At the inaugural session of the Vizag institute, RI President Jennifer Jones congratulated India’s Rotarians for the “wonderful service projects that you do,” and urged them to share their stories with the rest of the world. Expressing her amazement at the transition of India over the last several years, during which she had made multiple trips to the country, she said the changed India she was seeing at the present was remarkable; “from a receiving nation you have now become a giving nation.”
Explaining the details of her Imagine Impact tour across the world and why she had undertaken it, she said the idea was to turn the spotlight on the amazing service projects that Rotarians do across the globe in Rotary’s seven areas of focus.
One of these pertained to health, particularly to maternal and child health, and eradication of polio continued to be a top priority. “So the first trip I made was to Pakistan in August 2022; I wanted to go there and tell our Rotary stories. I wanted to go to that country, of course, because it is one of our two remaining endemic countries for polio. But also, because I wanted to meet the frontline polio workers to offer to them two very important words — ‘Thank you’. As you know, they put themselves in harm’s way every day they go out into the streets to find the last children who need those two life-saving drops.”
Addressing the 1,000-odd delegates attending the institute, she added, “You in this room know that better than anyone else in the world how important that task is. You’re still immunising hundreds of millions of children every year here. I’ve been here, and done this with you. We’ve walked together to give these drops to the children. You were the country we thought perhaps would be the last to end polio. But you were able to do that more than a decade ago. You should be immensely proud of that,” she said as the audience burst into a thunderous applause.
During my Imagine Impact tour in Pakistan, I wanted to meet the frontline polio workers to offer to them two simple words: Thank you.
Jones said her second trip was to Zambia where RI has undertaken the ‘Malaria-free Zambia’ project. “This was an interesting experience because it is the first Program of Scale, and a test we are doing with our grants.” RI has put in $2 million, with the Gates Foundation and World Vision each putting in $2 million too. With the pot of $6 million, the task was to find 2,500 community health workers, using the same model that RI created in the public health infrastructure for polio. This was “put it into play in Zambia to test if we could eliminate malaria from the country.”
Admitting that these were “lofty goals and a big dream” the RI president said the remarkable result was that in less than one year, when tests were done in the two provinces where this project was launched, it was found “that we have been able to eliminate malaria by 50 per cent in less than one year. This is huge… and based on this success we have to see if we can scale it up to the rest of the country, neighbouring countries and the rest of the world.”
Jones then went on to do what she does best… tell a gripping story. In a village square in one of the provinces of Zambia, she had met Timothy and his 11-year-old son Nathan, who told her about the traumatic time when Nathan had started showing signs of malaria. This was before the community health workers identified by this project were put into place. “He put his son on his back, and rode on his two-wheeler for long hours to get him to a clinic for treatment. The child was holding on to his body, and after several hours he could feel his son’s legs go cold, and slowly he began to feel his son go limp on his back. He finally reached the clinic and rushed in screaming ‘help my son’. They were able to give him medicines and save his life.”
But, added a sobbing Timothy: “The same thing happened with my first son. But he didn’t make it; I lost my son… I lost my son.”
Jones said Rotarians should feel lucky that they had the ability to ensure these things don’t happen. “My life is so much better that I got to meet Timothy and Nathan… I know each of you here has similar stories to tell; please tell them.”
She had covered another focus area of Rotary — peace — in Uganda and “next we are going to Taiwan to see the farmers there as they have changed traditional crops to something much easier to harvest. Because in the rural parts many of the men have gone to the cities and the women have been left to do work that is far too rigorous. We are focusing also on the environment; and then going to Guatemala to see the impact of education and basic literacy projects, and Haiti for water and sanitation.”
The next story Jones shared was about meeting a heart surgeon Dr Mark in Jordan where she was attending the zone institute. He was there for a week-long mission; she had a detailed chat with him about how he was doing heart surgeries on children. As her trip was ending and she was about to go to the airport she was told Dr Mark was about to begin a surgery and asked if she’d like to watch. “Of course I wanted to do that.” So we raced to the hospital. Very quickly I was in the hospital greens, and seconds later stepped into the room and stood there very quietly, not even wanting to breathe in.”
She watched with bated breath as Dr Mark did an open-heart surgery on little Selma, only six months old, and a refugee from Syria. “I watched him stitch with precision, jiggle her heart a little, stitch more…jiggle a little more. Finally he tied a knot, put his hand under the baby’s heart, gave it a really good jiggle, turned to the anaesthetist and said ‘alright, warm it up’. And at that moment little Selma’s heart started to beat. I watched her come back to life… I am a better person because I got to meet baby Selma. Look at how many baby Selmas you have assisted,” Jones said, referring to the previous session where Rotary India had signed an MoU for ₹5 crore with the Sathya Sai Sanjeevani Hospitals trustee Sunil Gavaskar for doing 2,025 free heart surgeries on children by 2025.
She concluded by saying, “This is what we do, who we are. We create and make miracles and these children, in the course of an hour, literally get the gift of life. Telling our stories is integral to people understanding what is it that we as Rotarians do. We need to paint the face of these kids, along with all the other good work we do.”
Urging people to talk about Rotary to the larger community by telling them that Rotary’s seven area of focus were similar to the UN’s sustainable development goals, which were well-known, she added: “By telling our stories we need to tell the world that we are more than a club, or a district… we are a movement.”
At the institute inaugural convenor and RI director Mahesh Kotbagi said the well-crafted three- day event would offer the assembled Rotary leaders a mix of great entertainment and hospitality, excellent speakers who would enhance their knowledge and set them thinking of so many novel ideas, and an opportunity to make new friends and network.
Welcoming the gathering chairman of the institute, PDG Kishore Kumar said immense care had been taken to meet every expectation of the delegates, and a record number of over 1,000 people had registered for the event.
Apart from President Jones, RIPN Stephanie Urchick, PRIP Shekhar Mehta, trustee chair representative and trustee Jorge Aufranc, trustee Bharat Pandya, RI directors A S Venkatesh, Vicki Puliz and Drew Kessler, and RIDEs T N Subramanian and Anirudha Roychowdhury attended the institute.
More institute stories in the next issue
Pictures by Rasheeda Bhagat