An iconic Rotary Club RC Birmingham, US, is over 100 years old and with 640 members, is intermittently the largest Rotary club in the world, and has given birth to a Rotaract club which is arguably the largest in the world.

So how many hours a month do they volunteer in working for their club activities… would they have a rough, ball park figure, I ask Fred Mccallum, President of the Rotary Club of Birmingham (RCB), Alabama, USA, and its Executive Director Susan Jackson. We are having a tete-a-tete on the sidelines of the Atlanta Convention, and I’m trying to get a sense of what RI President Ian Riseley has been telling Rotarians on the need to collate the total volunteer hours they put into Rotary work. So that a value can be put on their collective work.

From L: RC Birmingham Executive Director Susan Jackson, Club President Fred Mccallum and Rotaractor Jeris Gaston.
From L: RC Birmingham Executive Director Susan Jackson, Club President Fred Mccallum and Rotaractor Jeris Gaston.

There is a gasp and a giggle. Mccallum, who gasps, says, “Gosh, that’s really scary to think.” Susan, the one who giggles, adds, “That might scare a lot of people away!”

Adds the club president seriously, “You can be sure it’s a lot of time… attending board meetings, club activities, behind the scenes planning, etc. If you are a leader of the club, you simply have to be ready to commit your time.” He adds, “We try to get as many members as possible involved in the club’s leadership roles.”

Started in 1914, RCB celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2013; “we are almost as old as Rotary itself, but for a few years,” says Mccallum, with a lot of pride. A downtown Birmingham club, it has a whopping membership of about 640 members, which makes them, arguably, the largest club in the Rotary world. “Well, you can say that currently we are one of the two largest clubs in the Rotary world. Oklahoma City is the other one… we go back and forth with them on that score,” he smiles.

So apart from this distinction, what is the USP of their club, I ask him. One thing is having as members the crème de la crème of the city, even though he doesn’t use those exact words. “We are known as a group of business and philanthropic community leaders from around the area. We are fortunate to have good leadership and have worked hard to maintain the quality of our membership,” says Mccallum, adding, that it is this feature which draws more quality members to the club.

“Two and a half of our members became RI Presidents,” says McCallum — Frank Spain in 1951–52, Roy D Hickman in 1972–73, and the half… our honorary member K R Ravindran in 2015–16!” One of its members, Leslie Wright, headed the very first major fundraising campaign when the PolioPlus programme was inaugurated in 1985 and the target was $120 million.

From R: PRIP K R Ravindran, PRIP Kalyan Banerjee, TRF Trustee Noel A Bajat, PDG Gulam A Vahanvaty, Fred Mccallum and Susan Jackson.
From R: PRIP K R Ravindran, PRIP Kalyan Banerjee, TRF Trustee Noel A Bajat, PDG Gulam A Vahanvaty, Fred Mccallum and Susan Jackson.

But the aim of the club leadership is clearly to have top notch leaders from top businesses, professions, philanthropic organisations and the general community as its members. Literally, anyone of substance in the city is a member of this club. And the club has its own building in the city centre called the Harbart Centre — four floors which include a highly equipped meeting room to hold 800, a Board room, a committee room and a well equipped office.

RCB members’ dues include two charitable items which are optional, but “almost 100 per cent of our members pay them; the total is $1,100 a year,” says Susan.

Signature projects

On some of their iconic projects, he says education is an area close to their hearts and the club has been involved for 12 years in Pre-Kindergarten (Pre-K) education in the State of Alabama, which was short on this facility in the early 2000s. The club stepped in with funding and over time the State kicked in to fund these classes so that now all the Birmingham schools have Pre-K classes. Now the club has put up a Pre-K centre. Recently they worked with the District to gift a helicopter to the Children’s Hospital for critically ill children in distress.

The Rotary Trail (See Box) was their centennial project.

In the international arena, the club has worked with RC Colombo (the club of PRIP K R Ravindran) for school construction and providing cancer detection equipment to two hospitals in Sri Lanka.

Susan explains that when the tsunami devastated the island nation in 2005, “our club members wanted to help and sent cheques. We really had a large sum and our strongest contact in that area was Ravi, whose District was taking on the school rebuilding task.” After the project was completed, Ravindran visited their club to thank them and explain how their money had been used. He invited the club members to visit Sri Lanka on a fellowship visit, which was undertaken in 2009, and other collaborative projects followed. The latest is a $250,000 global grant project involving four countries — USA (RCB), Germany, Switzerland and Sri Lanka — to set up a cancer detection centre. To date, the centre has screened over 35,000 women free of charge and diagnosed approximately 5,000 positive cases who are getting further treatment.

So what aspect of Rotary do they enjoy the most?

Two things, says its President. One, the fellowship, which is both great and important. But also the opportunity to listen to some really high quality speakers, top leaders in their field, some of who are fellow club members, but whose life stories and career experiences are not known to everybody. The calibre of speakers they invite includes personalities like Bill Clinton, General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt, Václav Havel, President of the Czech Republic, and so on.

Says PRIP Ravindran, “I consider RCB one of the best Rotary clubs in the world. They have undiluted quality in membership, good quantity, wonderful fellowship, do high class projects and have the finest infrastructure, including a superefficient administrative secretariat. What more can you ask of a Rotary club?”

Pictures by Rasheeda Bhagat

The Rotary Trail

Rotary-Trail-Magic-City

Most Rotary clubs love to talk in detail about the projects they do, in which they have put in lots of hard work and money, and believe this helps to enhance Rotary’s image in the community. But it is with a charming restraint that RCB President Fred Mccallum and Executive Director Susan Jackson talk about one of their most iconic projects, transforming an ugly dump of a stretch in their city of Birmingham into a beautiful walking trail of nearly 1 km.

In 2013, as the club was celebrating its Centennial, it did three programmes — a human rights symposium at the Civil Rights Institute in the city, a Symphony Orchestra attended by nearly 1,000 people, and the much more ambitious Rotary Trail, a multi-million dollar project.

“Yes, it cost us almost $4m and we had to do some serious, though not hard, fundraising because people wanted that change as this was a terrible part of the city. It was a difficult and expensive stretch — about four blocks — to improve. I don’t know many cities that would dedicate that much money to improve a small patch of area because every city has so many needs. But it was our gift to our city and the public loves it.”

This gift from Rotary to their city has transformed a vacant railroad right-of-way into a beautifully landscaped, four-block walking/running/biking pathway, with a water conservation system in place. It has benches for people to rest, and solar panels for charging mobile devices and also Wi-Fi!

In 2015, the Rotary Trail was recognised with the State Governor’s Award for Water Conservationist of the Year in Alabama. Prior to the development of this trail, the storm water run-off in the abandoned stretch flowed directly into the village creek, carrying debris and other pollutants into the city’s water system. Now a new filtration system has been put in place to improve the quality of the run-off water.

Never a group of people to rest on their laurels, about its next big project, Betsy Bugg, the current RCB President says, “We’re a group of doers and a pretty ambitious group, and are now discussing what big project to do next.”


The world’s largest Rotaract club

Box-Rotaract

In 2003–04, when Charles Collat, “an extraordinary man” who had headed many civic and cultural boards in the city, including Regions Bank and the Southern Research Institute, was RCB President, he set up a Rotaract club, which is arguably the largest community- based Rotaract club in the world with 290 members. Unlike the Rotaract clubs in India, all its members are professionals. Jeris Gaston, a smart young woman, who is its present President is into wealth management. “Our club is targeted at the 25–35 age group people who are out of the universities and are young professionals.”

Her club’s motto, she says is — Learn, Socialise, Serve. Its core competency is developing young leadership and RCB offers a mentorship programme to its Rotaract club, pairing selected Rotaractors with their Rotarian mentors. About 10 Rotaractors are also allowed to attend RCB meetings, held in their own building, where the average attendance is 200–210. Susan Jackson, who joined the club in 1999, says that when RCB started this Rotaract club, it helped with total support — $5,000, their Board formation, etc. “It was also decided that RCB should nominate their young sons and daughters, or young professionals from their organisations, to this club, to give them a firm footing.”

Jeris, a Rotary Ambassadorial scholar, joined the club in 2009. While the Rotary club’s gender mix is barely 80:20, the Rotaract club has a 50:50 gender ratio, “which is indicative too of our city and its young professional community,” says Susan, urging Jeris, “Tell her, how many girls you have on your Board.”

“Our Board is mostly women,” grins Jeris. “And they run it really, really well,” adds Mccallum.

From July 1, Betsy Bugg Holloway, has taken over as President of RCB, and is the third female president in the club’s 104-year history. “We welcome all kinds of diversity — racial, gender…,” says Susan.

A signature project of the Rotaract club is Ready to Read, under which libraries have been set up in all second grade classes in the city and about 50 of their members go out as “reading buddies” to read to the students. Their other project is mentoring 17–18 year olds and pushing them to go to college through scholarship the Rotaract club organises through a partnership with a local non-profit and the State department of Education, different Rotary clubs and community organisations. It now wants to get into international service projects.

It also makes an annual gift to the TRF for polio eradication.

The Rotaract club, with annual membership dues of $470, has done very well at fundraising and 10 years ago started its own foundation, raising $1million. “That money has gone back to the community in projects,” says Jeris.

Susan has the last word: “What makes them outstanding and a great model for other Rotaract clubs is the way they use technology in their meetings and communications. It is a very creative style; we take lessons from them, and now our use of technology will change after learning what they do.” She adds that this Rotaract club has gained such prestige that when a top young professional moves to Birmingham, “this is the club he/she would want to be in!”

If other RCs are searching for information about starting or strengthening a Rotaract club, this club can help, as they have a lot of resources and information, she adds.

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