When Rotary gave his mother back to K R Ravindran

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RI President K R Ravindran with his granddaughter Raika.

Fifty-three years ago, my mother’s life was perhaps the very first to be saved from polio by Rotarians. We have saved millions of lives since then; but 53 years ago, Rotary gave me the gift I prayed for. It gave me my mother back.”

With these rather uncharacteristic emotional words RI President K R Ravindran moved the huge gathering at the RI Convention’s closing ceremony, with many in tears. It’s a personal story that only a few close to him know. That he chose to share it with the larger Rotary world gave it special meaning as it came at a moment of heightened expectation that soon Rotary would “give a gift that will endure forever: a world without polio.”

Ravindran recalled how as an 11-year-old, he was subjected to the trauma of watching his mother struggle even to breathe and rushed to hospital completely paralysed. In the midst of a Rotary committee meeting his grandfather, also a Rotarian, had hosted in his living room, a call from the hospital devastated him. She needed a ventilator to survive; the few available in Sri Lanka were all in use.

The final goal — a world certified polio-free — will take three years. We have to keep up our efforts, not just for another few months but for at least another three years.
John Germ

But the Rotarians present acted quickly. One, a bank manager got the required foreign exchange cleared, another a Swiss Air manager, arranged to fly the ventilator the following day. “There was so much red tape at that time in Sri Lanka, but somehow, those Rotarians made it all fall away. By the following morning, the machine was on a plane, and by evening, in the hospital helping my mother to breathe.”

She stayed in the hospital for nearly a year, but recovered slowly and though “carried there on a stretcher, when she left it, she walked.” And she lived for another 48 years, till she passed away five years ago.

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RIPE John Germ.

Apart from their tremendous work on polio eradication, Rotarians could be truly proud of the midwives they train to deliver healthy babies; the sanitation they bring to schools to ensure healthier students who would go on to better futures, and bring greater prosperity to their communities and their nations.

After his speech, members of his club — RC Colombo, Sri Lanka, and RI President-elect John Germ’s RC Chattanooga, USA, took the stage to exchange club banners, a tradition that marks the changing of the guard.

Addressing the closing session Germ said that Rotary was about to begin “the most progressive year in its history. You told us that we need to change and become more flexible so that Rotary service will be attractive to younger members, recent retirees, and working people.” With ground-
breaking legislation passed at the recent CoL, “clubs now have the opportunity to be who they want to be, but at the same time remain true to our core. I’m pleased to share with you that Rotarians all over the world are responding with great excitement.”

53 years ago, Rotary gave me the gift  I prayed for. It gave me my mother back.
K R Ravindran

Stressing the need for Rotarians putting all their focus on polio, Germ said that getting to Zero Case, when that happens, still didn’t mean that we’d gotten to the end. The final goal — a world that is certified polio-free, would take three years without a single case. “That means we have to keep up all of our efforts, not just for another few months but for at least another three years. And we can’t forget that we are still $1.5 billion short of the money we’ll need to get the job done.”

Of course it wasn’t the job of Rotarians to raise all of that money, “but it is our job to advocate, anywhere and everywhere we can, to make sure that it is raised. We need to be talking about polio, tweeting about polio, putting polio front and centre in the minds of our communities and our elected officials.”

Not many people know Samsung was launched in 1938 to sell groceries. But now it is a top manufacturer of TVs, mobile phones and kitchen appliances.
—  John Hewko

It had taken 30 years of hard work and soon — 1.85 billion Rotary dollars and more than 2.5 billion immunised children later — “we’re going to finish it. And when that moment comes, we need to be ready for it, to be sure that we are recognised for that success, and leverage that success, into more partnerships, greater growth, and even more ambitious service in the decades to come. We need to make sure that everyone knows the role that Rotary has played in making the world polio-free.”

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A delegate uses the Segway to move about within the Convention venue.

RI General Secretary John Hewko said it was apt the Convention was being held in Korea, which was for its innovations. Not many people outside Korea “know that Samsung was launched in 1938 to sell groceries. Since then, it reinvented itself multiple times. It listened to its customer base, followed retail trends, took advantage of opportunities, and now is a top manufacturer of TVs, mobile phones and kitchen appliances.”

Rotary too was on a path of innovation. With its membership of 1.2 million “we’ve brought polio to its knees.” And in the last few years more innovations had been initiated, including a redesigned website — Rotary.org,
and over 20,000 Rotary clubs had adopted Rotary Club Central to set and track their annual goals for membership, service and Foundation giving. Also to improve “our public image, we recently completed a comprehensive brand strengthening initiative and rolled out a new visual identity, stronger messaging, and expanded media outreach.”

Hewko added that Rotary’s work was now getting positive media coverage, from prestigious publications such as Time Magazine, New York Times, Forbes, BBC, Al Jazeera, CNN and Sky News. “And our End Polio Now campaign is a finalist for the Silver Anvil awards, known as the Oscars of Public Relations.” (since then — a winner.)

Last year, our Foundation received total contributions of $269 million, about 32 times the total amount received 40 years ago.
—   Ray Klinginsmith

Rotary’s social media presence has also become much stronger, he added. The live stream event for World Polio Day last October had surpassed all previous records, reaching 145 million people through shared content on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. The April Jubilee at St Peter’s Square on invitation of Pope Francis, which was attended by 9,000 Rotarians, not only got great media coverage, “on social media, this event was off the charts. Just one FB post with the Pope’s message got 87,000 likes and reached 1.3 million people within 48 hours.”

Pictures courtesy: rotary.org

TRF’s Triumphs

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TRF Trustee Chair Ray Klinginsmith addressing the TRF session.

Delivering The Rotary Foundation Keynote address, TRF Chair Ray Klinginsmith gave details of how the Foundation had changed in the last 40 years to achieve its current level of success.

He said Rotarians should be immensely proud of TRF, which only had three programmes in 1975–76 — International Scholarships, Group Study Exchange teams and Matching Grants. It received total contributions of $8.4 million that year, “which was a new and impressive record. But last year, the Foundation received total contributions of $269 million, about 32 times the total amount received 40 years ago.” And next year being the Centennial, “our goal is $300 million.”

Even if the US dollar’s value in 1976 was converted to the current time, and the contribution adjusted for inflation, it would be worth $35 million, only 14 percent of the total TRF received last year!

Coming to expenditure, he said that in 1975-76, the Foundation had spent $5.7 million, with 86 percent of the funds being spent on International Scholarships, 13 percent on Group Study Exchange and 1 percent on Matching Grants! But “what a change has occurred in response to the preferences of Rotarians, as shown by their usage of DDF, through the last 40 years! We now have added the PolioPlus programme, which has placed Rotary on the world stage with our stunning progress in the eradication of polio.”

After adding the popular Rotary Peace Centres programme, the earlier programmes have been replaced with district grants and global grants.

Klinginsmith said International Scholarships had started in 1948, when ships were still the mode of international travel, and the Group Study Exchange teams were initiated in 1965, just as the jet age was starting. But gradually Rotary districts preferred using their DDF for humanitarian projects.

With the advent of the Future Vision Plan, Rotarians were now undertaking larger and more sustainable projects; “very few organisations would have been able to make such a significant shift in their programmes, particularly those almost 100 years old at the time! But The Rotary Foundation, did it — and did it well!”

A triumphant Klinginsmith said that as TRF gets ready for its Centenary celebrations next year, “I am pleased to tell you that The Rotary Foundation has never been stronger than it is today. Last year, it had made it in the CNBC list of the Top 10 Organisations Changing the World in 2015, being ranked 5th! What an achievement! Our Foundation is truly Bigger, Better, and Bolder than ever before.”

He revealed that he himself was a TRF scholar, and “this year marks the 55th anniversary of my arrival in Cape Town to study as a TRF scholar. The intervening years have been an incredible adventure in Rotary service for me, and I have seen countless projects and activities in which Rotarians are truly improving the lives of so many people with TRF assistance.”

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RI Director Bharat Pandya is Treasurer for Rotary International for 2020-21, when Holgar Knaack will be RI President, JohritaSolari will be the Vice President and Stephanie Urchick, the Executive Committee Chair.