Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Welcome to the World of Rotary: Service Above Self

The gray-haired Chilean man with round glasses stepped down from the podium and thrust the microphone in my face. I sat in the front of the ballroom of the Hotel Militar Coraceros, behind a long table with a plate of half-eaten noodle casserole with breadcrumb topping in front of me. I nervously tapped the binder of class notes at my feet. A visiting Rotary International director from Tucson was set to present a complex earthquake fund proposal heavy with Rotary jargon. He wanted me to translate. I looked into the crowd of men in suits and gulped. “Gracias,” I began. 

My Rotary host counselor Dan Luis Martinez invited me to the Viña del Mar club lunch meeting a week earlier. I’d prepared a photo-heavy PowerPoint presentation, which I'd saved it to my Macbook. I’d toted the laptop on the wild bus ride and up the steep hill to my class in Sausalito that morning. Several of the students glanced at me when I walked in the classroom that morning dressed in black pants, ballerina flats and a pink sweater that stood out among the Chilean college student uniform of distressed jeans, destroyed sneakers and bomber jackets. 

I slipped out early to walk down the hill to the Rotary meeting conveniently located 10 minutes away in a hotel on a quiet leafy street in Viña, a new location due to earthquake damages in their traditional meeting spot. I entered the lobby and tracked down my counselor in the crowd of mingling men in suits. I quickly realized that I was the only woman present among the dignified men, average age 75. 
A waiter passed around a tray of drinks, and I passed up the pisco sour for what looked like a fancy latte. The circle of men surrounding me quickly warned me that it contained alcohol. While the men sipped their drinks my host counselor introduced me to the president of one of the many clubs in Valparaíso. The gracious gentleman invited me attend one of his club meetings. Next the district governor handed me his card and offered to help me with anything I needed during my stay in Chile.   

The friendly Rotarians dialed up their hearing aids and practiced their English with me, asking me where I was from and what I was studying. They wanted me to meet the Rotary International director  visiting Chile from Arizona. All the while I engaged in the Rotary custom of exchanging cards with everyone I met. (Thanks to my Charleston sponsor club for giving me a stack of beautiful, professional business cards!)

Some of the Rotarians suggested I get in touch with the Valparaíso Rotaract club. I actually made contact with the group, a Rotary sponsored served organization for young people, before I left the States. I’m looking forward to meeting with them Friday evening and adding a Rotary-affiliated service project to my current volunteer activities at La Católica. 

After the three-course lunch the members stood to sing the solemn Rotary anthem. The meeting commenced with a presentation on community projects from the youngest member present. Afterward they asked me to stand and briefly introduce myself before the other American's presentation.

I thanked them for the invitation and expressed how grateful I was to finally get in touch with Rotary and how blessed I feel to be given this opportunity to study in Chile this year through the generosity of Rotary. In conclusion I presented them with the club banner from the Charleston club (I must say I’m proud of the pretty and colorful design depicting Broad Street).
After the two-and-a-half-hour meeting I was running late for my next class, but one of the hospitable Rotarians offered to drop me off at the university on his way into Valparaíso. Traveling between the two cities via car instead of jolting bus offered a new experience. As we sped on the highway I gazed out the window watching waves crash against the rocks below the castles and resorts of Viña as the sun glimmered and ships sailed on the cobalt sea. Thank you Rotary, I thought.

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