Connections Lead to International Exchanges

Make new friends, but keep the old, one is silver and the other gold

Rotary International Assembly gathers more representatives than the United Nations.  Rotary’s 540 District Governors connected with each other and International Leadership in San Diego last week.  The focus was service, the theme “Rotary: Making A Difference”, and the tone was certainly…International.  Those thinking that Rotary is predominately an American Organization should know – 71% of Rotarians are not American, thus Rotary International.

While absorbing world-class presentations, goals and programs at the 2017 International Assembly, I was drawn to the blend of Asian, Indian, European, African and American cultures and participants.  As the week progressed, District Governors-Elect connected and shared the inevitable: “What’s Next?”.  Connections easily developed into exchange plans towards potential global projects based on shared causes.  Opportunities abound for health, literacy, community development, water and sanitation service projects within the overarching goal of global peace and cultural understanding.

Golden Re-Connections
While enjoying new acquaintances, we were warmed by renewed service based friendships.  In San Diego I reconnected with Kenya Past District Governor Geeta Manek from Nairobi, Kenya.

In 2012 Geeta, as Nairobi Kenya’s District 9200 Governor, facilitated our joint project to provide $500,000 of medical equipment to Kapsowar Mission Hospital.  Our 2012 Kapsowar project was a model of sustainability, validated by follow-on projects.  Geeta’s 2017 role was International Assembly Training Leader – her service passion continues.

Ginger & I were thrilled to reconnect with Matti and Virpi Honkala from Finland, also International Training Leaders.


We first met Matti in 2004 when he led a Group Study Exchange Team from Finland to Tennessee and Virginia.  Matti was our house guest and we greatly enjoyed his company.  Re-connections are truly golden.

New Connections
During International Assembly, Past RI President Carl Wilhem-Stenhammar, Sweden, stated: “If every Young Adult exchanged into another country, we would have world peace”.  Exchanges extend connections, change lives of participants and Make a Difference in the World.  Rotary District 2240 in the Czech Republic & Slovakia facilitates over 1,000 Youth Exchanges every year.  What a standard! Do you desire world peace? Then promote and sponsor Youth Exchange!

Group Study/Cultural Exchanges are renewing – “back by popular demand”. Teams of four young professionals or Rotaractors are led by a Rotarian, both outbound and inbound, for four week visits. We expect team members to return with reports of life changing leadership, cultural and vocational experiences and suggested future global service projects. Our District 7570 plans to exchange with Mumbai India (Winter 2017). We met District 3060 Governor Classmate Ruchir and Sohangi Johni, District 3060, Gujarat, India at International Assembly and “hit it off” during a breakout class.  Ruchir previously served as a Group Study Exchange Leader into France.  Our District previously exchanged with the Punjab District of Northwestern India.

We are exploring an exchange with Suriname/Guyana/Trinidad (Spring 2018).  This expands a close relationship from a wheelchair distribution project in 2014 in Trinidad.  District 7030 Governor  Classmate Waddy and Shirley Sowma from Paramaribo, Suriname are close friends, having met at earlier zone training events.

Rotarians have opportunities to participate in Friendship Exchanges as short term home to home immersions for fun and understanding.  We are exploring Friendship Exchanges in:

  • Queensland, Australia
  • Veracruz and Quintana-Roo, Mexico
  • Santiago, Chile
  • Ontario, Canada
  • North Rhine-Westphalia State of Germany, and
  • Limassol, Cyprus

These global connections will generate friendships and Make a Difference as lasting steps towards Global Understanding.

Rotary’s International Assembly is the District Governor-Elect’s jumping off point for Services Stories – opportunities ahead!

It Starts with Friendship

Together, friends change lives in Bogota

Service project trips are powerful.  Journeys become adventures.  Acquaintances become friends.  Friends share passion for service and missions develop.  Lives change.  That’s what we do in Rotary – change lives, but not without friends.

Bogota was not on my “bucket list”.   But when 2013-14 Rotary District 7570 Governor Woody Sadler invited me to join in a wheelchair distribution trip to Bogota, I felt an urge to go: partly for service, partly trusting Woody, partly as a travel daredevil.  Family calendars clicked and soon my wife Ginger and two of our adult children Warren and Mary Ables joined a dozen Rotarians and me for a week in Bogota.

What happened next was magic.  Our host Rotarians warmly received us at El Dorado Airport and delivered us to our lodging across town (town being an understatement, Bogota is a city of eight million).  “Host Rotarians”  quickly became Udo, Leonor, Bernardo, Alejandro, Jose, and many more.  Friendships surged while delivering wheelchairs to victims of crude land mines from the civil war in the countryside.  To share the emotion of real humanitarian service is to share one’s soul.  Job well done!


Afterwards, while touring deep in a Colombian Salt Mine Cathedral, the inevitable Rotary Moment happened.  Deep in the Zipaquira Cathedral, Udo Rungeler and I agreed to “do a bigger project together”.    Rotary’s founding fathers had it right:  acquaintance is the opportunity for service.   More so, service is the start of enduring friendship.

Together we decided that our focus should be on Community Peace in at-risk areas of Bogota.  We identified the Sisters of the Catholic Church in USME as a service partner, and developed a small unoccupied building adjacent to the church as a Peace and Basic Education Center.  We sponsored a Community Peace Program nurturing Community Leaders – a role much needed in transient neighborhoods.


During the grand opening followup trip our Rotarian relationships deepened.


Lives changed…




Job well done!  Afterwards, over bowls of ajiaco soup, another Rotary Moment – “what’s next”?  Agreeing that Community Peace is the centerpiece of Rotary’s Six Areas of Focus, we decided to take our Community Center model to a more desperate part of town – Soacha!

Soacha is on the southwestern edge of Bogota, having 500,000 residents mostly fled from dangerous rural Colombia. The flight from rural conflict to this “shantytown” leaves 100,000 children victims of malnutrition, violence, drugs and illiteracy.  Soacha children are exposed to urban dangers in the “classroom streets” at a young age.  Many children live in single-parent households relocated from rural areas to shanty construction and little if any household wages.   During our initial trip into Soacha, we knew this project would be “something completely different”.  No tour bus here, four wheel drive!


We met with two Sisters of the Compania Santa Theresa de Jesus Church, who serve 100 children ages 3 to 12 in rented, cramped space.  The children receive a soya meal and books to read in class.


Public Schools are overcrowded, some of these children are lucky enough for one half day school.


For the younger ones, this is safety from the streets.  These are the lucky ones…


So many more to help…


Soacha children deserve a meal, a book, and a reason to dance like those in USME…


We agreed to build Soacha Community Center, and much like USME, provide Peace, Basic Education and Nutrition Programs.   We will help 500 in the Peace Program and 250 at a time in the Basic Education Program.  Thousands will benefit over the project life.  Rotarians from Bogota will construct the 4,500 square foot building shell financed from Club Funds, separate from the Rotary Grant.  Together this is a $250,000 project – equipping a Community Center from a vacant lot!


The unique style, designed by Nestor Medina Architects, captures natural sunlight on each floor in a secure setting.    The first floor will include kitchen and cafeteria areas doubling for community center meetings.   The second floor will hold classrooms, computer center, and library, while the top floor will be partially covered for physical activity and performances.


Our Timeline:  Our Global Grant was approved November 30.  We are collecting funds to complete the financing – and need $18,000 to complete the financing.  Building has begun, and the kids are excited!  This young fellow insisted on helping  his mom unload bricks destined for the center!


We will return to Bogota in May 2017 to inspect the completed shell building and agree on final build-out specifications, and visit with the children who will directly benefit from Rotarian friendship!


Next Steps

Join us!  Please contact me if you wish to travel with us to Colombia in May 2017!

For Rotarians who wish to help fund our project:   Go to your My Rotary Account.  Click “Take Action”, then “Give Now”, then scroll to bottom of page under “Give to a Foundation Approved Project” Click “Give Now”  Our seven digit Grant Number is 1642035.  As of December 25 we need $18,000 to complete the project!  Thank you for your interest and support!

For those not in Rotary, we have a Go Fund Me Account

Photo Credit:  All photos were shot on site during our visits to Bogota – mostly by Rotarian Xiao-yin Byrom, Manassas VA Club – Thank You!