As I look back, a thousand visuals flash before the eye. What a wonderful year it has been for Rotary. You, my dear changemakers, have lived up to the highest aspirations of ‘grow more, do more’. We have grown like we haven’t for many years, and that despite the pandemic. Rotarians have added a net of 45,000 new members, resulting in a hard stop to our declining membership of many years,” said RI President Shekhar Mehta, at the opening session of the RI Convention in Houston.
He was particularly chuffed that finally, Rotary had seen a “face-to-face convention in three years. It’s unbelievable, but now that we are all here, enjoy the convention, meet old friends, make new ones, and that too in person. This will also be our opportunity to hear outstanding speakers from around the world, including Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. And even as we discuss the future of Rotary, it will be a wonderful opportunity to look back at the achievements of the year gone by.”
Complimenting Rotarians for the strong growth in membership this year, he said, this growth had “been especially strong in India”, where the ‘each one bring one’ (EOBO) mantra had really worked. “In just one year, the governors there have assured an addition of 20,000 new members, of which 75 per cent have come just from the EOBO initiative.” This one-year growth was equivalent to the normal growth seen in five years.
You, my dear changemakers, have lived up to the highest aspirations of ‘grow more, do more’.
— Shekhar Mehta, RI President
Korea and the African continent too had done “extremely well”, with Kosovo and Albania in Europe marking “remarkable growth. I am sure that if we keep the focus on growth, our membership will grow across the world,” he said.
Congratulating Rotaractors, who had also registered growth and done some exemplary projects, Mehta said, “My heart filled with pride each time you served to change lives. All of you have done meaningful work in all areas of focus. We brought literacy to the illiterate, water to parched areas of the world and sanitation where it was badly required and in different communities. We also healed the sick and worked for the environment, took a stand for peace, expressing solidarity with the people of Ukraine.”
Amidst thunderous applause the RI president said: “Rotarians have donated millions of dollars to help the displaced in Ukraine, with Rotarians in nearby countries opening both their hearts and homes. Rashi and I visited Poland to see the displaced people and we saw at close quarters how Rotarians were caring for them.”
Seeing was believing, he added. “It was a heart touching moment, listening to the story of Olga, who had to flee with her children, leaving her husband behind to fight for her country. And Olga was not the only woman, there were so many of them.”
Enumerating other “shining examples of service across the world,” Mehta said one such example he witnessed was in Korea, “where we were amazed by the hands-on service of Rotarians to save Planet Earth. Twenty divers, comprising 10 Rotarians and 10 Rotaractors, kept diving into the sea again and again for 24 hours to take out 40 tonnes of debris.”
He was also overwhelmed to see the thousands of heart surgeries on children, and a multitude of dialysis centres, blood banks, eye hospitals, etc coming up to ensure prevention of disease, particularly for mothers and children. “The work to eradicate malaria from Zambia continues in full swing, the programme will impact tens of thousands of people in that country.”
The flame of empowering girls has now become a shining torch thanks to your efforts, and it will become brighter as the torch passes on to an extremely empowered girl herself, the incoming president Jennifer Jones.
Rotary was taking big strides in basic education and literacy in India and elsewhere. The literacy programme in India during the pandemic brought education to the homes of millions of children. The WASH programme in Honduras, Belize, etc “is helping children, especially girls, remain in school and creating a huge impact in changing their lives.”
“One example of our organisation’s true potential is related to our initiative of empowering girls. Rotary has the power to lead the charge for gender equality and that charge has begun. I strongly believe that there is no country in the world where the status of girls/ women cannot be improved. Girls form half of humanity and so should have half the opportunities.”
He was happy to share that in every country he and Rashi visited, “we were greeted by hundreds of girls whose lives have been changed by this initiative. The menstrual hygiene management (MHM) programme is a huge success in Africa and Asia, where a large number of girls were making sanitary pads. In India, my own district and club (RC Calcutta Mahanagar) has initiated a programme of training girls in self-defence to enhance their ability to ward off attacks and advances. Its impact was truly understood when the Kolkata police recruited some of these girls in its police force!”
Striking an emotional note, the RI president said that on International Women’s Day (March 8), the Egyptian Rotarians displayed a girls’ empowerment project “that left a lump in our throats. We met there a 21-year-old blind woman, and Rotarians there are helping physically-challenged women like her get proper skills to earn a livelihood. To me, this was empowerment of girls at its best.”
In Hyderabad, at the presidential conference “I literally saw a sea of service; a single project touched different areas of focus with the overarching theme of empowerment of girls.
The very sight was stunning; 500 girls getting bicycles, which will enable them to travel safely to school and back home. Another 500 got sewing machines and training that will empower them to enhance their ability to earn; 500 benches were given for schoolgirls which meant that 1,500 girls will not have to sit on the floor in schools. To protect their health and hygiene, 100 handwashing stations were given to girls’ schools and when I interacted with these girls, I felt blessed to be able to serve to change lives.”
What better brand ambassador could there be for Rotary than Piyali Basak, a teacher from Kolkata, sponsored by Rotarians, reaching the highest point on Mount Everest “to send out a message to the entire world from that height that Rotary is working to empower girls. At each Rotary event, Rotarians told me how they were empowering girls through different projects. The flame of empowering girls has now become a shining torch thanks to your efforts, and it will become brighter as the torch passes on to an extremely empowered girl herself, the incoming president Jennifer Jones.” She would be working with UNICEF in a new partnership to empower girls.
Mehta added that “when Rotary takes on challenges, we take off. We are closer today than ever before to eradicating polio. Our polio eradication drive is not just a private-public partnership for three decades, it’s a humungous effort to save millions of lives and a shining example of bringing peace in this world.”
Rotarians were harbingers of peace and through “our polio programme what we have done is as good as averting a war.” In World War I, 20 million lives were lost; “the lives saved through our polio programme is 19 million. “What better example can there be of bringing peace in the world,” Mehta asked, while conceding that “challenges do remain (in total eradication) but we have strategies in place. But we need your help in this mission to take us to the finish line.”
Rotary had also taken on the great challenge of protecting the environment in its new area of focus. When he had participated in COP26, the climate change summit in Scotland attended by around 100 heads of state, at the roundtable discussion he had co-led, the focus was on the critical role that mangroves play in mitigating and adaption to climate change. “Having decided that our discussions should lead to action, Rotary is now poised to work in 10 countries to set up mangroves, a move to protect Planet Earth. I am happy to announce that of the 10 countries, global grant proposals for five countries have already been submitted.”
Giving the credit to Rotarians and Rotaractors for the achievements of his year, Mehta said, “We could accomplish so much thanks to your hard work and your resolve to do more and grow more. Rashi and I are most proud of our interactions with over 30 heads of state across the globe. We were able to showcase to them Rotary’s commitment to change lives through our work. As we moved from country to country and met the heads of state, with each of them I could discuss the partnership of Rotary with their governments, which they welcomed wholeheartedly.”
On behalf of Rotary, he assured the president of Uganda that Rotary would do 100 heart surgeries for children from Uganda, “and we are keeping our promise; the first 28 surgeries have already been completed. District 3030 in India is ready and committed to do 30 heart surgeries on children from Seychelles. Around the world we are ready to do projects and programmes wherever we’ve given commitment… such as education, heart surgeries, capacity building for nursing, setting up eye hospitals, dialysis centres, etc in different countries. Every one of our commitments will be fulfilled and our work with 50 governments across the world will surely raise the bar of Rotary,” he added.