By Gabriel Gardiner
This was the rather candid response when reduced to talking about something of the most basic: survival. The conversation was between a motley crew of Philippine government officials, Philippine village elders and visiting American nationals affiliated with the international service organization Rotary International.
The question being answered was that of the principal problem facing the average Pinoy (native Philippine person). The blunt response being “snake bite.” No, they were not asking for St. Patrick to shoo the prevalent plethora of poisonous snakes out from their island nation, as the problem was not really the snakes. The problem was the crippling diseases of polio. Polio is an illness that attacks the nerve system and has the capacity to turn the healthiest of athlete into a crawling, malformed shadow of their former self.
It was “snake bite” that was affecting an incredible amount of the population in the rural provinces of the Philippines because such a high number of people were affected with the debilitating disease of polio. Reduced to a state of immobility, people were unable to run from danger. Crawling from danger proved an inefficient means of escape so “snake bite,” became the greatest threat to human life. Where polio wreaked the physical into a shameful state of atrophy, “snake bite” finished the person off.
And there lies the problem. In the developed world of the OECD (Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development), a rich country’s club inclusive of the United States, Western Europe and select others, polio was no longer a problem. A cure was discovered, vaccines distributed and the wrenched diseases was eradicated well over 50 years ago. Why was this aliment still affecting so many humans?
This is essentially a tale of the “haves” and the “have nots.” To some this may be a dry, abstract, far removed question until the point when it becomes all too real and one observes from the first person point of view the complications associated with “snake bite.” This became the perfect opportunity for Rotary International to step in and become the catalyst of change. It was there in the Philippines that an international campaign to stamp out polio was started.
If being busy is the test, then Rotary International is in excellent health. 25 years ago, from the manifestation in the Philippines, the true outcome of this massive endeavor has begun to emerge. Polio, once as widespread as the common cold, has been contained within only a few pockets of the world, mainly in conflict zones, where chaos is endemic. Where many thousands of cases were once reported annually, only a handful are officially counted today. The coming years will be an especially trying time of true grit, much like the “cockroach conclusion.” No matter how hard you try to eradicate the final 1% of the problem, it emerges somewhere else.
Through both success and adversity, Rotary will continue its quiet upward walk to a better tomorrow for some of the world’s most disenfranchised groups, however it needs fresh faces with different perspectives to implement the callings. The outcome of these ventures will define not just the character of Rotary International, but also its role in the world and sense of itself as an institution.
Rotary and its college equivalent Rotaract serve many purposes, many which are more tangible to the college coed. Rotary/Rotaract is the largest provider of merit-based scholarships. This is an organization that sends more people to school than any other establishment on the face of this planet. Rotary/Rotaract is the oldest service organization in existence, for it invented the concept. With an international following of over 1.2 million members and 34,000 clubs found in over 200 different countries, Rotary/Rotaract is the most international organization on earth. McDonalds, Coca-Cola, or Exxon Mobil cannot even claim to be such a globally integrated outfit. Whether you find yourself in a foreign land, on the beaches of Brazil, the trading floor in Hong Kong or maybe closer to home in a studio in Los Angeles, you will always have friends, a support group or a point of reference. Rotary/Rotaract combines local insight with an outsider’s perspective—though you may at some time in your life be an outsider, through affiliation, you will always be an insider.
The improvement of human lives is the passion of Rotary and Rotaract. This initial step towards the eradication of polio is in many ways a case study on how to conduct a global campaign against an evil adversary. Like anything in life, incremental progress levels the largest of mountains. Speak to any Rotarian who has personally worked in the hinterlands of Nicaragua, the tin roofed slums of Manila, Philippines, or on the contrary, within the boardrooms of Manhattan or London and the first thing that strikes you is that of a remarkable capacity for being upbeat. Their absolute assurance that positive change is eminent comes from a total lack of self-doubt.
Conversely, they are not disillusioned, for Rotarians are well aware against having unrealistic expectations. Speaking to one Rotarian about her international service, she responds about a particular discipline gained through the coal faced fieldwork. If you live and work and volunteer only domestically, you inherently measure yourself against local standards. Once you have lived abroad, you are measured alongside the entire world— the horizon-expanding powers of being abroad are powerful! Let Rotary/Rotaract be your vehicle for change, self-improvement, and worldwide advancement. That, after all, is what the far-sighted Rotarians are doing.
This article is the first in a series about Rotary International and the college affiliate Rotaract, the latest club on Penn State New Kensington’s campus. The next discussion in the series will touch upon what Rotary and Rotaract is doing domestically, here in our back yard and on the campus of Penn State New Kensington.