WOONSOCKET — Gerald M. Brenner leans over the desk in his Diamond Hill Road law office and rummages through a pile of documents, his eyes squinting to find a single piece of paper in the clutter.
“Ah, here it is,” he says.
The document he's holding up is a fact-sheet about Rotary International's PolioPlus, one of the most ambitious humanitarian programs ever undertaken by a private sector organization.
Polio eradication has been Rotary’s top priority for more than two decades, Brenner says. In 1988, the World Health Organization, UNICEF and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention joined Rotary as spearheading partners of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative. Rotary club members worldwide have contributed more than $1 billion and countless volunteer hours to the polio eradication effort, and have recently pledged to raise an additional $200 million in the United States by June 30 to match $355 million in challenge grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. All of the resulting $555 million will be spent in support of eradication activities.
Even Brenner, the Woonsocket Rotary Club's longest living serving member and its current president, has a hard time grasping the mind-boggling fact that Rotary is close to eliminating the second human disease in history after smallpox with a 99 percent reduction in polio cases worldwide since 1985.
In fact, last week, Brenner and Rotarians worldwide were celebrating a milestone in the global effort to eradicate polio: India, until recently an epicenter of the wild poliovirus, has gone one year without recording a new case of the crippling, and sometimes fatal, disease.
“Great progress has been made, and the incidence of polio infection has plunged from about 350,000 cases in 1988 to fewer than 1,300 reported cases in 2010,” Brenner explains. “More than two billion children have been immunized in 122 countries, preventing five million cases of paralysis and 250,000 pediatric deaths.”
Service Above Self
The polio eradication initiative is a shining example of the Rotary's motto of “Service above self,” a statement that conveys the humanitarian spirit of the organization's more than 1.2 million members.
Rotary is the world's premier global service organization on the forefront of tackling major humanitarian challenges facing the world today, including maternal and child health, clean water and sanitation, and disease prevention and treatment.
Rotary members are business and professional leaders who volunteer their expertise, compassion and power to improve communities at home and abroad in more than 200 countries and geographical areas.
Rotary offers a grassroots approach to problem solving. Rotary club members understand the needs of their communities and have boots on the ground to develop and implement effective, sustainable projects.
“We are the doers of our communities, the leaders, the ones who are most involved, who see the problems and have the means to find the solutions,” Rotary International President Kaylan Banerjee said in a statement to The Call last week.
The Rotary Club of Woonsocket, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2010, is one of the most active clubs in Rhode Island.
The Woonsocket Rotary Club can trace its roots to the Rotary Club of Pawtucket, which sponsored the Woonsocket group in 1960. The Woonsocket club would end up returning the favor in 1975 when it organized the Rotary Club of Cumberland-Lincoln.
On Feb. 17, 1960, the Woonsocket Rotary Club held its first unofficial meeting at the Howard Johnson's in Park Square, North Smithfield, where William A. Crouse, the late managing editor and publisher of The Woonsocket Call, was elected the club's first president.
One of the earliest recorded community endeavors of the Woonsocket club was to provide funds to send six Girl Scouts and three Boy Scouts to a summer Scout Camp for a week each.
The club is now a member of Rotary District 7950, which encompasses 67 clubs in Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts, including Cumberland-Lincoln, Pawtucket, Cranston and Providence.
50 Years and Counting
The Rotary Club of Woonsocket has come a long way in 50 years. The Woonsocket Rotary Charitable Foundation was formed in January of 1991 and the club now boasts 44 active members. The club contributes money to a wide variety of programs and projects in Greater Woonsocket. From July to November of last year, the club contributed, alone, more than $15,000 in direct assistance to groups that ranged from Connecting for Children and Families to the Stadium Theatre Foundation to Sojourner House to the Burrillville High School Boosters.
Whether it’s paying for Woonsocket High School Interactive Club students to take an educational trip to Rwanda or constructing a health clinic in Haiti, the Woonsocket Rotary Club has been at the forefront of community service both at home and abroad.
A young attorney fresh out of law school, Brenner joined the club in 1966. “Back then I was looking for a way to give back and contribute to the community and what I found was that the Rotary Club was the most active and impressive service club at the time, so I joined,” says Brenner, a partner with the law firm of Zimmerman Roszkowski & Brenner.
“The Rotary's main objective is service, but we're also a unique fellowship of business, professional, and community leaders,” Brenner adds. “That's the main ingredient. That's what keeps the Rotary intact. It gives us the opportunity to serve the community at our expense.”
During his 45 years with the club, Brenner has served on its Board of Directors and held various committee assignments, but the Rotary “pet project” he likes to talk about most is the club's “Swim for Life” program which he began — and personally financed — three years ago. Each year, 25 third-graders from area schools take a 12-week course at the Woonsocket Y.M.C.A. in the basic fundamentals on how to swim.
Brenner came up with the idea three years ago after he read a newspaper account of a young boy who had drowned in a swimming pool in Providence
“It's beautiful,” he says of the program. “The first week, the kids are hanging on the side of the pool for dear life learning how to kick their legs in the water. By the end of the 12th week they're swimming across the pool.”
Robert P. Picard, a 26-year member of the Rotary and the Woonsocket club's president from 1993-1994, was a nurse working full-time in the emergency room at Fogarty Memorial Hospital when he became a Rotarian.
“At the time I remember being very impressed with the Woonsocket Rotary Club because it was a big supporter of the hospital and the catalyst behind the Lifeline medical alert service that was instituted there,” Picard says. “One day, my boss said I should think about joining, so I did.”
According to Picard, Rotary’s commitment to “service above self” is channeled through five avenues of service — club service, vocational service, community service, international service and, more recently, new generation.
A good example of the club's many international service projects was when Picard led a team of seven Rotarians from the Providence Rotary Club to help install water filtration systems in a rural village in the Dominican Republic in 2010. Both Rotary Clubs combined forces in a $12,000 international service project to bring clean water to hundreds of families in the village of Esperanza.
Funded by $3,000 from the Woonsocket club, $3,000 from the Providence Rotary Charities Foundation and a $6,000 Matching Grant from The Rotary Foundation, the project provided ceramic water filters to 600 homes in the community. The team, which paid their own expenses for the trip, spent a week in the village installing filtration systems in hundreds of homes and showing the families how to use them.
“It was an amazing experience,” Picard says. “The residents of Esperanza had sufficient water, but it was impure and drinking it caused illness. We were able to provide a filter system to hundreds of homes in order to prevent gastrointestinal diseases.”
Service and Fellowship
The Woonsocket Rotary Charities Foundation annually expends 5 percent of its net asset value within the area of Greater Woonsocket. Each year, the foundation, among other things, funds $5,000 in scholarships for graduates from local schools, including Woonsocket High School, North Smithfield High School, Mount St. Charles, Woonsocket Career & Technical Center and Burrillville High School.
Since it was established, Picard said, the Woonsocket Rotary Foundation has donated over $67,000 to local charities such as the Stadium Theater Foundation, the MS Society, Because He Lives Ministry, Thundermist Health, Institute for Poverty, Family Resources Shelter and Polio Plus.
“Every nickel goes into our charitable ventures and any time we spend money it comes out of our own pockets,” Picard says.
While some service clubs have seen their memberships decline in recent years, the Rotary — both locally and worldwide — is vibrant as ever, he says.
“We went through a cycle where we saw a dip, but we're strong as ever,” said Picard, adding that the inclusion of women into what was until 1987 a men’s-only service club, has helped keep the Rotary strong.
From 1905 until the 1980s, women were not allowed membership in Rotary clubs, although Rotarian spouses were often members of the similar “Inner Wheel” club. In 1976, the Rotary Club of Duarte in Duarte, California, admitted three women as members. In 1978, after the club refused to remove the women from membership, Rotary International revoked its charter. The Duarte club filed suit in the California courts, claiming that Rotary Clubs are business establishments subject to regulation under California's Unruh Civil Rights Act, which bans discrimination based on race, gender, religion or ethnic origin. Rotary International appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.
On May 4, 1987, the United States Supreme Court confirmed the Californian decision. Rotary International then removed the gender requirements from its requirements for club charters, and most clubs in most countries have opted to include women as members of Rotary Clubs.
Women currently account for 15 percent of international Rotary membership (22 percent in North America).
“Women have been a tremendous asset to Rotary,” says Picard, adding that 14 of the Woonsocket's club 44 members are women.
And more and more young professionals are coming into the Rotary, he says.
“We like to mentor the younger club recruits and get them involved as soon as possible,” Picard says. “It's gratifying to see someone who has only been a member for six months suddenly chairing a committee.”
At 30 years old, Colin Murray is the youngest president in the history of the Rotary Club of Pawtucket. The Pawtucket Rotary, which has 40 members, celebrated its 90th anniversary last year. The club meets every Thursday at noon at St. Paul's Parish House, 50 Park Place, Pawtucket.
“We have a very active and vibrant organization whose members enjoy networking, sharing and serving together,” says Murray, a financial planner and Rotarian for the past three years. “While most Rotary clubs try to find a balance between local and international service, Pawtucket is a bit more focused on service in the local community.”
The Pawtucket Rotary, for example, has been a longtime supporter of the Pawtucket Soup Kitchen, a non-profit organization housed in the basement of St. Joseph's Church that serves the city's homeless and low-income population.
“We take part in food drives and do a lot of hands-on work at the soup kitchen, including a special service day,” Murray says.
Last spring, he said, dozens of club members spent the day doing landscape work at the church.
The Pawtucket Rotary also sponsors and finances the annual Pawtucket Boys & Girls Club Youth Scholarship Competition.
“Aside from the fundraising aspect, I've found the Rotary to be a diverse group of people whose only motive is to do good,” Murray says. “It's an efficient way to give back to the community. While it has its roots in service, the other part of it is the fellowship that Rotarians share in this country and around the world.”
Brenner, who joined the Woonsocket Rotary 45 years ago, says there is no better organization for young professionals seeking community service and fellowship. “Whether it's banging nails to build a house in Woonsocket or taking part in educational campaigns against HIV/AIDS in Ghana, young people can participate in an organization that can literally change the world,” he says.