I cannot thank the special people who made my trip to Tasmania possible without including the Rotarians who started it all. Today I want to share my thanks with the wonderful Rotarians from my hometown, the members of the Rotary Club of Bainbridge, NY. In order to do it properly, I need to share some of my Rotary story. I have written and spoken about this often, but this will be the first time writing it on my own blog.
Rotary is an international service organization. It is organized into Districts, which contain individual clubs. Founded by a Chicago businessman, Paul Harris, and some of his friends in 1905, the organization now boasts over 1.2 million members around the world. You can learn more about Rotary by visiting their website.
My Rotary story starts – well, I don’t really know when it starts because Rotary has always been a part of my life. My father was a Rotarian for several decades and was awarded a Paul Harris Fellow. He served as President of the Bainbridge club when I was a child. I remember other Rotarians coming to the house for monthly Board of Directors meetings, and tagging along with Dad when he worked on service projects in the community.
Bainbridge Rotary is a small club (it’s a small town!) but they have a strong commitment to youth exchange. They have participated in the program for more than 50 years. Our family hosted several exchange students over the years – Mariko from Japan, Suzanna from Peru, Patti from Bolivia*, Ariel from the Philippines, and Samantha from Australia.
When I was in high school, the club formed an Interact club. Interact is a Rotary sponsored club for young people who want to make a difference in their community. I joined Interact and served as Secretary for two years, completing service projects along with my father and the other Rotarians. My involvement with Rotary, Interact and the exchange students opened my eyes to the fact there was a great big world out there beyond Bainbridge – and I always knew I wanted to explore it. But it took some encouragement from a special Rotarian to make me pursue exchange for myself.
My parents’ neighbor, Doctor Ken Benson – the local veterinarian everyone called ‘Doc’ – approached me at the start of my eleventh grade year in 1989 to ask me if I had thought about Rotary youth exchange. He was a former District Governor and was a living example of the Rotary motto, “Service Above Self.” I HAD thought about it, but I didn’t know of another student with a disability who had participated in the program. I told Doc I was skeptical of being selected by the District. Doc encouraged me to apply anyway.
Denise – you’ve never let your disability stop you from anything else, so why let it stop you from this?
I still wasn’t sure and talked about it with some friends at school. A classmate heard me and said, “You can’t do that – how could you be an exchange student?” Well, the best way to get me to do anything has always been to tell me I can’t! I decided on the spot – I was going to be an exchange student!
I applied to the Bainbridge club, and was selected to participate in the District interviews. My sponsor District, 7170 , has always had a large exchange program. The year I applied, they sent 74 students outbound to other Districts. There were 140 of us at the District Interviews and we all knew we had a 50/50 chance of being selected.
I was selected by the District but it took some time to find me a host District and a host club. District 7170 leadership wanted to send me to an English speaking country so I would have an easier time making my requests for help. When Doc felt the District was not acting quickly enough to find me a host District, he took matters into his own hands and reached out to the men who had been District Governor with him back in the 1970’s. I’ll write about the Kingston, Tasmania, Rotarians next week.
I became an exchange student because the men and women of Bainbridge Rotary believed in me and my abilities. They didn’t see a wheelchair or a disability when they interviewed me. They saw a teenager with a sense of adventure, a thirst for knowledge and a willingness to immerse herself in another culture for a year. When they selected me, I knew they had confidence in my ability to represent their club and their reputation wherever I might be sent.
I have maintained contact with the Bainbridge club even though I moved away. My father is no longer active with the club, but my parents are good friends with many members. I keep up with the club on social media and often read of their service projects when I visit and read the local paper. When the club celebrated their fiftieth anniversary of being involved in the youth exchange program, I was one of the former exchange students invited to speak at the ceremony.
I suspect my parents or my sister Caroline, who also still lives in Bainbridge, told a Rotarian about my invitation to return to Australia. Somehow, the club found out about it because a week after I began asking for financial assistance I received an envelope from the club treasurer. Enclosed was a generous check of financial support and a kind note encouraging me.
Denise – we are so proud of all you are doing and wish you the best of luck on your return trip. Please come back and share your stories with us when you return!
To all the Bainbridge Rotarians, past and present – thank you so much for all you have done to change my life over the past twenty-six years. It has been an honor to represent you at home and on the other side of the world. I am humbled to know I continue to make you proud. I hope my future actions next year when I am President of my Rotary club will further the legacy you created when you selected me to be your ambassador. I would love to come back for a meeting. I have so much to share!
*Correction: My sister Susan pointed out the exchange student from Bolivia who lived with my family was actually Patti. Christine did stay with us, but as part of a tour. Thank you Susan for reminding me of this!