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Service to veterans is satellite club’s cause


When Oliver Allen enters the corridors of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, his face lights up. The black and white photos of baseball heroes like Jackie Robinson and life-size bronze sculptures of greats like Satchel Paige and Cool Papa Bell transport him back to his youth. He played for his high school team in Kansas City and had high hopes of going pro, but his father wouldn’t allow him to accept a sports scholarship he had been offered.

Instead, Allen joined the U.S. Air Force and later worked for the Marine Corps for 28 years before retiring at St. Michael’s Veterans Center Apartments in Kansas City. Though St. Michael’s is less than 5 miles from the museum, he had never visited.

In December, the Rotary Satellite Club of Kansas City Plaza Working for Veterans finally made the visit happen for him and other St. Michael’s residents. “They give us a chance to see different events,” Allen raves. And the club helps in other ways: “When I need help, they are there. They drive me to the VA when I need a ride,” he says, referring to the medical center run by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Members of the Rotary Satellite Club of Kansas City Plaza Working for Veterans (from left) Perry Campbell, Deanna Campbell, Steven Rotkoff, and Gary Phillips pose with Oliver Allen (far right), a resident of St. Michael’s Veterans Center Apartments, where the club regularly volunteers. Rotkoff, a former intelligence officer, formed the club to focus on the needs of local veterans.

Image credit: Arin Yoon

Started in 2021, the cause-based club, which is a satellite of the Rotary Club of Kansas City-Plaza, focuses on the needs of local veterans. “For our members, this satellite club combines the best of both worlds — Rotary’s worldwide network and knowledge, and working on behalf of veterans,” says Steven Rotkoff, the club chair.

A former intelligence officer, Rotkoff grew up in New York and was stationed all over the world before he settled in Kansas and then became a member of the Rotary Club of Kansas City-Plaza in 2018. “I wanted to add a veterans component to my Rotary service,” he says. He had dedicated much of his life to serving his country, and after his career with the Army, he felt a significant gap: “I missed the camaraderie among members of the military services.”

He started the satellite with the support of the sponsor club. His boss in the Army, Gary Phillips, retired after nearly 50 years of service and felt similarly. He was one of the first to join the new club, which has 13 members. “We are truly making a difference, one person at a time,” Phillips says.

Apart from Rotkoff, the club’s members had not been in Rotary before. Rotkoff found them “by calling everybody I know.” He made it clear that the club’s purpose “was not to simply throw money at a problem. We’re also not a social club who sits around and talks. What we really want to do is create a sense of community with the veterans.”

Success as a satellite

Members of satellite clubs often want a club experience or a meeting format that differs from what’s offered by clubs in the area. Some satellite clubs eventually form standalone clubs, while others, sometimes called companion clubs, continue to run in collaboration with a sponsor club. For Steven Rotkoff, establishing a satellite club in Kansas City, Missouri, offered lessons in these areas:

  • A focus on service: Our club prioritizes cause-based projects to support veterans. Our meetings are nontraditional, short, hybrid planning sessions. Most of our time is spent implementing service projects.
  • Growth orientation: Cause-based clubs are an effective way to grow Rotary. Except for me, our satellite club members are new to Rotary.
  • Community reach: Our club developed visibility with community organizations, and soon they were reaching out to us.
  • Membership pipeline: We have 13 official members, and we also have auxiliaries, people who are not ready to join the club but who assist with projects. These people often have connections in the community to link us to even more people.
  • Leadership lessons: To form a new club, you need to be a champion. You must serve as a liaison between the satellite and sponsor club, find members, and select worthy projects. The return on your efforts is serving a cause you love with the power of Rotary behind you.

Because the area is home to Fort Leavenworth, one of the oldest active military installations in the U.S., many active and retired military personnel live nearby. The club looked for veterans projects where it could make a difference. It soon found St. Michael’s, a state-run apartment center for 130 formerly homeless veterans who fall into the facility’s lower-income limits.

The satellite club takes a “hands-on approach,” says member Deanna Campbell. “It would be easy to just donate money or clothes and then be done with it. But this is boots on the ground.”

At least once a month, Campbell and her husband, a retired veteran, serve doughnuts and drinks at the St. Michael’s coffee shop, which the club keeps open every Saturday. It also offers help with filling out tax forms, donates used computers, and provides technology assistance. When Campbell realized there were only 15 women among the residents, she started organizing events just for them “to make them feel like they matter, because they do matter. They’re like family.”

The benefits flow in both directions. “The women have changed my life,” Campbell says. Phillips, too, confesses that when he leaves St. Michael’s or the VA, he feels “at least as fulfilled and satisfied as the guys there.”

More recently, the satellite club has begun to support a local Veterans Affairs clinic that helps veterans with substance use disorders. It also bought a fridge for the food pantry at Fort Leavenworth. And at St. Michael’s, the change is noticeable. “When we first got to St. Michael’s, the residents would pretty much keep to themselves,” Phillips says. “At the last dinner, the residents were sitting at full tables, eating chili, and talking to each other. We are not just giving them food. We are building a community.”

In addition, four club members, including Rotkoff, serve as mentors to the county’s Veterans Treatment Court, which offers veterans charged with criminal offenses treatment for substance use and mental health disorders as an alternative to incarceration. Rotkoff, Phillips, and a few others are also training with Veterans Last Patrol to support veterans in hospice care.

Among the club’s events, the visit to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum stands out. “A lot of guys had tears in their eyes,” Rotkoff says. It’s the only museum dedicated to preserving and celebrating the history of Black baseball and its impact on the social advancement of America. That history — like the contributions of veterans — is sometimes overlooked or forgotten. For Oliver Allen and his friends, the chance to celebrate those stories is deeply meaningful. It feels like hitting a home run.

This story originally appeared in the May 2024 issue of Rotary magazine.

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