While sitting with a group of Rotary leaders outside of Lusaka, Zambia, I ask a question: “How many of you have ever had malaria?” Every hand in the room goes up. They even begin to tell me about the first, second, or third time they experienced the disease, one of the main causes of death and sickness in many developing countries.
They are fortunate. They have access to medical treatment and lifesaving medicines. For the people of rural Zambia, their story is very different.
On a wooden bench in a small village, I sit with Timothy and his young son Nathan. With a camera crew capturing our conversation, he tells me of the time Nathan showed signs of malaria. He brought the boy to the nearby home of a community health worker, where Nathan quickly received medicines that in all likelihood saved his life.
Calmly, Timothy tells me about his other son’s bout with the disease a few years earlier. He had to race that son to a medical clinic more than 5 miles away. Riding a bike and carrying his child on his back, he tells me, he could feel his son’s legs turn cold and then his little body go limp. As he finally entered the clinic, he screamed for help, but it was too late. The camera stops rolling, and we sit in silence. He begins to weep, and I hold him tightly. “I lost my son, I lost my son,” he says.
This story is all too familiar for the families we meet over the next few days. And yet there is hope. Partners for a Malaria-Free Zambia is Rotary’s first Programs of Scale grant recipient, and it is saving lives. Across two provinces of Zambia, 2,500 volunteer health workers have been selected by their communities. They are trained to bring medical care closer to those who need it, and they are able to diagnose and treat malaria and other ailments. Rotary partnerships create lasting change.
Being asked to Imagine Rotary can seem like a big, heady exercise, but the most important element of it is something quite small, even personal.
Not too long ago, Rotary members were expected to perform our acts of service quietly. I understood and appreciated the thought behind that — humility is a wonderful trait, and we should continue to nurture it in other ways.
But keeping Rotary to ourselves has a cost. and by sharing our Rotary moments, we are being generous with others and giving them an opportunity to understand the impact of Rotary.
It brings to mind that wonderful aphorism: “People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.”
So how do we make people feel Rotary? The best way is to share our Rotary moments. We have all had them — when the ordinary collides with intention to create something extraordinary.
Some people have those Rotary moments the first time they go to a meeting. For others, it can take years, before seeing the joy in the eyes of someone we serve. Or perhaps in hearing from another member something that hit close to home.
As Nick and I share this journey, we are amazed at the work you are performing and the lives that are transforming. Throughout the year, I’m going to share with you the sights and the stories that made those tours meaningful for us.
I hope you can do the same in your corner of Rotary. It can be something you share in meetings or on social media. For the most savvy and ambitious, it could be an event you publicize with local media. Even sharing your stories with friends has impact.
We need ambassadors for Rotary’s message and our dreams for a better world. The best ambassadors are you. The more you share stories — and share them from the heart — the more you encourage others to partner with us, to join us, and to stay.
To give you just one small example, in the months ahead, I will be turning over this column to Rotary members who will share their personal stories as they relate to diversity, equity, and inclusion in our organization. It’s important that we hear these stories directly from the people who experienced them as a way of feeling the importance of DEI for the future of Rotary.
In everything we do, what people feel about Rotary will shape our future. I can only imagine what you will inspire through the stories you’ll tell.
In August, I was proud to visit Pakistan and highlight Rotary’s top goal, eradicating polio. It was also a tremendous opportunity to spotlight female health workers who are playing a critical role in protecting children from this vaccine-preventable disease.
This month, as we celebrate World Polio Day, we are shining a spotlight on our more than 30-year effort to lead the first global polio eradication campaign and our success in forming partnerships capable of completing this massive goal. We all know that this is one of the most ambitious global health initiatives in history and that we’ve reduced polio cases by more than 99.9 percent worldwide.
Pakistan is one of only two countries in the world where wild poliovirus remains endemic. (The other is neighboring Afghanistan.) I was able to witness and take part in vaccination campaigns in Pakistan, and soon after I left, a monumental nationwide immunization campaign took place, focused on 43 million children under the age of 5. I saw the incredible work of Rotary members on the ground. More than 60 percent of vaccinators in Pakistan are women, and they are doing a remarkable job building trust and convincing mothers to vaccinate their children.
Seeing it all firsthand, I know that the will exists across the Rotary world to end polio, and I’m confident that we have the strategy. The Pakistani media has been very supportive of our efforts as well, and this is making a difference. This month, a new global pledging moment at the World Health Summit in Berlin promises to pull together more resources to fund these time-sensitive eradication efforts. Now it is up to us to do our part and raise $50 million this year to earn the full 2-to-1 match from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
There’s great cause for optimism on the polio front — but also some staggering new events that have further raised the stakes. Over the past few months, new polio outbreaks have occurred in Israel, the United Kingdom and, most recently, in the New York City area. These stories are frightening, but in every case, the response is clear — vaccines work, and if polio is spreading, we need to make sure the most at-risk people have kept their vaccinations up to date
Most importantly, we need to eradicate this virus now. If polio exists anywhere, it can spread everywhere. What I saw in Pakistan convinced me that we can and must finish the job, but it will only happen if we remain committed to a strategy that’s working and back it with all necessary resources.
Through our commitment, generosity, and sheer determination, we will #EndPolio.