Past President Collyer Smith wielded the gavel with the assurance of a true elder statesman. President Greg, enjoying a reunion at his alma mater, Nebraska, displayed his usual sagacity by appointing a seasoned delegate. Cheers went up; it was like Washington returning from retirement in 1798 to head American forces in the Quasi War. Pride rippled through the ballroom as members relived past glories — “End Polio Now,” the World Peace Conference, groundbreaking for a Universal Access Playground…well, you get the idea. People were hepped.
“What fun!” Collyer exclaimed. “Greg left me a message that ended with the quote from John Wayne: ‘Life is hard, but it’s harder if you’re stupid’ — so, Collyer, don’t be stupid. Follow my outline.”
After singing a spirited “Star-Spangled Banner” (yes, with more than a few members turning to the space where the flag USED to be), Barbara Niess-May came to the podium. For her Inspiration she read from John O’Donohue’s poem, “For Courage” —
“When the light around you lessens
And your thoughts darken until
Your body feels fear turn
Cold as a stone inside,
“When you find yourself bereft
Of any belief in yourself
And all you unknowingly
Leaned on has fallen…
“Steady yourself and see
That it is your own thinking
That darkens your world,
“Search and you will find
A diamond-thought of light,
“Know that you are not alone…”
Joanne Pierson came up next…as the Queen of (Golf) Clubs. “We’re going to sing this to the tune of ‘Under the Boardwalk.’ Guys, you sing your part; gals, you sing yours.” [These responsively sung or otherwise divided ditties always cause a spaghetti of confusion.] “…And when the games are done we’ll come in for beer and wine/And we’ll bid on auction items, they are all so fine/At Travis Pointe, that’s where we’ll be-e-e-e/Raison’ funds for our Ann Arbor Rotary.”
Collyer then asked Dan Romanchik to make an announcement. It was sweet and simple: “The deadline for new member recommendations is next Wednesday [September 12 — but remember, we DO NOT have a meeting then. Monday’s GTO is our meeting].
After warm greetings to members, visiting Rotarians, and guests, Collyer led the assembly in a heartfelt “Happy Birthday to You” to Lois Jelneck, to commemorate her 90th birthday. Deafening huzzahs and acclamations. Cake was served. Then Art Holst came up in recognition of his 61 years in Rotary. “Sixty-one years goes by in a hurray,” he began. “Some of the best friends I’ve ever known I met in Rotary…You’ve welcomed me so much. I’m the last living member of my Rotary club [in Arizona]. Building stepping stones — that’s the story of Rotary!”
The ovation had barely died down when Past President Ashish came to the podium with Lauren Heinonen and Madi Vorva. Turning to Ms. Vorva, Ashish remarked “In recognition for what you have done for humanity in your short life, I am pleased to award to you this Honorary Paul Harris Fellowship.” Lauren also spoke movingly of her friend’s dedication and selfless hard work for others.
Collyer: “Our Golf and Tennis Outing is our largest fund raiser. Please welcome for the last time, our fearless leader, John Simkins.” John began, “I can take any registrations for diners or golfers. We have 200 signed up for dinner, and we have room for 230. There’s still time to volunteer auction items.” He then mentioned that a training session for volunteers will take place at Travis Pointe this Sunday, from 4:00-6:00 p.m. Volunteers can also pick up their GTO shirts then.
Also, new Rotary directories are available. See John White. Price? What, do you think your reporter can jot down everything? Last year it was $6. Whatever it is, it’s reasonable.
Speaker: Mary Avrakotos stepped to the podium to introduce our speaker, Arlene Goleimbeski, of the Sherbro Foundation. “Arlene was a Peace Corps volunteer in Sierra Leone in the 1970s, and she has received the Procter and Gamble humanitarian award.” Her presentation would center on the progress made their by Sherbro in that country in recent years. “Arlene, I would like you to know how proud I am to be a Rotarian from your example! Please welcome my friend, Arlene Goleimbeski.”
“I’m so glad to be with you again to show you what you have done for Sierra Leone,” Arlene began. “As you know, it is located in West Africa, about the size of South Carolina.” Then a sobering appraisal: “Things have not changed greatly; in fact, some things are worse than in 1974, when I was first there. Since then there’s been an eleven-year insurgent war, and an Ebola outbreak in 2017.” She then made a crucially important point regarding aid: “It must be their idea. [For outside aid] to succeed, it must be community driven.” She cited her collaboration with an important local power source, Paramount Chief Caulker: “He’s the longest-serving chief in the area.” From Arlene’s description, Chief Caulker is a master at motivating others; a keen organizer, but one who accomplishes things with a gentle hand, by forming partnerships with organizations like Sherbro, and by making the endeavor the peoples’ own.
Arlene was based in a town called Rotifunk. “It’s only a few miles from Freetown, the capital, but it takes four hours to get there.” (Indeed, the persistent difficulties of getting from Point A to B through coastal forest on unpaved footpaths echo the observations of journalist Robert Kaplan about the same area. See Kaplan’s The Ends of the Earth, published in 1996.) “It’s about growing community,” Arlene insisted. “Education alone will not lift people out of poverty.” But the land, and its people, provide a solid foundation. “You might think you’re in the South Carolina lowlands, with all the rain and estuaries. Things haven’t changed here in 200 years — everything is done manually. If you’re not a farmer, you’re a petty trader,” which means walking for miles to Rotifunk, carrying your wares on your head. She showed slides of people clearing a field for an orchard. A big field. All brush clearance, stump removal, and eventual planting was done by seven people. Their energy was prodigious: when they had prepared the first plot, they went on to clear the adjacent one. Though a formidable challenge, Arlene showed us that the land is the crucible of entrepreneurship in Rotifunk. What’s changing the dynamic? “Rotary’s global grants,” asserts Arlene, along with people like Chief Caulker, who, by reaching out to other chiefs, has enabled the people to work the land profitably. “Don’t misunderstand,” she went on, “these people are desperately poor. Their daily purchasing power is the equivalent of $1.50 — about $500 a year. The senior high school dropout rate is 50%.” Then a truly shocking fact: “Sierra Leone has the world’s lowest lifespan — 51 years, when the world average is 71 years.”
Arlene then showed another slide, this one a composite satellite image of the world showing nighttime electrical usage. For the developed world swathes of light seemed to celebrate prosperity with a fireworks display, particularly around the coasts. “But, now, look at Africa,” Arlene implored. Nothing, almost. Except for Egypt and South Africa, the continent was blank. “Africa remains the Dark Continent.”
Again, the hope is in the land. And the orchards are pointing the way. In the plots described above, as many as 500 coconut trees were planted. Joining these were 500 citrus, 3,000 pineapple and guava, and a contingent of coru, avocados, and lime trees. “For water, they dug a well. They had to go down 30 feet — yes, there’s a man at the bottom of that hole, digging. They waited for the dry season to do it, so the well never dries out,” she observed. In the words of Chief Caulker: “You grow fruit trees, you can make money.”
Arlene concluded with several success stories. Two, in particular, illuminated what can be accomplished here. In the first, a woman, mother of three and facing destitution, received a Rotary grant to attend school “even though she was a much older student.” She graduated and is now attending nursing school. The other highlighted a woman who organized a highly profitable vegetable growing business. “See her buildings? They’re cement, with metal roofs. That’s very unusual in the area, where most buildings are of thatch.” Arlene’s rapid-fire presentation had transfixed her audience. A powerful ovation followed, but only after her listeners had taken a couple seconds to collect themselves. It was that good. Collyer thanked Arlene, then, remembering Greg’s dictum, recited John Wayne’s maxim about being stupid. Well, the people of Rotifunk certainly aren’t that. Perhaps we should conclude with words of Chief Caulker, a real lesson in self-reliance: “We get started with what we have.”