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"Service above self": Local clubs celebrate Rotary Foundation’s 100th

by on April 28, 2017 1:10 PM

Poliomyelitis is a terrible disease, primarily affecting children and often causing paralysis or death. Thanks to vaccines developed in the 1950s, polio was eradicated in the United States by 1980. However, it still took a devastating toll on children around the world, particularly in developing countries.

In 1979, Rotary International joined forces with the government of the Philippines to immunize 6 million children there within five years. The success of that program led to Rotary’s launching of PolioPlus in 1985; three years later, the organization collaborated with the PanAmerican Health Organization, World Health Organization, US Centers for Disease Control, and UNICEF on a campaign to eradicate polio worldwide. At that time, polio was present in more than 125 countries and paralyzed about 1,000 children each day.

Over the past three decades, Rotary clubs and their members around the globe — including in State College — have raised funds and made individual donations to support the fight against polio. The Rotary International Foundation, which is the fund-raising arm of the service organization, has contributed more than $1.3 billion to vaccinate children against polio. Today, polio is found in only two countries — Pakistan and Afghanistan.

“It’s very exciting to be part of eradicating a disease,” says Tracy Sepich, president of the Rotary Club of State College/Downtown.

Founded in 1905, Rotary International was just 12 years old when the Rotary Foundation was born. At the 1917 Rotary Convention in Atlanta, Rotary president Arch Klumph proposed an endowment fund dedicated to “doing good in the world.” In 1930, the Rotary Foundation made its first donation, giving $500 to the International Society for Crippled Children (known today as Easter Seals), founded by Rotary member Edgar F. Allen. The foundation has grown into one of the world’s leading humanitarian foundations, having spent more than $3 billion on life-changing projects around the world.

Local Rotary clubs are celebrating the foundation’s 100th anniversary with a gala and auction, organized by the State College/Downtown Rotary Club to benefit the Rotary Foundation, on May 19 at the Mountainview Country Club. Part of the funds raised will be earmarked for the PolioPlus program (with $2 in matching funds from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for each $1 donated), and the rest will go to the foundation’s general fund for use in club matching grants at home and abroad.

Rotary Club of State College

Rotary got its start in State College in 1924. Arthur Warnock, Penn State dean of men, and Claude Aikens, publisher of the Times (now the Centre Daily Times), gathered 21 other local men and held the first formal meeting that October at Centre Hills Country Club. (US Rotary clubs did not officially admit women as members until 1987.) Recalling those early days, charter member Dick Grant said when the club celebrated its 50th anniversary, “We were young, full of pep and vinegar, and motivated by a sincere desire to do what we could for the betterment of our community.”

Among the club’s early community service projects were helping to establish Holmes-Foster Park, develop Seven Mountains Boy Scout Camp, buy uniforms for the first State College High School band, install an outdoor running track at Memorial Field, and pay expenses for the State High driver-training program, the first in the nation. By the time the club celebrated its 50th anniversary, it had financed new band and majorette uniforms in 1972, paid for a nurses’ station at the hospital now known as Mount Nittany Medical Center, and bought a mobile therapy van for the local Easter Seals chapter, among many other projects. Club members also were diligent in their contributions to the Rotary Foundation.

Today, the Rotary Club of State College has 45 members who meet on Tuesday evenings at 5:30 at the Nittany Lion Inn. The current president is Elliot Abrams, senior vice president and chief forecaster for AccuWeather Inc. and a Patton Township supervisor. His wife, Bonnie, a retired elementary school teacher, also served as president recently.

The couple joined Rotary about eight years ago, attracted by Rotary International’s motto of “service above self.” Elliot says, “Everybody is of the same mind of providing some service or help in the community or the world.”

That fits with Rotary International’s stated mission: to provide service to others, promote integrity, and advance world understanding, goodwill, and peace through its fellowship of business, professional, and community leaders.

In addition to supporting the foundation’s global priorities, each Rotary Club funds local community needs and actively volunteers in the community. Often, leaders of local nonprofit organizations speak at weekly Rotary meetings to pique club interest in their projects.

“We try to look at the community and figure out some of the places that need our help,” Bonnie Abrams says.

For the Rotary Club of State College, recent projects have included support for Schlow Centre Region Library after a pipe burst and caused extensive water damage. Matching grants from the foundation helped fund a potato-peeling machine for State College Area Meals on Wheel and several Little Free Libraries, and annual fund-raising has supported numerous nonprofits, including Strawberry Fields, Centre LifeLink EMS, and Housing Transitions. Club members volunteer their time on projects ranging from the Centre Region Parks & Recreation Easter egg hunt to Centre Volunteers in Medicines’ Battle of the Minds.

“We like to think that everyone in the community is impacted in some way,” Bonnie says.


Rotary Club of State College/Downtown

In 1986, with membership on the rise, the Rotary Club of State College sponsored a second local club. The 67 current members of Rotary Club of State College/Downtown meet at noon on Thursdays at the Ramada Inn & Conference Center.

Sepich, optometrist and president of Restore Eye Care, is a fourth-generation Rotarian, and her father, Peter Carpenter, is a past president of the Rotary Club of State College. Sepich was in her mid-20s when she joined the Oil City Rotary Club.

“I knew Rotary did good things around the world, and it’s also a good way to meet other professionals,” she says. In 2005, she became a member of the Rotary Club of State College/Downtown. “I love that Rotary is an active, diverse group of business and professional people. Everyone is valued, and everyone contributes.”

Individual club members often make contributions to the Rotary Foundation, making the club eligible to apply later for matching funds for local projects. Most recently, the Rotary Club of State College/Downtown contributed club and matching funds to the Boy Scouts for renovation of shower houses at Seven Mountains Scout Camp. The club also has supported international projects such as building water wells in developing countries and donating classroom furniture for a school in Turkey, as well as the Rotary youth exchange program.

However, most of the money raised locally by the club is used locally, Sepich says. The club contributes to a variety of local organizations, especially those that focus on children, such as Schlow Centre Region Library’s children’s library, Discovery Space of Central Pennsylvania, and the Food Bank of the State College Area. Members participate in hands-on service projects, including the Downtown State College Polar Express and the Jared Box Project. In an ongoing effort, club members pick up unsold food from the downtown farmers’ market on Friday afternoons and transport it to the food bank.


State College Sunrise Rotary Club

State College Sunrise Rotary Club is the youngest Rotary club in the Centre Region, founded in 2006 to accommodate local Rotarians who found it easier to attend morning meetings. The club meets on Wednesdays at 7:15 a.m. at the Hotel State College.

Current president Pam Ferguson benefited from a Rotary Group Study Exchange program before she actually joined the organization. In 1996, as executive director of the Food Bank of the State College Area, she was awarded a six-week trip to western Australia as part of a group visiting social service organizations there and making presentations about her own organization to Australian Rotary clubs.

“I learned so much from the exchange, and I saw what good work Rotary does,” she says. The next year, she joined the State College/Downtown Rotary Club; she switched to Sunrise Rotary after it was formed because morning meetings better fit her schedule.

State College Sunrise Rotary Club has 31 members, representing a variety of professions. The antipolio mission continues to attract the biggest share of members’ individual contributions to the Rotary Foundation, Ferguson says. International projects of the club have included funding emergency shelter kits for victims of natural disasters (with the Centre County United Nations Association) and sending baby clothes to Rwanda.

Sunrise Rotary members participate in monthly service projects that have included emptying trash cans at the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts, filling backpacks for the YMCA of Centre County’s Backpack Weekend Food Program, making mountain pies at Centre County Camp Cadet, and much more.

A majority of Sunrise Rotary members — including Ferguson, are graduates of Leadership Centre County.

“Through Leadership Centre County, you learn so much about the county, and you want to keep learning,” she says. “Rotary is a great way to do that.”



Tracey M. Dooms is a freelance writer in State College and a contributor to Town&Gown.
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