was real lucky. I called a corpsman and he came and dug out the shrapnel and put some medicine on the wound — all we had in those days was sulfa powder — and put a pressure bandage on me. He told me I should go back to the medical area. “I’m not going,” I said. “I gotta stay.” He wasn’t very happy with me, but I had an awful lot of Marines with me the whole way.

I had all the reasons in the world to want to get home. I had a beautiful lady, Ruby, who I was engaged to, and a great family I wanted to see. Every time a teeny thought of fear came in my mind, I would eradicate it. Because if you don’t control your fear, it controls you. You must perform. What I kept thinking to myself was: I am going to make it. I am going to get through this. I am going to get home.

— As told to Steve Almond

Fight polio during a coup
Marie-Irène Richmond-Ahoua
Rotary Club of Abidjan-Bietry, Côte d’Ivoire

We were busy planning a Rotary presidential conference that was to be held in January 2000 in Côte d’Ivoire. We had made arrangements for top government officials to attend, but then, on 24 December, a military coup ousted the president and put General Robert Guéï in charge.

What can you do to help end polio? Find out at

Following the initial panic, we waited to see how the situation would evolve. Then the new government announced its priorities: It canceled the National Immunization Days (NIDs) that were scheduled for January and February to coincide with our conference. I was chair of the national PolioPlus committee, so this was a real blow for me.

I talked with the minister of health, who told me that the government had better things to do than to organize NIDs. I answered that the children of Côte d’Ivoire should be our priority, but it didn’t get me anywhere. I tried to plead my case to the new president, but it was impossible to reach him. As a last resort, I decided to pay the new first lady, Rose Doudou Guéï, a visit. Clémentine Anderson, a representative of the World Health Organization’s Expanded Programme on Immunization, came with me.

We thought our best chance to see the first lady was early in the day, so we showed up at the gates of the presidential residence at 9 in the morning. A guard asked us if we had an appointment. We didn’t. He thought we were two crazy women. We didn’t care. We didn’t budge and sat on chairs near the sentry box until we were finally allowed inside, where we again explained the purpose of our visit.

Around 3:30 in the afternoon, we were shown into a parlor to meet with the first lady’s chief of protocol. Again, we had to explain why we were there. Finally, Mrs. Guéï agreed to receive us. I told her, “First Lady, you are a wife, you are a mother. You know how essential it is to organize these NIDs.” She replied, “But what can I do?” We urged her to talk to her husband, reminding her of the persuasive power women have in our country — in fact, our kings are often counseled by their wives. She talked to her husband that evening, and the NIDs were back on the government agenda. She even agreed to attend.

The first lady was not available for the initial NID round in Yopougon, the most populous neighborhood in the city of Abidjan, but Prime Minister Seydou Diarra was there. The second round was to be launched in Korhogo, in the north of the country. We flew from Abidjan in a presidential plane. I was sitting near the first lady and the minister of health. But the airplane experienced mechanical problems, so we had to fly back to the capital and take a different plane. The immunizations started several hours later than scheduled. All that time I worried about the mothers who were waiting for their children to be immunized.

In the years that followed, new challenges arose. There was a rebellion in September 2002, and planned NIDs had to be postponed while we negotiated with the leaders of the rebel forces to get access to the areas under their control. In March 2004, large demonstrations took place to protest the policies of President Laurent Gbagbo. We had planned to launch our NIDs in Man, about 75 miles from the border with Liberia — a country caught up in its own civil war. Rotarians were bailing out, saying it was too dangerous to go there. I convinced one of my cousins to come with me, and we took off in an SUV filled with banners, T-shirts, and hats. Around midnight, we were stopped by an armed soldier. This was the biggest scare of my life. Only when a convoy with Ministry of Health officials showed up did we know we were going to be safe.

Côte d’Ivoire was declared free of polio on 30 November 2015. That was during my term as district governor. It made all those travails worthwhile.

— As told to Alain Drouot

Win Olympic gold
Perrine Laffont
Honorary member, Rotary Club of Foix, France

Winning an Olympic gold medal was a dream of mine, but it was not my first dream. When I was about 10, I wanted to become a ski instructor. My father was a ski instructor, and my mother was president of a ski club, Boss Club des Monts d’Olmes. I had been on skis since age two. In France, to become a ski instructor, you must focus on alpine skiing. My real love being moguls — the bumps on a snow-covered slope — my life took a different turn. 

You don’t have to be an Olympic champion to join the International Skiing Fellowship of Rotarians! Learn more at

Early on, I entered regional moguls competitions in the Pyrenees. I was so successful that at some point they had me compete with boys. Soon I was competing at the national level. In 2013, I took part in my first European Cup, and the following year I made my debut on the world stage. My performance in my first World Cup qualified me for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. At 15, I was the youngest member of the French team. I owe a debt to French moguls skier Guilbaut Colas, who took me under his wing and gave me much valuable advice.

Living in the Olympic village in Sochi was a great experience. It felt like a small mountain village at the bottom of the slopes. Getting to meet athletes in other sports was also wonderful. I qualified for the final, but finished in 14th place. I was not happy, but this only motivated me to do better.

After Sochi, my skiing started to take a financial toll on my parents. Arnaud Hoscheid — a friend of my parents who is a Rotarian — had been following my progress since I started to compete at the national level. In the spring of 2014, he convinced his club, the Rotary Club of Foix, to generously and substantially support me. That helped me prepare during the four years leading up to the Pyeongchang, Korea, Olympics. Since then, I have secured other sponsors, and the Rotary club can now fund worthier causes such as helping children with their education, which is more in line with the organization’s values.

In 2017, I won the World Cup, but my ultimate goal remained unmet. In Pyeongchang the following year, my grandparents were able to join me, in addition to my parents, which helped boost my morale.

This time, the pressure was on since I was among the favorites. My trainer helped me overcome my stress by telling me to focus on what I must do on the slopes to win instead of obsessing over results. Stress can also be a good thing when it pushes you to reach for the best.

At the end of my last run in the women’s moguls event, I braced myself while waiting for my score. There were still two competitors to go, and I hoped they would not outperform me. In the end, I edged out Justine Dufour-Lapointe, the Canadian skier who had won in Sochi. Stepping up to the podium, I realized that my dream had come true. Now, my motivation is to win again in 2022 in Beijing. And there is a title that I still need to get under my belt: world champion. I want that Crystal Globe, the trophy presented by the Fédération Internationale de Ski. Look for me at the 2019 FIS World Championships in Utah in February.

— As told to Alain Drouot

Build a hockey rink in Afghanistan
Zarmina Nekzai
Rotary Club of North York, Ontario

In 2016, I was visiting a girls school in northern Afghanistan, in the Mir Bacha Kot region. Some students had taken a few balls outside and were running around the schoolyard, playing and laughing. They reminded me of kids like my son playing hockey back in Canada. He was born there just after we arrived as refugees.

In Afghanistan, I had been an adult literacy teacher and a supervisor of an adult education program. In 1981, while traveling by bus from Kabul, I was taken hostage by Hezb-e Islami terrorists. There were 19 of us, all teachers, all women. Three of us were killed before we were rescued by the army the next day.

In 1984, a rocket hit our house. My father was killed, and my mother and three of my siblings were severely injured. My heart was broken. I knew we couldn’t stay in Afghanistan. My husband and I left with our three-month-old daughter. We went to Pakistan, and I lost all contact with my family. After three years, I discovered my aunt had emigrated to Canada; we moved there in December 1988. Four days after we arrived, our son was born.

I had never heard of hockey before I came to Canada. When I was in high school, I played volleyball. But hockey is our national sport in Canada, and I wanted to bring it to Afghanistan. 

I also wanted to provide a safe place for girls to participate in sports. At Mir Bacha Kot Girls School there was a huge yard, and this seemed like an opportunity to have a hockey rink. In Afghanistan, the north of the country is cold, but most of the kids had never heard of hockey or seen it played.

We started building the rink in 2017 with support from the Rotary Club of North York. We made it with a drain in the middle, so that in the warm season it could be used for floor hockey, basketball, volleyball, and in-line skating. 

Construction was finished in early 2018, and I went to Afghanistan to get the equipment out of customs. When I opened the registration, 500 children showed up, but I only had uniforms and equipment for 50. I began teaching the sports lessons in the classroom. The students were very excited. Then they practiced in-line skating and tried on the gear.

We have two teams with about 25 students each. The Mir Bacha Kot region most certainly has the highest percentage of female hockey players in Afghanistan. But their enthusiasm has prompted me to think bigger. My dream is for Afghanistan to play hockey in the Olympics. I want to sponsor a team of girls to come to Canada from Afghanistan. They could be trained, and then they could return to Afghanistan and teach another group, and they would teach another group, and so on, until hockey spreads across the country.

— As told to Frank Bures

Fight for families on the border
Ruby L. Powers
Rotary E-Club of Houston

I heard that children were being separated from their families the same way everyone else did — on the news. It was mid-June, and I happened to be at a conference for immigration attorneys in San Francisco when reports started flooding in about families being separated at the U.S. border with Mexico. 

I have a five- and a seven-year-old, and all I could think was: What if these were my children? 

My mother was born to American missionaries in Mexico, and I grew up between Mexico, Texas, and Missouri. Later, I was a Rotary Youth Exchange student in Belgium and an Ambassadorial Scholar in Barcelona, Spain. 

Previously I had taken on a pro bono asylum case at the Port Isabel detention facility, which is near Harlingen, Texas, and close to the border. Against many odds, I won the case, and a family of four, including a pregnant mom, were released. If I had taken on this family’s case after the zero tolerance policy started in May, their story would have been very different. 

Because I was familiar with the detention facilities, experienced in immigration and asylum law, and spoke Spanish, I felt compelled to help. I bought a plane ticket and flew to the border to see as many parents who had yet to meet with an attorney as I could in 48 hours. 

I went inside Port Isabel on Tuesday, 26 June. It’s in an extremely remote part of Texas. Once you arrive, you have to turn in all your personal belongings — including your cellphone. I was asked to take off my jewelry. This was a new rule; I heard that someone had tried to hide a recording device in their jewelry. Then I was escorted to meet with the detainees. It’s essentially a prison. A guard walked me through a number of doors that even he couldn’t unlock. Someone watched us on a camera and buzzed the doors open. 

I was the only volunteer immigration lawyer there that day. I spoke with four moms and seven dads. Sometimes I was the first person they told their story to. Some cried uncontrollably. Even though the executive order that began the reunification process had come out on 20 June, many parents still hadn’t spoken to their kids. 

Most didn’t know where they were. I only had about 30 to 45 minutes with each person, so I tried to understand their story and why they were seeking asylum as quickly as possible. Then I’d offer them advice on how to prepare for the “credible fear” interview and what to expect in the process. I broke down in tears with one mother who was distraught because she’d been forcibly separated from her five-month-old baby. She was still breastfeeding at the time. 

I’ve been practicing immigration law for 10 years, and I want people to understand who these families are. Many of the parents I met fled to the United States to get their children to a safer place. They fled domestic violence, gang violence, or political persecution. One woman I met had witnessed a murder. When she went to the police to report it, they told her she shouldn’t have done that because now the murderer would come after her.  

The people I met with had had no idea that they would be separated from their children. The zero tolerance policy started in May. While families had been detained before, they were always held together. However, there’s a law that states that children can’t be held for more than 20 days in family detention. So, to sidestep that requirement, the U.S. government started charging the parents with illegal entry if they didn’t cross at a port of entry, and then separated the parents from their children. This policy was in force from approximately early May to 20 June.

I look at this like a tsunami of chaos and collateral damage. At first, the families were separated and couldn’t talk to each other. Now, most are getting out and reunited, but some parents have already been deported without their children, or they waived their rights to reunification without understanding what was happening. This isn’t over. We’re not going to know the full impact of the damage for years to come. 

I see this as a humanitarian issue, not a political issue. I’ve been in Rotary since I joined Interact in high school, and that’s what the organization has taught me — to care about humanitarian issues. That is what Rotarians care about: other people, all people.

— As told to Vanessa Glavinskas

Run 156 miles across the Peruvian desert
Brien Crothers, husband of Kathey Lee Crothers
Rotary Club of Middletown, California

I didn’t start running ultramarathons until I was almost 40. An old high school chum introduced me to it. Then I went to help out at an aid station at the Western States 100-mile race, and I saw 70-year-old guys coming through there. I was like, “I gotta do this.” An ultramarathon is anything over a marathon, which is 26.2 miles. It could be 30 miles, it could be 50 or 100 miles. I’ve done all of those.

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In 2014 I ran the Marathon des Sables, which is a race in six stages over seven days in Morocco. I’ve been to races where it’s around the clock, go-go-go. But in stage races, as long as you’re getting through your course in a reasonable amount of time, you have time to rest at night.

Then I heard about a Marathon des Sables spinoff planned for Peru in 2017. My wife was president-elect of the Rotary Club of Middletown, and we were talking to some good friends of ours who were Rotarians. The idea came up to use the race as a fundraiser. I always say that in ultra races, the first and last miles are the hardest. So we decided to call our fundraiser “Polio’s Last Mile,” since we’re in the last mile of polio eradication. We took our presentation to Rotary clubs and Rotaract clubs throughout California and raised $81,300. 

The race was in the Ica Desert, which is near Nazca, where the Nazca lines are. It started at 8 a.m. We ran with our packs — mine had a pad, a sleeping bag, something clean to wear at night, my food for the week, a compass, and the map book they gave us. There are checkpoints every 6 or 8 miles where you get water. 

The first day was about 23 miles. In Peru, the sand is really silty and dusty, so you couldn’t get good traction. The course went down into a dry riverbed, and it was really, really hot. A guy I had run with in Morocco dropped out because he got severely dehydrated. The next day was a marathon length. I was expecting to suffer, but I think that was my best day. Everything was kind of clicking for me. You know how it is. Some days are good, and some aren’t. 

Then there was another 26-mile stage, and then the long one, which was 43 miles. That day, we started late and finished at night — that was part of the adventure. So for half that course, I ran in the dark with a headlamp. For one stretch, there was a 25-mph headwind. It was barely runnable, so I was walking into the wind. That went on for hours. 

That stage ended on a beach. It was incredible: this beautiful, miles-long beach. The next day we had a rest day, and it was really nice to go out there and soak in the ocean. They also brought in a pickup truck full of cold Coca-Cola. 

The next stage was marathon length again, along the coast, and the last day was short, 12 miles. The finish line was at the end of a dirt road on a cliff. My goal was to finish in the top 100, and I finished 97th. Somehow I also ended up being the first American to finish. 

At the end, it was kind of emotional. When I crossed the line, I knew they were livestreaming, and I guess I was inspired getting through those last miles, because I walked up to the camera and pointed to my sleeve where it said “End Polio Now.”

— As told to Frank Bures

Pedal a bicycle at 183.9 mph
Denise Mueller-Korenek
Rotary Club of Rancho Santa Fe, California

I started racing bicycles when I was 14 years old and raced for five years. After that, I did the mom thing and the career thing. In 2009, I started training for a marathon, and it’s almost like I woke up athletically. I hopped back on my bicycle, and I reached out to my racing coach, John Howard. He mentioned that no woman had ever tried for the bicycling land speed record. I decided to go after that record, which was held by Fred Rompelberg, who went 166.9 miles per hour. In September 2018, I set a record at 183.932 miles per hour.

Whether you ride fast or slow, you can bike with Rotary. Visit the International Fellowship Cycling to Serve at

To achieve that speed, you start by being towed by a car up to a certain speed. The bicycle that I use is a single-gear bicycle with a huge gear — one pedal revolution takes you 138.5 feet. It takes a huge amount of force to pedal. So you can’t just hop on and start riding. 

I’m tethered close behind the car with a cable that can withstand an extraordinary amount of tension. I have a lever that allows me to be released when I’m ready. At 110 miles per hour, I release from the tow and pedal up to speed, riding in the bubble of air created by the tow vehicle.

When my driver increases speed, I move to the back of the bubble, and I’m pedaling really hard. A push of air behind the bicycle tells me I am at the back of that vortex. If I get too far forward in the bubble, my handlebars touch a padded bump bar on the back of the tow car to warn me.

You work on adrenaline for a lot of it. It’s like going on your favorite roller coaster, and you get to ride it over and over again. There’s a changed sense of time perception. The faster I went on the bike, the slower everything seemed to happen. On the salt flats, there are no trees, poles, or parked cars that you can use as a point of reference for speed. It’s nothing but white salt, so you lose the perception of speed.

When you’re going that fast, there’s really no time to be afraid. There’s only time to focus on what you need to be dealing with. That’s actually a beautiful thing, because I have ADHD, and for me there aren’t too many times in life when everything else slows down and basically stops. You can focus on one thing, and it’s almost like being in nirvana. To have that moment of absolute clarity was just exhilarating. As soon as I was done and we were successful, I was like, OK, let’s get back in line and do it again!

— As told to Nikki Kallio

Swim with Medusa
Karen Kienberger 
Rotary Scholar

Water has always been around me. I was born in Lausanne, which is on Lake Geneva in Switzerland, and every time we moved, we ended up living by a lake. The first time I saw the sea, I was three. We were on a family vacation in Corsica. My parents decided it would be easier to put me and my brother naked on a beach than to take us on a ski vacation.

Through The Rotary Foundation, clubs and districts can sponsor scholarships for graduate students to study abroad in the field of education or any of Rotary’s other areas of focus. They can also sponsor undergraduate or graduate students using district grants. Visit

When I was six, we rented a beach house in Mauritius on the Indian Ocean. I saw starfish and sea urchins, and I’d go out with the fishermen when they retrieved their lobster traps. I was always asking them questions: What is this? What is that? So the ocean was always present. 

I saw my first jellyfish in 2008 while diving off Honduras in the Caribbean. I always thought they were very beautiful. They’re really misunderstood. Everybody hates them because they can sting, but they are an important part of ocean life. They have no spine, no heart, no brain, yet they’ve been around for 540 million years — since before the dinosaurs. 

The name “jellyfish” is completely wrong. They have nothing to do with jelly — and they’re not a fish. They are classified as gelatinous organisms. “Gelatinous.” We got stuck with that too. 

The French word for jellyfish is méduse. In Spanish, it’s medusa. In myth, Medusa turned people into stone. We forget that she was once a beautiful girl.

Seeing jellyfish underwater is like going to the ballet without music. They move very slowly, so you have time to look at them closely. They pulsate, and you become captivated by them. They look like dancers in the ocean.

I studied marine science and oceanography at the University of Cádiz in Spain. I earned a bachelor’s degree and a master’s, but I said I would only get a doctorate if I fell in love with a topic. Then, on my summer break, I was driving around Spain in a hippie van and diving in the Mediterranean. I saw a few jellyfish and discovered there wasn’t much information about them. I found out I was really fascinated. I had fallen in love.

But the Spanish economy was in terrible shape. My adviser told me, “We can’t give you any money for your doctorate.” I didn’t let that faze me. I figured I’d get the money somewhere. I was very young and full of illusions.

I came back to Switzerland and wrote to more than 150 different foundations. These were letters, not emails. The response: We can’t give you anything. No, no, no, no. Just nothing.

But a secretary at a Swiss university remembered me and sent me an email. The Rotary Club of Genève-Lac wanted to give a grant to a Swiss student to study outside of Switzerland. I did an interview and spoke to club members about my work. They said, “We want to back you.” They moved mountains for me. They got me a district grant. I also got help from the Rotary Club of Genève International. Rotary was always there for me. Without it, I wouldn’t have accomplished what I did.

I’m studying this big, beautiful white jellyfish, Rhizostoma luteum. I’m mesmerized by her. She’s my baby. She was first described in 1827, but there had been no research done on my jellyfish in the last 60 years. Some scientists thought she might never have even existed.

Then some strange jellyfish began washing up on the beaches of Spain. It was a big thing: a new jellyfish in the Mediterranean. I put up a stand on the beach with a poster. I would talk with divers and ask them about their sightings. 

Then I realized something strange. I had a diving guidebook, and there was no picture of this new jellyfish in the book. But on the cover of the book was a picture of a white jellyfish with long “arms.” Divers had taken pictures of it, but they misidentified it. They had given it the name of another jellyfish, Rhizostoma pulmo, which is also big and white, but it has a blue ring. I said to myself, There’s something wrong here. 

I got in touch with divers, photographers, and diving shops by email. At first, not many people replied. After two years, I got better known through my Facebook page, and more people began sending me pictures. I was able to prove that this “new” jellyfish was my jellyfish, Rhizostoma luteum.

Now I’m working with the Vienna Zoo to breed these jellyfish in captivity. And I recently published a paper with the first description of the life cycle of Rhizo-stoma luteum. It’s amazing that we could find an animal in the 21st century whose life cycle had never been described. 

I’m working on my dissertation at my parents’ house in Valais near the Matterhorn. I’m writing quietly and looking out a window with a view of the Alps. There’s no lake. It’s one of the rare times I don’t see water — though my thoughts are always with the ocean and my concerns for its future.

— As told to Geoffrey Johnson

Heal your war wounds
Larry Chambers
Rotary Club of Phnom Penh, Cambodia

From 1969 to 1970, I fought in Vietnam’s A Shau Valley with the 101st Airborne’s “lurps.” That’s LRRPs: long-range reconnaissance patrols. I’ve written about that experience in my books, so I won’t go into it here. Let’s just say one of the most dangerous jobs in the U.S. Army was gathering intelligence behind enemy lines.

Rotarian veterans from around the world are promoting peace, one of Rotary’s six areas of focus. Learn more about the International Fellowship of Rotarian Military Veterans at

I was one of the lucky ones. I came home in one piece, earned a B.A. and an M.A. from the University of Utah, and went on to enjoy a successful career as a stockbroker and writer. 

In 2008, the financial markets crashed. I was making about $400,000 a year as a ghostwriter for the financial security industry. In one day, I lost two mutual funds, and the magazine I was writing for went digital. Overnight my income disintegrated.

Sometimes when you lose everything, you start to become very insightful. The motto for Rotary is Service Above Self. I realized I was the opposite: Self Above Service. That was the wheel I was on. My financial crisis led to a personal crisis. 

When I was at the bottom, I asked a therapist friend of mine, “What do you do when you’re depressed?” He said, “Help somebody else, somebody in worse shape than you are.” I said, “I don’t know anybody in worse shape than I am!” Then I thought, “I’ll go help endangered elephants in Thailand.”

At the time, I was still very defensive about the Vietnam War. If you ever meet Vietnam veterans, when you say the word “Vietnam,” they go, “You don’t know anything about it! I was there and you weren’t!” But in Chiang Mai, Thailand, I met a Canadian history professor who asked me if I had seen the documentary about Robert McNamara, The Fog of War. She asked me, what did I think about the former secretary of defense saying the Vietnam War was a terrible mistake?  

Normally I would have gone on the attack, but not this time. This time I just listened and shook my head. Then she added, “You know, it’s not that far to Hanoi. Maybe you should go there and find out for yourself.” 

I thought, “I’ll show you. I’ll go there and prove I’m right.” I went to Hanoi and spent the next month traveling throughout the country. 

Going back allowed me to see the Vietnamese people from a different perspective — as happy families and beautiful children, not as an evil enemy to fear. I came to the conclusion that practically everything I once believed to be true was not.

On my way back to Thailand, I stopped in Cambodia, where Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge army had killed about 2 million Cambodians after the Vietnam War ended. At the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, there stands one of the trees called Chankiri that they once bashed babies against to kill them. I stood there frozen, then started weeping. It moved me beyond belief.

What I had experienced is what Buddhists call tonglen — the awakening of one’s compassion for others, no matter how cruel or cold they might have been. In order to truly feel compassion for another, you first have to feel compassion for yourself.    

Then I realized I had a part in this. It was my government that bombed this country and pushed it over the brink. And then I thought, “I just found somebody in worse shape than I am — the people who lived through this.”

Soon after that, I was at a restaurant in Phnom Penh, and I met a woman who was divorced with four kids. I said, “You’re not going to understand this, but I’m going to take care of your family.” I paid for her kids’ school fees. Then I started a publishing company to publish children’s books in both English and Khmer. I started more projects, spent a ton of my own money, but seemed to get nowhere. 

I went back to California for a visit. I told this to a friend who is also a Rotarian. He said, “The problem is that your programs are missing structure. You really need to join a Rotary club in Cambodia.” 

When I got back, at my second meeting I was invited to join. Suddenly I was a member of the Rotary Club of Phnom Penh — and Rotary already had a structure in place for helping people. Now instead of inventing new projects, I’m part of a team that gets things done. We’ve got 10 global grants going. Malaria and dengue fever are prevalent in many parts of Cambodia, so we distribute mosquito nets. 

Our flagship project is one we do with the Children’s Surgical Center to treat meningoencephalocele (MEC), which is a birth defect rarely seen outside of Southeast Asia. It’s terribly disfiguring. We find these people and bring them in. Everything is 100 percent free to the patients and their families. 

What I love about this project is, when we go back and check up on people, their lives are changed. We make this huge difference that you see literally in six months. Suddenly they’ve got a normal face. They can get married and be a part of the community. For me, it was tangible: I am helping, and I get to see it. Being a Rotarian has added a new meaning and larger purpose to my life.

— As told to Frank Bures


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