Rotary serves Martha’s Vineyard and the world


The Martha’s Vineyard Rotary Club (MVRC) will celebrate its 20th anniversary in April. With 66 members, probably a few more than average for a community of our size, the local chapter is no colossus, as organizations go, but its impact is considerable.

MVRC is affiliated with Rotary International, an orderly, international 105-year old service organization with 1.2 million members and traditions of ascendancy in its 33,000 local clubs. You move up the chairs, from vice-president to president-elect to president to past president.

Bill Brown, an Edgartown insurance agent, is the president this year. He is an understated man who believes in service as do fellow Island Rotarians such as Paul J. Watts, a banker, and John Rancourt, senior vice president of Island Propane.

There’s always been a comfortable ordinariness with a sense of community about Rotary. Being a Rotarian didn’t involve a lot of heavy lifting, depending on how involved you wanted to get. For members on the periphery, the biggest decision was whether to choose chicken or fish at the weekly luncheon meeting.

Those of us who traveled the corporate career circuit, transferring to a new town every few years, have always joined at least one of the local business clubs: Rotary, Kiwanis, or the Chamber of Commerce. Good for networking, for putting down shallow community roots that would be easily pulled up after a few years.

But the extraordinary change that has occurred in our world has transformed volunteer service organizations like Rotary into powerful and critically-important change agents, both in their local communities and around the world. Certainly that’s true on the Island.

Consider this: local Rotarians such as Messrs. Watts and Rancourt have spent time climbing around mountains in Peru to deliver wheelchairs to housebound people so poor that wheelchair mobility was as out of reach for them as a limo and driver would be. The Island Rotary group has built on its first delivery of 163 wheelchairs to mountainous Peruvian villages and Lima orphanages.

And the Island Rotarians delivered the goods themselves. They were on the ground in Peru, and while they were at it, they also made themselves useful by designing and installing clean water systems for villages inured to diseases that accompany contaminated water supplies.

Now, working with a consortium of Rotarians, thousands of wheelchairs are delivered in containers. What began as a trickle has become a flood. The role has expanded.

Recently, Mr. Watts, senior vice president at Edgartown National Bank, was active in earmarking medical equipment from the old Martha’s Vineyard hospital building for delivery to Peru.

“Bringing clean water to communities around the world is also a goal,” Mr. Brown said last week in his office at the Martha’s Vineyard Insurance agency in Edgartown.

Rotary International has partnered with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, according to Mr. Brown. “We’re raising $100 million internationally, which the foundation will match, to eradicate polio,” he said.

The Gates Foundation? What’s going on here? One thing that’s going on is that we live today in a World of Less. Less money, less time, often less commitment to help others from government and traditional organizations, a fact that enhances the local and world aid role of established, well-focused service groups such as Rotary.

There’s a balance and an elasticity between helping the world and helping the local community at work in the Island Rotary Club. “Well, we donated $50,000 to the new hospital and make about $25,000 a year available in scholarship funds,” Mr. Brown said.

The club also donates about $25,000 a year to more than 60 Island organizations in just-in-time funds. The ability to react fast is important, Mr. Brown believes. “We want to be able to help service organizations that have immediate needs who ask for help,” he said.

Rotarian-sponsored Island students have traveled as far as Fiji and Patagonia for their work. In all, the Island Rotary club has donated more than $200,000 to Island individuals and organizations in its history.

Our new world is also smaller, making it easier to see the importance of quick reaction and the unexpected benefits provided by local groups a world away.

The aftermath of the Haiti earthquake last January is an example of a small group here on the Island, that, like Rotary, made a serendipitous relief contribution.

The Haiti Fish Farm and a companion quilt-making project were created by a group of Island women three years before the earthquake struck last January. The self-help idea had the additional benefit of creating an organized cadre of 50 Haitian women who were able to set up a functioning, safe shelter in their Lilavois community within a few days of the event, as a mountain of relief supplies at the Port-au-Prince airport was gridlocked in bureaucratic paralysis.

The local face of Rotary still has a traditional look, still meets for lunch every week at noon at the Ocean 
View Restaurant in Oak Bluffs. The Island club stills plans a fall golf tournament, a summer pancake breakfast, and the legendary annual raffle of 50-pounds of lobster — $7,000-$10,000 fundraisers that support other Island service groups.

Rotarians here are long past deciding whether to order chicken or fish for lunch. Instead, having seen the impact of their work around the world, they now ponder how best to use their resources.