The Rotary Club, one of the oldest and largest international not-for-profit service organizations, boasts a membership of over 1.2 million, actively participating in 35,000-plus clubs worldwide. The organization, founded in 1905 and headquartered in Evanston, Ill., declares itself a place “where neighbors, friends, and problem-solvers share ideas, join leaders, and take action to create lasting change.”
Indeed, members of the Rotary Club — Rotarians — have been instrumental in breakthroughs for causes the likes of curing polio, Operation Smile, and most recently a homegrown initiative to tackle Alzheimer’s disease that has attracted a partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
“Rotary connects the world,” explains MV chapter president Dan Larkosh, who currently holds the post for the second time during his 20-year tenure at the club. “People may have not heard of Rotary — or they’ve forgotten, or they feel like it’s something from back in the day. They’re really not sure who we are.”
Who they are is a group of devoted Islanders placing “service over self” and meeting weekly at the Barn Bowl & Bistro, in an upstairs room where lunch is served and guest speakers are regularly featured. On a recent Wednesday (meetings are Wednesday at 12 pm and open to the public, walk-ins, and guests), the lecturer was Edgartown resident Herb Foster, speaking on his new book, “Ghetto to Ghetto: Yiddish and Jive in Everyday Life.”
The Rotary Club is surprisingly current and dynamic, hosting annual Island events the likes of Murdick’s Run the Chop Challenge (July 4, 2020), the Vineyard Charity Golf Classic (Sept. 23, 2020), and the Net Result Lobster Raffle (summer 2020). Proceeds from Rotary events benefit a variety of Island charities, and have raised upwards of $200,000 since the M.V. club’s inception in 1991.
“I was introduced to Rotary when my sister participated in the High School Exchange Program,” treasurer Joe Gervais said. “She went to Bolivia. It changed her life. She’s bilingual, she married a man from San Juan, her kids speak two languages.”
Indeed, a focus on youth is part and parcel of the Rotary Club — both locally and internationally. The club is actively seeking new members, especially younger members in their 20s, 30s, and 40s.
“I was surprised at how cool the Rotary Club was,” Edward Johnson, a Rotarian from Morristown, N.J., said. He joins the meetings when visiting family on the Island. “They’re into amazing causes, the members are from all walks of life, and the one unifying factor — service — just gives you a different perspective on yourself and life itself.”
Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School is home to a chapter of the Rotary’s youth division, Interact, composed of a platoon of highly motivated young people. Stephanie Burke, owner of MV Seacoast Properties, serves as youth exchange coordinator. Olson Houghton oversees the secondary school program, and Imani Hall, a senior, is student director of the club.
“I used to sit in the back at meetings as the only freshman, and now I have the pleasure of leading, with my co-president Rose Herman, about 65 high school students in community service–based activities,” says Hall. “We recently had a bake sale, and raised enough to send 19 Haitian children to school for a year, as well as sponsor a local woman to attend law school for one year so she can come back to defend Haitians whose land is being taken away by the government. This would not have been possible without the Rotary, who generously donated $1,000 to our cause.”
Each year, Rotary holds an off-Island convention where youth members gather in the thousands to make plans for long-lasting changes in the world and their local communities.
Not only has the Rotary Club helped eradicate polio through funding vaccines, adds Larkosh. “but the generator breaks at the Senior Center, if the library needs a new roof, these are the kinds of local causes that we can mobilize to raise money for.”
Each meeting of the storied but not stolid organization begins with the Pledge of Allegiance, the singing of a song à la “My Country ’Tis of Thee,” and the compulsory “Happy Dollars” — a small act of fundraising wherein members place dollar bills into a basket for each thing they are happy for that week.
The Rotary Club is composed of an eclectic mix of life walks, ranging from local business owners to ferry operators, to lawyers, dentists, and Island artisans. Networking is not paramount at the weekly lunch, but is a pleasant sidebar. “Service over self,” however, is the common cause that binds these disparate personalities together.
“I’ve been the server for these lunches for the Rotarians for 31 years,” reports Barn employee Sue Fennessy. “Sixteen years at the Ocean View, and then they followed me here. They’re an amazing group of people who place a real priority on making the world a better place. It’s not just talk; it’s action. And cheeseburgers on Wednesday afternoon.”
Corporate memberships, already held by local organizations such as the YMCA, WMVY, and Kelley House, are available for $500 annually, with individual memberships running $270. Lunch is a modest $20 extra per week.
“We have a payment plan, and a snowbird rate,” jokes treasurer Gervais.
The Martha’s Vineyard chapter is actively seeking new members, and invites interested parties to attend the weekly lunch. No reservations are needed.
The Martha’s Vineyard Rotary Club, mvrotary.com, 13 Uncas Avenue, Oak Bluffs MA.
Updated to correct the Rotary Club’s role in helping to prevent polio. -Ed.