What happens when you say yes to Rotary
These 17 people joined Rotary to make a difference — only to find themselves transformed
“Being able to communicate even though you don’t speak the same language — that inspired me to join Rotary.” — Megan Law
Rotary Club of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
Megan Law had been traveling in Poland and Ukraine for weeks before the cornflakes appeared. By that time, Law — who was on a 2008 Group Study Exchange trip — had learned to enjoy the standard local breakfast of vegetables, yogurt, and dark bread, with maybe some sliced meat or cheese. But when the daughter of her last host family asked what she typically ate for breakfast, Law was homesick enough to answer truthfully: “I said, ‘If I could have anything, it would probably be a bowl of cereal and a piece of toast.’”
The next morning, that’s exactly what was waiting at the breakfast table, with fresh homemade apricot preserves. And after the mother of the family saw how much Law loved the jam, she made her a cake filled with the same preserves.
“Being able to communicate even though you don’t speak the same language — that inspired me to join Rotary when I got back,” says Law.
Since then, Law has helped charter a new club and served as a GSE team leader to India, GSE district chair, and governor of District 5750. The overseas experience she has gained in Rotary has helped Law, who works for a staffing agency, work with Oklahoma City’s large international community.
“I wouldn’t be where I am now professionally had I not had that experience,” Law says. “And I have a ridiculous love for Polish food now.”
Rotary Club of San Francisco, California
When Eric Schmautz’s daughter Molly was born, it was less than two months before the Rotary International Convention in São Paulo, Brazil. But there was never any question: Of course the baby would go. Schmautz had been a Rotarian since he was 18 years old himself, and Rotary is where he met his wife and many of his friends.
“Rotary has been integral to our social fabric,” he says. “The majority of our friends are Rotarians, not necessarily in our club, but across the board. We probably have friends in 30 or 40 clubs.”
And Molly, now four, is growing up Rotarian.
“She interacts with the Rotarians as if they’re her peers,” says Schmautz. “She’s been to every district conference, every Rotary institute, every service project, most club meetings.”
This year she took a trip to Germany. “Hamburg,” says her proud father, “was Molly’s fifth convention.”
Diane Cordero de Noriega
Rotary Club of Gresham, Oregon
After Diane Cordero de Noriega’s husband urged her to run for governor of District 5100, she agreed under one condition. “I can only do this,” she said, “if you’re going to be with me every step of the way.”
Noriega kept her end of the bargain, becoming governor-elect in the summer of 2018. But her husband was unable to keep his, dying of an aggressive form of cancer just three months earlier.
The devastating experience left Noriega with an even deeper appreciation of and connection to her fellow Rotarians. “My Rotary family was there for me every step of the way,” she says. “My Rotary friend who’s a retired nurse stayed with me so I could sleep at night. My Rotary friend who’s an oncology social worker was here to counsel me. My club came and helped with yardwork. We all know how it feels when you go out and do something good for others. But I had the privilege of being on the receiving end.”
As governor-elect, Noriega kept busy by visiting clubs, planning budgets, establishing committees, and holding trainings. “I never planned to do it by myself, but here I am,” she says. “But I’m not by myself. I’ve got my Rotary family.”
Rotary Club of Basse Terre, Guadeloupe
After Dominique Vénéré became governor of District 7030 in July 2018, she got a crash course in international relations and comparative politics. Her district encompasses southern Caribbean islands and several South American countries, and it has a mix of mostly French and English speakers.
“I soon realized how different Guadeloupe, which is still part of France, is from other former colonies such as Antigua and Barbuda and Guyana,” she says. “Now I am ready to develop relationships with the surrounding countries rather than remaining turned toward France and Europe.”
As district governor, Vénéré had the opportunity to meet with heads of state. After Hurricane Maria, she talked at length with Dominica’s president, Charles Savarin, about recovery efforts as well as other economic and societal issues. To top it off, she also attended the country’s festivities for the 40th anniversary of its independence. “Hearing the crowd in a stadium sing their national anthem sent shivers down my spine.”
Rotary Club of Muthaiga, Kenya
When Geeta Manek’s husband joined Rotary, she didn’t know what it was, and she didn’t understand why he would drop everything and run off to Rotary.
“For a while, I thought Rotary might be another woman,” she confesses.
A few months later, Manek joined the club.
These days she recruits young Rotarians, who ask what keeps her in Rotary. Manek tells them that in a country where national politics are very divisive, Rotary is completely nonpolitical. She tells them it’s a place where, as a minority, she is fully accepted. She tells them that Rotary allows her to “reach the heights I would not have reached if I was not part of it.”
Rotary Club of Gardner, Kansas
Nearly half of the 50 members of the Rotary Club of Gardner also belong to the chamber of commerce. “Part of the beauty of Rotary is its tie to local business,” says Jason Camis, the president/CEO of the Gardner Edgerton Chamber of Commerce. “Rotarians join Rotary because of the good that we do, but also to help grow their business or at least make some contacts.”
Camis applies Rotary values to his chamber responsibilities. He tries to make decisions that will be fair and beneficial to as many members as possible.
“My job is to be truthful — like being willing to tell one of our members that their marketing is bad.”
Rotary Club of Herning International, Denmark
When Deli Levi-Jensen’s father-in-law first suggested she join Rotary, Levi-Jensen said no. “From what I knew, it was a bunch of old men drinking cognac and smoking cigars on a weekly basis,” she recalls.
But during a November 2013 visit to Israel, she saw images of children waiting to get polio vaccines. She realized the people in yellow vests giving the drops were Rotarians.
When she returned to Denmark, she chartered the Rotary Club of Herning International in April 2014. “The first day I stood in front of a crowd, my legs were trembling,” she says. A short time later, she was asked to speak in front of 500 people at a Rotary institute. “That five minutes made me want to grow and become a speaker.”
Today, Levi-Jensen works in the leadership development field as a speaker, coach, and trainer. She plans to take her speaking talents on the road to educate and inspire people to raise money to end polio. “Rotary is my life,” she says. “I’m proud to be a member.”
Rotary Club of Denver Lodo, Colorado
In 2005, when he was 55 years old, Charlie Hunt and his wife, Nancy, were looking for a change. Hunt, then a member of the Rotary Club of Utica, New York, sold his office equipment business. He and Nancy joined the Peace Corps and served for two years in the South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu. When the Hunts returned to the United States, they settled in Denver. Charlie joined the Rotary Club of Denver Lodo and became president of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers of Colorado.
“It’s not surprising that former Peace Corps volunteers might be attracted to Rotary,” he says. “The focus of the two organizations is almost identical.” Hunt thinks his experience with RPCV and Rotary has changed him. “When I was younger, I identified myself as an introvert, a person who would rather be at the back of the room,” he says. “I find it so amusing at this point in my life to find myself at the front of the room.”
Rotary Club of Mid-City New Orleans, Louisiana
When a friend asked Carl Michel to join an Irish networking organization, he said yes, even though he isn’t Irish. When, at one of that organization’s happy hours, he met a past Rotary district governor who asked him to check out an area Rotary club, he said yes, even though he was in his mid-30s and didn’t think he matched the Rotary stereotype. And when, at his second visit to the club, he was asked to become its president — even though he hadn’t even joined Rotary yet — well, you can guess what happened.
“I had been president of my undergraduate fraternity chapter,” he says. “If you can survive that, you can handle a bunch of true altruists. People need three things: to feel like they belong, to feel like they have a voice, to feel like they can make a difference.”
When his term was over, Michel asked his Rotary mentor, “What next?” She suggested he get involved at the district level. He became assistant governor and started a new club, one that now meets twice a month in a pub with a second-floor art gallery, rotates a happy hour at a different establishment each month, and does “a whole lot of hands-on service work.”
“Anything can happen if you give people a chance,” he says. “I know I was willing to say yes. I was looking for a way to make a difference, and Rotary has given me that opportunity many times.”
“Rotary has completely changed my outlook on life. Rotary is my lifestyle.” — Vanessa Ervin
Rotary Club of Jacksonville, North Carolina
Vanessa Ervin got the phone call inviting her to her first Rotary meeting in 1992. She remembers thanking the caller (a work colleague), hanging up, and saying out loud to no one: “What would a group of white men want with an African American woman?”
“All I knew about Rotary was that it was a white man’s organization,” she says. But she was curious enough to find out more — and, eventually, impressed enough to join.
“What I learned is that it wasn’t about the color of my skin,” says Ervin, past governor of District 7730. “It was about my passion to serve. Rotary has completely changed my outlook on life. Rotary is my lifestyle. I wear Rotary. I’m the brand. If you’re looking for what Rotary is, I’m it.”
Her understanding and appreciation of Rotary’s diversity have only grown since that fateful phone call. The leader of a vocational training team trip to India and a Group Study Exchange trip to the southern Caribbean, Ervin delights in working with what she calls “my fellow Rotarians, who are diverse in color and creed and origin.”
“I never saw myself as the first African American woman in the Jacksonville Rotary club,” she explains. “I saw myself as a person invited in to make a difference. And Rotary has afforded me that opportunity.”
Rotary Club of Junction, Texas
Every week when she was in high school, Lisa Herring and her fellow Interactors would visit a local nursing home and spend time with the residents. Other days she would help the local Rotary club with their projects. Today, she can see how that time changed her view of the world.
“When we’re young, we’re focused on ourselves,” she says. “But to see that there are needs outside my own, and that I can make a difference in someone else’s life, that was really important.”
Two of her kids participated in Rotary Youth Exchange. Her daughter traveled to Italy and Ecuador, and her son went to Switzerland, where he unwittingly found his calling: One of his host fathers was an engineer and a general contractor, and Herring’s son decided that’s what he wanted to do. But he also wanted to be a Rotarian. It’s a family tradition.
Rotary Club of Invercargill Sunrise, New Zealand
In 2006, Karen Purdue’s laundry business in the southern New Zealand city of Invercargill burned to the ground. Her fellow Rotarians helped Purdue get back on her feet, with a new workspace, new office furniture, even a new photocopier.
“When I think about my life — my family, my personal life, my business life — Rotary is part of all of those,” she says.
And Rotary helped Purdue find her purpose in life and her dream job.
“I now work in community engagement and community development,” she says. “I know my Rotary and volunteering background was the reason I was selected against others. I wouldn’t have gotten it if I wasn’t in Rotary.”
Rotary Club of East Mississippi, Mississippi
When Paul Bucurel first joined Rotary, he was a young radio station manager, and it seemed like a good way to drum up business. New leads didn’t exactly flood in from the club, but he stayed, mostly out of habit. He rose to leadership, and when he was district governor, he saw how dramatically Rotary could change someone’s life.
“I was absolutely humbled that somehow I was asked to be part of the leadership of the world’s greatest humanitarian organization,” he says.
Bucurel says Rotary has made him more generous with his time, his money, and his efforts.
“When we say yes to Rotary, I don’t think many people really understand the scope of what they’re saying yes to. The great joy is finding that out.”
Gladys Maldonado Rodriguez
Rotary Club of San José de Cúcuta, Colombia
When Gladys Maldonado Rodriguez talks about Rotary, she gets so excited that no one can stop her. She says the years since joining her club in 2001 have been a journey of discovery. Formerly afraid to face a crowd, Maldonado learned, for example, that she loves giving speeches — so much so that she now trains senior Rotary leaders in public speaking. And Maldonado is not the only one benefiting from her membership: Her children are learning the values of leadership and service by attending Rotary activities.
A past governor of District 4271, Maldonado also discovered that Rotary could help her achieve some of her aspirations, such as assisting a local children’s home. “Before becoming a Rotarian, I was not able to help my community so easily,” she says. “Rotary, as if by magic, made my dream come true.” With her club’s help, the children’s home received an aqueduct, a water treatment plant, and musical instruments.
Maldonado believes that Rotary also helped enhance the joy she takes in her life. Where once she was exclusively devoted to her career and children, she now shares her time with a diverse group of friends from different parts of the world — and the difference in languages is no barrier to communication. “It is in la sonrisa, el abrazo” — the smile, the embrace — “that we Rotarians can understand each other.”
“I am returning the favor of all the benefits I’ve received from Rotary.” — Mercedes Luque Terceros
Mercedes Luque Terceros
Rotary Club of Chuquiago-Marka, La Paz, Bolivia
Rotary helped Mercedes “Mechy” Luque Terceros fulfill her lifelong love of learning; it also introduced her, a woman who had “cerrado las puertas al amor” — closed the doors on love — to the man who would become her husband. But her passion for Rotary grew even greater after it helped save her niece’s life.
In 2005, Luque’s sister, Silvia, suffered severe complications while pregnant. Doctors insisted that they could save only the mother’s life. Luque refused to accept that prognosis. After visiting several medical centers, she found a place that might be able to help — except that, with the baby’s birth imminent, it had no room. Luque persisted. With an assist from the chief doctor, a compañero Rotario, her sister was admitted, and both mother and baby were saved.
Shortly after, Luque’s newborn niece, Mía, developed hydrocephalus and needed a valve that was difficult to obtain in Bolivia. Once more Rotary stepped up, and the Chuquiago-Marka club provided the valve in time.
Luque now serves on a committee that oversees District 4690’s Hydrocephalus Valve Bank, which, with help from its partners in District 2710 (Japan) and from a global grant, recently accepted delivery of its 1,000th valve. “I am returning the favor of all the benefits I’ve received from Rotary,” Luque says, “and for Rotary saving the life of my niece.”
Rotary Club of Metropolitan Lubbock, Texas
Susan Brints joined Rotary in 1998, and a few years later she wrote her first grant. It was nothing she had ever thought she would enjoy, but the experience was a revelation.
“Rotary gives you a bullet-pointed slate,” she says. “I’m a bullet-point person, so I admired that.”
The more grants she wrote, the more she liked it. In 2005, she wrote her first international grant. Soon she was traveling for projects and communicating with clubs around the world, and her whole life felt different.
“Rotary affected our family’s growth,” she says. “Four of our children have traveled internationally. One is attending university internationally. So it has really widened our scope. There is a saying that your passion pushes you to your purpose. And once you become passionate, that flows over to your family, your friends, your club, your district. Passion is catching.”
Rotary Club of Haute Rive, Mauritius
Not long ago, Dinesh Gajeelee was a guest at an important social-religious event. When the master of ceremonies failed to show up, organizers approached him.
“They said, ‘Dinesh, we are stuck! Can you step in?’”
Gajeelee didn’t know the format, but thanks to his years in Rotary, he did know how to run a meeting.
“I said, ‘OK, no worries,’” he recalls. “After the event, people came and said, ‘Thank you very much. You saved us!’” But Gajeelee believes it was Rotary that had saved the day. “I said, ‘Thank you, Rotary. We did it!’”
• This story originally appeared in the August 2019 issue of The Rotarian magazine.