Rotary road trip hits 14 West Coast cities to work with clubs and communities
Hundreds of Rotarians applauded as a 25-foot recreational vehicle rambled toward the Fess Parker hotel, a palm-lined resort on the Pacific oceanfront in Santa Barbara, Calif.
Two Rotarians, two Rotaractors, and a district governor on board the RV had just concluded a 2,400-mile road trip that originated in Seattle nearly two weeks earlier, stopping for service projects in Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, and Arizona. (There was also a kickoff party in October in Hawaii.) The road trip helped link Rotarians with charitable organizations in their home communities, encouraged clubs to partner with their crosstown counterparts, and illustrated the scope and value of Rotary.
After a brief welcome, more than 400 Rotarians, some with spouses, piled onto buses and followed the RV to two Boys & Girls clubs in Santa Barbara where they hoisted paintbrushes, sandpaper, hammers, and rakes to revitalize the youth centers. (Local Rotarians, along with members of Interact and Rotaract, met separately to refurbish a third club, in Carpinteria.) Dozens stayed behind at the hotel to fill 400 backpacks that would later be given to the children. The point: a potent display of the power of Rotary.
“I was amazed,” says Jeff Henley, vice chairman of Oracle Corp. and a governor of the national board of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, who watched the mob of Rotarians give a center a face-lift by painting the hallways and gymnasiums, adding storage lockers, weeding playfields, and refinishing picnic tables.
Santa Barbara Rotarian Michael Baker is the CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Santa Barbara County, which serves about 550 children every day, mostly underprivileged youth who find the clubs to be an after-school haven. “It was beautiful, ” Baker says. “There were teams assembling cubbies, teams sanding and painting benches, teams doing general cleaning. We had another two sets of teams cataloging books. Nobody was standing around.”
Joey Vaesen, a 21-year-old member of the Rotaract Club of Victoria, B.C., rode in the RV and was the youngest person on the tour.
In Santa Barbara, he cleared brush from a playground at a Boys & Girls club as others, including Past RI President William B. Boyd, painted a door in a blue closely matching Rotary’s hue. Vaesen signed on for the RV expedition at the suggestion of Katie Coard, charter president of the Rotary Club of Downtown Victoria. “It started off as this public image type thing,” he explains. “We were focusing on what Rotary is doing on the West Coast and just trying to get the word out there.” But Vaesen says the RV tour also ended up connecting local clubs that otherwise might not have worked together.
The 14-city RV expedition was primarily organized by Danielle Lallement, charter president of the Rotary Club of San Francisco Evening. The self-described tour manager says the RV trip was modeled after a similar journey in which four Rotarians drove an RV from Pennsylvania to Iowa a year earlier.
That foray, called Rollin’ with Rotary, was inspired by RI Vice President Jennifer E. Jones. Jones had asked the participants of the 2014 Young Professionals Summit, a Chicago meeting of 32 young Rotary leaders, to “dream big,” and one suggested an RV tour.
“We took their idea and expanded it,” says Lallement, who called this tour “Connecting for Good.” RI Director Brad Howard gave the road trip his stamp of approval. “The tour was organized and orchestrated by these emerging Rotary leaders – every aspect, all the finances, all the logistics,” Howard says.
Giving younger Rotarians freedom to make a difference in Rotary is key to the organization’s vibrancy, Howard and Lallement say. Separately, the two bemoan the obstacles that younger Rotarians have faced.
“One club, to get on the board of directors, you had to be in the club for eight years,” says Lallement, who chartered what is now a 40-member club with an average age of about 37. “Especially in the area I live in, you have tech people, they’re millionaires, and they’re 25, maybe 30. You ask them to come into an organization and then you tell them that they can’t be the leader of the organization? So they don’t join. Or they come into the club and they realize, ‘well, they obviously don’t need me.’ ”
“Only in Rotary could people in their 30s or 40s be called young professionals,” Howard says. Only about 5 percent of Rotarians are under 40.
Inspired by the Chicago Young Professionals Summit, Lallement and Howard developed their own zone summit to match young Rotarian professionals with older ones, the “cultural” leaders of Rotary.
“We wanted to develop a network of emerging Rotary leaders and put them in leadership roles,” says Howard. “But we needed buy-in from the current leadership – the 50-, 60-, 70-year-olds – to view these people in their district as having a voice. We hired two professors of innovation and change management from the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley.” The summit showed participants that, young or old, Rotarians all have common ground – they share the same values and goals.
Celebrating the meeting’s success over champagne, Lallement and a small group decided that one way to present a younger image of Rotary to the world would be to replicate the Rollin’ with Rotary RV tour.
“But we did it a little bit differently,” she says. “We didn’t want it to be random acts of kindness. Instead, we collaborated with companies, organizations that don’t know what Rotary is. I asked members in the cities we visited to work with their districts to make it a multiclub event.” After the Connecting for Good kickoff in Hawaii, Howard and Lallement flew back to the mainland to meet the team and see them off. A combination of grant money and donations funded the trip.
After about nine months of planning – and route mapping by Katie Coard, 33-year-old charter president of the Rotary Club of Downtown Victoria – four riders met in the Seattle area to undertake their first act of service. It was a project at Elk Run Farm in Maple Valley, Wash., affiliated with Rotary First Harvest, a program that supports area food banks by growing produce and coordinating the distribution of imperfect, but nutritious, donated vegetables and fruit.
Under the tutelage of First Harvest’s executive director, David Bobanick, of the nearby Rotary Club of Mercer Island, the group, aided by another dozen or so volunteers, assembled a 90-foot “caterpillar tunnel” by shoveling dirt, burrowing rebar into the ground, stretching PVC pipe into an arch, and covering the beams with a plastic tarp.
“Basically it’s a kind of poor man’s version of a greenhouse,” says Bobanick, noting that it’s used to extend the growing season.
“It was a significant undertaking, but they were very willing to work and participate and eager to help any way they could. They rolled up their sleeves and got to work.” Bobanick hailed “the variety and diversity of the projects” planned for the tour: hardly a “cookie-cutter approach where ‘we’re going to do the same project here and there.’ It reflects well on how Rotary is engaged in the community.”
From there, the group motored to the Oregon Food Bank (in a car because of a paperwork snafu that meant the RV would meet them in Portland).
The team repacked and labeled bulk foodstuffs alongside members of the Portland Hub of Global Shapers, a service group connected with the World Economic Forum. It was the second stop on a journey that included Eugene, Ore.; Sacramento, San Francisco, Oakland, Fresno, and Bakersfield, Calif.; Las Vegas; Phoenix; and San Diego, Los Angeles, and Santa Barbara, Calif. Some days included service projects in multiple cities. The longest drive was eight hours.
“We were a pretty good team even by the time we hit the second or third cities,” says the principal driver, Wulff Reinhold, governor of District 5130 and a member of the Rotary Club of Rohnert Park-Cotati in Northern California. Retired after 35 years in public safety with police and fire departments, “I’m used to driving large firetrucks, so driving an RV was no problem for me,” he says. Not so for Coard, however, who took the wheel from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara. “It was my first time driving an RV, so it was kind of scary,” she says. “We were in the Topanga Canyon, going through this winding, bending road, in an RV, in the dark.”
A less harrowing, yet still exciting, tour highlight occurred in Encinitas, Calif., when 150 sailors from the Navy’s USS Theodore Roosevelt met Rotarians from three clubs, Interactors, and Rotaractors at a Boys & Girls club. The club had been deeded a half-acre parcel that had a garden strewn with weeds. The assemblage descended on this garden and performed three months’ worth of cleanup in an afternoon.
In San Francisco, the team combined with Global Shapers, the Mission Economic Development Agency, and Year Up to sponsor a project to help 18- to 24-year-olds “close the soft-skills gap.”
Held at LinkedIn’s headquarters, the session provided tips on résumé building and interviewing. “The mayor also gave us a proclamation. It was Connecting for Good Day,” says Lallement, who observed that the city is not exactly ideal for recreational vehicles. “I reserved parking in a lot. I tried to explain [the space needs to the lot attendant], and he said it was no problem. Then the RV showed up and his eyes were big.”
The rig maneuvered in, but “getting out was pretty hairy.”
A recurring concern, however, that Hawthorne and others noted was encountering Rotarians who had not undertaken a community service project in months, if not years. The team’s presence offered a reason to engage in hands-on service again.
But the turnouts, particularly at the final event in Santa Barbara, inspired the team. “What was beautiful was seeing people in their 20s and people in their 80s working side by side, some of them covered in paint, some sweating. All laughing, all feeling accomplished,” says RI Director Howard.
“This kind of project reminds us of why we’re in Rotary in the first place,” says Ryan Clements, a member of the Rotary Club of Columbus, Ga. “To go out, roll up our shirtsleeves, and do good in the world.”