Enjoy a meal … end polio

Rtn M K Gopinath, IPDG ISAK Nazar, Rtn Susanne Rea and PDG S P Balasubramaniam at the Rotary News Trust office in Chennai.
Rtn M K Gopinath, IPDG ISAK Nazar, Rtn Susanne Rea and
PDG S P Balasubramaniam at the Rotary News Trust office in Chennai.
Rtn Susanne Rea at Sir Don Bradman's house in Australia.
Rtn Susanne Rea at Sir Don Bradman’s house in Australia.

Afflicted by the polio-virus as a child, when Susanne Rea was made District 9550 (Australia) Chair in 2013, she decided to use the social media to connect with her district to raise funds. Given her verve and vivacity, energy and enthusiasm, and penchant for travel, it was only a matter of time before the WGM went global.

Susanne already had previous experience of collecting funds for three years for TRF. When she met PDG Mukesh Malhotra in London, the two decided to set up the World’s Greatest Meal (WGM) to end polio by urging Rotarians to give a little more for any meals they might attend or organise in Rotary. And what ­better medium than social media to do so!

“We formed a group on FB and started with 30, a few of them PDGs, and invited a lot of friends.” Those who sign up for the WGM share a meal with their club members, friends, family or office colleagues in any way they choose. During the meal, donations are sought for the End Polio Now campaign, and the participants can decide if they wish to hold a frugal meal in place of a full meal, and donate the difference in cost. Or just donate $10 or so above the ticket price. “Or, they can invite friends and neighbours for tea in return for a donation — the ideas and outcomes are limitless,” she says.

Till date the WGM has raised a whopping $4 million. “We run raffles, auctions, etc, too and in Brazil, in the biggest event we’ve had, we auctioned Pele memorabilia and raised $67,000. But of course this is not usual and not all our events are big. The smallest we’ve collected is £7 in a really small club. The money we collect through meals at different events, gets tripled when it reaches Evanston by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation — 1 dollar becomes 3, she says, and the total amount goes towards polio eradication programmes.

Internet, social-media driven

Now the WGM has several initiatives going on the Internet and the social media, and she is helped by a Spanish webmaster, Indian co-ordinators and other Rotarians enchanted by Susanne’s energy.

Whatever is given by a Rotarian to the WGM counts towards the donor becoming a Paul Harris Fellow. Till now the highest personal donation at WGM is $1,000. “A man I met in London, a non-Rotarian and an industrialist from Africa, once offered me a million dollars if I would go to a certain place and have a meal with him. But I declined.”

Why?

“Because I knew he would give the money anyway; and he did,” she grins, adding that her idea is to get involved as many Rotarians as possible and take ownership of the polio eradication programme.”

Teaming with Rotary Flame

There’s an interesting story behind how Susanne got involved in the Polio Flame. An Egyptian friend of RC Madras PP, M K Gopinath, who is an active Rotarian and a friend called and said she wanted the flame in Egypt. Next day, by a co-incidence Susaane wrote to him. Within three days they organised her visit to Chennai; “in no time DG Nazar organised a meeting of 10 clubs and we raised $3,900 for WGM. We did all this in a few days without knowing each other; sometimes you can’t do such things even in six months,” says District 2980 PDG S P Balasubramaniam.

As a result RC Madras and WGM joined hands and decided that Susanne would take the flame over 108 days to eight countries during the last leg to eradicate polio from the world.

In Chennai she visited the Rotary News Trust office where we hosted a meal for her, without then being aware of how her meals work! But we, and WGM, got a surprise benefactor in the form of the then DG ISAK Nazar. As Susanne mentioned, in the course of the interview that just 14 months down the line, she was short of a total of $2.5 million by a mere $2,200, Nazar quietly announced, “That will be my contribution!”

Reverse mortgaging her house

As she takes out her heavy bag to give us some WGM trinkets such as pens and badges, Susanne complains about being allowed only 15 kg on domestic carriers in India, the PDG  urges me to ask her how she manages her travel across the world. Recently she had taken the Polio Flame to legendary cricketer Don Bradman’s house in Australia and later to Uganda. So who pays for her global travel? “Oh, I’ve reverse mortgaged my house,” she smiles and relates the story of how last summer, when she had taken a $20,000 limit on her credit card, at one point over $19,000 had been spent.

“Oh, I manage,” she smiles and is sometimes sent shopping for more dresses by her webmaster, who is also a Rotary public image coordinator. “He said you are wearing that pink dress too often. Leave it at home. Oh well, as I address many meetings across the world, I have to look presentable … I should know how to talk, which isn’t an issue, fix my hair, and so on!”

On how she got polio, she says, “I am 72 and in the olden days they didn’t have polio immunisation.” When young she didn’t need any corrective surgery but “since I was 50 I’ve had 18 surgeries. I have challenges concerning mainly airports and standing.” When she addresses Rotary clubs, where a standard talk takes 20 minutes this is a challenge and though she is requested to sit and speak, “I prefer to talk while walking around. Look, as long as I can do it I will do it.”

As for her future plans once polio is eradicated, she says she has already discussed with incoming RI President John Germ to turn this into a general fundraiser for TRF.

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