Two past RI Presidents enthrall DGEs

Two riveting presentations at the International Assembly in San Diego this January were made by two immediate Past RI Presidents — John Germ and K R Ravindran.

Past RI President John Germ
Past RI President John Germ

Ravindran said the IA was a special event for all incoming governors but each one felt and absorbed its different moments just like the various components that go into making “a tapestry with countless threads, dyed in countless colours. The Master Weaver above sits coordinating the creation of this tapestry, and only he can see the tapestry in its entire splendour.”

But on some rare occasions human beings do have the privilege “to witness a glimpse of what our hands have truly wrought”.

Ravindran then shared with the DGEs a true story about a little child called Zachary in ­Mongolia, and how Rotarians, including himself, played a unique role in what happened to him. One fateful day, the 7-month-old child managed to grab the handle of an electric pan full of boiling water, and empty it on himself. In rural Mongolia there are no ambulances, and it took almost a day to get him to the closest clinic and another two to transfer him to a hospital. But by this time his burns were terribly infected and “the hospital lacked even basic antibiotics to treat him”.

The doctors threw up their hands and said only a specialty hospital overseas could save his life. “The desperate ­parents reached out to every friend, every relative they had. But ­Zachary’s time was running out.

He had third-degree burns on more than half his body, and his infection had turned septic.”

The world “needs Rotary more than ever; our courage, optimism and idealism.  It needs the voice of tolerance, cooperation and hope that we can offer.
– Past RI President John Germ

Shriners, a charity hospital in ­Cincinnati, agreed to take him and the desperate parents somehow raised the money for the air tickets, organising a doctor to fly with him. But “no airline would carry a child so fragile, so desperately ill, hovering in the land between life and death. And the child, had only two days!” The parents could do little but pray desperately and hope for a miracle. As they prayed through the night and the child grew weaker, they begged God for mercy.

Suddenly the next morning they found a stranger at the door of the Burns ward in the Mongolia hospital. He said he was there to help them, took their documents and returned in the evening, with the magic authorisation required to fly out the child and its parents to Cincinnati. Everything had been arranged beginning with the ambulance, and the family reached the Cincinnati hospital just in time to save Zachary’s life.

But then some thread had been worked at the other end of the tapestry to make the miracle happen… far away in Evanston, the Rotary headquarters. It began with the RI President’s office phone ringing; Ravindran, the then incumbent, picked it up and heard an RI staff member’s impassioned plea to save her friend’s grievously ill grandchild in Mongolia. “She said: You are the president of Rotary and you can make this happen. Honestly I did not know if that was true,” Ravindran told the Assembly.

But he promised to try; contacted the district governor for the region Peter Pang, based in Hong Kong. It was an unearthly hour there, but the DG assured assistance. By morning, the DG had reached the ­president of RC ­Ulaanbaatar in ­Mongolia, who in turn zeroed in on senior officials in the government with authority to direct the airline to carry the child. Other Rotarians went to the hospital, completed the formalities and in “Evanston, our staff member stayed late into the night, booking the special tickets required for a medically fragile child. The airline executive called the airport, and said, these are VIP passengers — make sure they are treated well.”

Past RI President K R Ravindran
Past RI President K R Ravindran

Ravindran then delivered the crucial message to the incoming DGs: “On that day we each held in our hands only one thread. But by that thread hung the entire world of a family in distant Mongolia. And next year, you will hold the threads upon which whole worlds may hang. It will be your job, to weave them well and strong.”

They would have to follow the plans laid out for them, build on the work of their ­predecessors and prepare the ground for “those who will come after — to weave one great tapestry of service together.” On their work will rest the future of such people in distress. “For one year, you should feel the urgency of your office — to do as much as you can, in the time that you have, for the people who are waiting for you. To insist on the same standards of work, the same quality and the same degree of ambition when lives hang in the balance.”

Ravindran disclosed that when he looked back on his job as president of Rotary, “to be very honest with you, I never imagined it would be so hard.

It was grueling, it was exhausting, they were the toughest years of my life.” So he boarded the flight back home anticipating a long sabbatical from Rotary; “I said to myself, I did what I set out to do. The torch has been passed on. My work is done.” But then the “job of a Rotarian” came home with him.

And he saw with new eyes a project that his club, RC Colombo, had done a decade earlier — the Rotary Cancer Detection Centre in Colombo, where 40,000 women had been screened for cervical cancer, and over 7,000, who tested positive, referred for further treatment. All the club members always quoted these two numbers as a measure of their success.

But the other number he looked at, with his new vision, was that each year in Sri Lanka 2,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer, and nearly half of them die. And almost all of the infections, caused by the HPV virus, could have been prevented through vaccination.

For one year, you should feel the urgency of your office — to do as much as you can, in the time that you have, for the people who are waiting for you.
– Past RI President K R Ravindran

A new plan was born with the goal of immunising every girl in the country between 15–18 years, and screening every woman from 35–60. The club will now work with TRF and the Sri Lankan government for joint funding of the vaccines, and education on prevention, to make his country free of cervical cancer.

Addressing the DGEs, PRIP John Germ stressed upon them the need to do “projects on a much larger scale that are sustainable and affect more individuals”, partnering with a wide spectrum of organist ions.

He said the world “needs Rotary more than ever; our courage, our optimism and idealism. It needs the voice of tolerance, cooperation and hope that we can offer, and above all the example of an organisation that has proven that citizens of all countries can work together successfully, and in friendship.”

Rotarians don’t know the full impact of their action. This was driven home to him when with spouse Judy he visited Beirut, and met PDG Jamil Mouawad. Seeing students getting sick from drinking contaminated water he mobilised Rotarians throughout Lebanon, the government, private corporations and TRF. And now clean water has been provided to over 700 schools; the goal is to reach all schools in Lebanon. The smiles on the children’s faces as they drank the water were most satisfying to see.

A transformational project needn’t always be the one costing a lot, having the most partners, or involving the most Rotarians. It could simply teach a young entrepreneur how to start a business, provide her access to credit and transform her and her family’s life.

Over two years of travelling for Rotary, he saw repeatedly that the best projects had a few things in common:

  • They were well researched and planned.
  • Addressed real needs in the community, not preconceived ideas of Rotarians.
  • Involved the beneficiaries, listening to their thoughts and feedback, and took into account local challenges.
  • Were sustainable; they’d continue to go on changing lives in a significant way for years to come.

Giving an example of a project they had seen in Guatemala, he said they had visited a very rural remote community where an x-ray facility was 6–8 hours away over dirty bumpy roads. If the clinic couldn’t diagnose the problem “they simply placed a piece of paper on the shirt or blouse of the patients and sent them to the hospital with the sign saying diagnosis unknown”.

Then came Rotary with a project bringing digital x-ray technology that completely changed access to medical care in that community. “The people were so happy they literally celebrated in the streets. That machine meant the doctor could take care of them and they could take care of each other.” That single clinic could service over a million people in 29 rural villages.

As governors, they would need the vision to do work that made a transformational difference; “look for what’s wrong and the causes you can address. There isn’t a week that goes by that I don’t look at something and think, there’s a Rotary project ready to happen,” Germ said.

One such possible project was finding a more environmentally friendly way for farmers to clear the stubble out of their fields after harvesting a crop. Right now they were burning it, resulting in thick smoke and smog so bad that people can’t breathe and planes can’t land. “As Rotarians we see the needs, but do we have the vision to solve them? We are only limited by our imagination,” he added.

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