You would think an organisation that has managed to almost eliminate deadly polio would shout its achievements from the rooftops. But Rotary International is made up of a rather modest group of people who set about charitable works both locally, nationally and abroad without making a song and dance about it.
According to one member, they are seen as being ‘like a secret society.’
You could live in a flat provided by the club, walk past a green space paid for and created by them, and some young people are even wearing clothes members have given them.
The philanthropic Rotarian movement is a global network of people who support local and international causes under the banner of ‘service over self.’
And according to John Bishop, president of the Rotary Club of Portsmouth and Southsea, the clubs across the area are now working to show people they are not ‘a bit like the Masons’ – another group of community-minded people often seen as a secret order.
He says: ‘People get the wrong idea. They think it’s like a secret society – it’s not. I don’t know where they get the idea, we’re quite casual.’
The Rotarian movement started in the United States 114 years ago, with the aim of promoting the highest ethical standards in business and applying them to supporting the community – an objective that remains the same today.
Now, the Rotary Club movement – which takes its name from how the original club rotated between members’ homes – boasts more than 1.2 million members in 34,000 clubs.
The Portsmouth and Southsea club is one of the oldest in the UK.
Royal Navy veteran Chris Thomas says he joined the Rotary Club of Fareham without any complicated handshakes, having grown up with club life through his father’s membership.
He says: ‘When I came out of the navy, I went for dinner with my mother and I was collared by one of my dad’s friends who said, “ when you going to join the rotary?” ‘A week later I was in.’
Members like Chris have supported countless people – whether it is through the club’s housing association in Portsmouth, donating clothes to young carers, or the funding of trees and green spaces across the area.
But the clubs now face the challenge of recruiting new members.
Chris says: ‘We do need to get more young people involved. They just do not have the time, leading high pressure lives.’
To address this people can sign up to an online Rotary club at rotarysocialinnovation.co.uk. It allows busy applicants to offer their advice and expertise through video calls and email updates.
Shelagh Moore, president of the Rotary Club of Havant, says the club’s membership is more diverse than people expect, with members coming from ‘all walks of life’.
She says: ‘We have nurses, people who’ve worked in education, business people, some still working. It’s a myth that Rotarians are just retired professionals.
‘Rotarians are people with time to spare who have skills and expertise that they want to share with the world. It’s amazing the wealth of experience you get from members.’
Havant Rotary club is one of the largest in the area with more than 45 members. They are focusing on introducing the work of Rotary clubs to young people by supporting students and children with an array of projects.
There are competitions like Young Chef of the Year and Young Photographer of the Year, in which young people from Havant have reached the national finals. Members are determined to solve the problem of loneliness for young people in the community.
The club is a longstanding supporter of MUNCH, an initiative set up by Park Community School to provide students who normally receive free school meals with a free meal in the holidays.
The club’s annual quiz held in March this year raised more than £1,500 to address the ‘tragedy,’ as Shelagh calls it, of hungry children being reliant on schools to be fed.
But Shelagh is keen to stress that being a member of Rotary isn’t just quiz nights and collection tin rattling.
She says: ‘Our main sanction is not fundraising, our main sanction is to look after the community. We do what we can to raise money but it’s also about networking, encouraging local businesses to engage, and developing young people’s skills.’
As an example, Shelagh explains how the club is tapping into its members’ expertise
She said: ‘We continue to support (young people’s charity) Step by Step by introducing them to local businesses such as PETA which may be able to offer support to young people.
‘This is an example of Rotary and business working together to support the local community, networking at its best!’
The groups are keen to mix business with pleasure, regularly holding dinners and meetings for members.
John, a former lecturer at the University of Portsmouth, says: ‘We have a lot of fun. You get to make friends and meet people we deeply respect. Rotary is not all about service above self. Rotary is changing, it’s trying to lighten up its act.’
Shelagh agrees. ‘Rotary is for working adults, and those recently retired often find friendship and a new lease of life when they join a Rotary club.’
And what about those polio claims? Since the Rotary immunisation project began in the Philippines in 1979, 2.5 billion children in 122 countries have been vaccinated against the disease.
Now that’s something to shout about.
Visit rotary.org/en to join.
Foundations of an international charitable environment
The Rotary movement has more than 1.2 million members – but it started with one man, Paul Harris.
A Chicago lawyer, Mr Harris organised the first club ‘in fellowship and friendship’ with a coal merchant, a free mason, and a tailor in 1905.
Two years later, the club started its first public service project, the building of public toilets in Chicago.
The movement’s ethos of service has attracted some of the most famous figures of the 20th century, with Neil Armstrong, Walt Disney, and Winston Churchill all members.
Paul Harris is remembered internationally through the Paul Harris Fellows, a title which is awarded to individuals – members of Rotary clubs and non-members – who donate more than $1,000 (around £800) to one of three Rotary funds.
Giving step by step support
The Rotary Club of Havant may not be an international fashion house, but they have kitted out some young people in Havant, like ‘a boss.’
As part of the club’s work to support young people members are working in partnership with Fat Face, the international clothing chain which has its head office in Havant, and Step by Step, a charity that supports young people going through hard times.
Step by Step supports young people who are homeless, caring for a relative, or suffering from poverty at home. Some young people arrive at the organisation with nothing but the clothes on their backs.
They can’t even wash those clothes because they have nothing to change into. Thanks to Havant Rotary Club’s connections, they were the first port of call when Fat Face needed advice on how to give back to people in the area.
As a result, the chairman of the Fat Face Foundation, Ian Williams, presented the club with bundles of clothes, chosen to ensure the young people in need could be given smart clothes that fit them.
The clothes went to Southern Domestic Abuse Service, Havant Young Carers, and to Step by Step, as well as MUNCH receiving a cash donation to support its work feeding in-need schoolchildren during the holidays. The clothes provide a huge boost in self-esteem.
One beneficiary said it made him ‘feel like a boss’ and gave him the confidence to attend job interviews.
Fat Face has continued to support Step By Step, making a donation of more than £40,000 this year, thanks in part to the first Fat Face Foundation shop in Havant.