Posted on Jun 05, 2021
Rotary’s positive influence on the world extends far beyond its members and its clubs. From medical missions to disaster relief to combating climate change, Rotary plays a role in a vast array of initiatives that help humanity. The reach and impact of Rotary’s work are a testament to Rotary members’ leadership, passion, and drive to help others.

Here, we look at some organizations that have grown out of a Rotary project or an individual member’s incredible commitment to a cause. These entities are well known — but their roots in Rotary might not be.


In 1907, a teenager named Homer Allen was critically injured in a streetcar accident in Elyria, Ohio. There was no real hospital in Elyria, and Homer — who was reported to have lost both his legs — died after being unable to get the medical care he needed. “He might have lived if there had been a hospital,” says Mark King, a current member of the Rotary Club of Elyria. The young man’s grief-stricken father, Edgar Allen, sold his business, the Cleveland Cedar Co., and devoted himself to raising the money to build a hospital in his town.

Elyria Memorial Hospital opened in 1908. Through his continued involvement with the hospital, Allen learned that children with disabilities, including polio, often didn’t receive adequate services and were kept hidden away at home. He dedicated the rest of his life to creating community-based services for those children. Allen also raised funds to provide a setting where they could attend school while in treatment. In 1919, he joined the Rotary Club of Elyria, which had been chartered a year earlier, and with the support of his fellow Rotarians, he founded what became known as the International Society for Crippled Children. Rotary founder Paul Harris served as the organization’s first chair, and it received The Rotary Foundation’s first grant.

Today, that organization is called Easterseals, and it helps 1.5 million people each year through its community-based network and its global partners. “Easterseals serves as an indispensable resource for individuals living with disabilities, veterans, seniors, their families, and their communities,” says Angela F. Williams, Easterseals president and CEO. The organization’s services include early intervention, inclusive child care, medical rehabilitation, behavioral health services, workforce development programs, transportation, adult day services, caregiver support, and camping and recreation.

Easterseals led support for the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which became law in 1990, and it continues to advocate for the rights of people with disabilities. Many Rotary members support Easterseals as volunteers, donors, and community partners, and the organization is still driven by the purpose that inspired Edgar Allen: to change the way the world views disability.

  • In 1930, Paul Harris and Edgar Allen drew up “The Crippled Children’s Bill of Rights,” which led to the fi rst federal funding for children’s services in the United States, written into the Social Security Act in 1935.
  • Easter Seals Ontario, which was modeled on Allen’s organization, was also founded by a group of Rotarians, from the Chatham, Hamilton, Kitchener, London, Stratford, Toronto, and Windsor clubs.
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Last year, ShelterBox celebrated its 20th anniversary. What started as a project of the Rotary Club of Helston- Lizard, England, marked this milestone as an internationally recognized disaster relief organization.

“The initial aim was to provide disaster victims with quality equipment to enable them to survive and rebuild their lives,” explains James Kingston, one of the members of the Rotary Club of Helston-Lizard who were active in getting ShelterBox off the ground; he later served as a trustee for the organization. “Some members thought that if we helped eight to 10 families a year, we would be doing well.” ShelterBox has now assisted 1.7 million people worldwide.

The original box contained a 10-person tent, 10 sleeping bags, a folding trenching tool, water purification tablets, cooking utensils, a bucket, rope, and a flashlight. Today, the contents vary depending on needs. “We learned very quickly that each disaster is different,” says Kingston. “It is really important to spend time talking to affected families to provide the right support at the right time.”

Sometimes family-size tents provide a solution until people can start rebuilding their homes. After other disasters, heavy-duty tarpaulins, ropes, and nails are needed to repair damaged buildings. “But it is not just about the physical aid,” says Kingston. “ShelterBox provides the emergency shelter, essential items, and training needed to support families in the long process of rebuilding their lives.”

Since 2012, ShelterBox has been Rotary’s o cial disaster relief partner. The organization’s link to Rotary enhances its ability to provide help in hard-to-reach places — during a crisis, nearby club members often provide local contacts and logistical support. “Rotary is truly in the DNA of everything we do,” says ShelterBox CEO Sanj Srikanthan.

  • ShelterBox’s longest-running response is in Syria, where the organization has been providing aid since 2012.
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Little Free Library

As Todd Bol was doing a renovation project at his home in Wisconsin in 2009, an idea came to him. His late mother, June Bol, had been a schoolteacher who loved to read, so he took some scrap wood and, after a few days of hammering and painting, mounted what resembled a tiny schoolhouse filled with books on a post in his front yard, along with a sign that said “Free books.”

Bol, who joined the Rotary Club of Hudson in 2012, soon started getting requests to build more of his little libraries. When demand outpaced his ability to fill the orders, he hired a carpenter and shared his design online. In 2012, he launched Little Free Library as a nonprofit.

Today, you can find little libraries around the globe. There’s a Little Free Library inside Hampton Roads Regional Jail in Virginia. In the Kyangwali Refugee Settlement in Uganda, a Little Free Library is one of the few sources of books for the people who live there. North of the Arctic Circle in Finland, a Little Free Library boasts books in Finnish, English, and Chinese.

Rotary clubs have embraced the idea because of its focus on literacy — and also because the tiny libraries help bring people together.

“I live on a street out in the country just west of Minneapolis,” says Catherine Smith, a member of the Rotary Club of Cultural Exchange Enthusiasts (D5960). “I’ve loved having the library, as it has helped me continue to get to know my neighbors. During the pandemic, I added jigsaw puzzles for people to exchange.”

Members and clubs alike began building libraries in communities large and small, making Little Free Library a testament to the power of Rotary’s network when armed with a simple, effective idea that’s easy to replicate. “The cost is minimal to get started, the opportunity for branding and having fun decorating is fantastic, and the libraries are an ongoing community project,” says Smith.

Bol died in 2018, but his movement to spread his love of books and of community is still going strong.

  • Studies link exposure to books with better literacy rates, but more than 60 percent of poor children in the United States have no age-appropriate books at home.
  • Through the Impact Library Program, Little Free Library provides free books in communities where books are scarce.
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One day about three decades ago, two members of the Rotary Club of Wirksworth, England, were chatting about their club’s international service work at a backyard get-together. “One said that providing aid like blankets and clothes to disaster areas around the world was great, but it would be really good if our club could supply clean water, because without water, after about a day or two, you’re in quite a bad way,” explains Roger Cassidy, a member of the Wirksworth club. In some cases, more people die in the aftermath of a disaster because of waterborne pathogens than from the disaster itself.

The two men — Peter Hare and Mike Hoole — took the idea to their club in 1991, and the other members embraced it. Soon after, Aquabox was born.

Despite the initial enthusiasm, the club ran into problems right away. The water filter that members had chosen and shipped to disaster zones relied on chlorine tablets to purify the water and left a strong chemical taste. As a result, families often didn’t use the filters, but continued to take their chances drinking water from rivers or other contaminated sources.

Club members turned to John Griffith, a member of the Rotary Club of Cleadon & District. “He’s a brilliant engineer and scientist,” says Cassidy, who is chair of trustees for Aquabox. Griffith developed a filter that relies on pressure and doesn’t need chlorine, but it was quite large. Knowing the filters would need to be shipped to remote areas, the club asked Griffth if he could make it smaller.

Griffith was able to scale down the filter, which relies on a membrane composed of small tubes with microscopic holes. When water flows up the tubes, the holes allow water to pass through but block dirt and pathogens. The filters are operated via a hand pump and don’t require electricity. They last for years, are sustainable, and are an environmentally friendly alternative to shipping bottled water. They are also small enough to fi t inside Aquabox’s emergency aid boxes.

“The advantage of our filter is that it provides instant access to clean water,” says Roz Adamson, a member of the Rotary Club of Bakewell, England, and an Aquabox trustee.

Aquabox has distributed more than 110,000 boxes to date, helping hundreds of thousands of people in more than 50 countries. Griffith also distributes the filter he invented to other aid organizations through his own nonprofit, Grifaid.

  • In 2016, Aquabox received the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service at Buckingham Palace.
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Citizens’ Climate Lobby

In 2006, Marshall Saunders, a longtime member of the Rotary Club of Coronado, California, went to see former U.S. Vice President Al Gore’s fi lm An Inconvenient Truth. A week later, he watched it a second time. Then a third. Saunders, who had been dedicating his time and money to humanitarian e orts, realized that all his work would be for nothing if no one tackled the existential threat of climate change.

Saunders began giving talks on the climate crisis at Rotary clubs, schools, churches, retirement homes — anywhere he could get an invitation. After one presentation, a woman asked him what should be done. He responded: “What’s needed is thousands of ordinary people organized, lobbying their members of Congress with one voice, one message — and lobbying in a relentless, unstoppable, yet friendly and respectful way.” 

“Why don’t you do that?” the woman asked.

Inspired, Saunders started the Citizens’ Climate Lobby. As CCL became more organized, members began lobbying for an idea called “carbon fee and dividend,” which proposes a fee imposed on suppliers that starts at $15 per metric ton of emitted greenhouse gas and increases every year. The collected fees are then paid directly to consumers to o set higher fuel costs. The goal is to encourage the adoption of clean energy technologies through market forces.

Saunders died in late 2019. Earlier that year, in a conversation with this magazine, he said he was optimistic about carbon fee and dividend, calling it “a solution that was a match for the problem.”

The Citizens’ Climate Lobby now has almost 200,000 supporters — including many Rotary members — and their congenial, bipartisan approach consistently wins over lawmakers. John Delaney, a former U.S. representative from Maryland, called the Citizens’ Climate Lobby “the most effective and enjoyable group of people that I’ve ever dealt with since I’ve been on the Hill.” As the new U.S. Congress convened in January, CCL’s executive director, Mark Reynolds, said, “We are looking forward to a quick reintroduction of the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act.”

Scott Leckman is a past governor of District 5420 and a member of The Rotary Foundation Cadre of Technical Advisers, as well as a member of the governing board of Citizens’ Climate Education, CCL’s sister organization. “What I love about Rotarians is that they are willing to tackle the biggest problems facing humankind. Our changing climate is certainly one of them,” he says. “With CCL, they will learn how to advocate for a bipartisan solution for climate change.”

  • The years 2014 to 2020 are the seven warmest on record.

Rotaplast International and Alliance for Smiles

When a child’s palate, lip, or both do not fuse together properly in utero, the resulting condition makes it hard for that child to eat and, later, to speak. While surgery can repair the problem, in developing countries, many children lack access to the medical care needed and face lifelong health problems and ostracism.

In 1992, members of the Rotary Club of San Francisco created a project called Rotaplast to support an annual medical mission to Chile on which volunteer doctors would surgically repair cleft lips and palates. A few years later, they began sending medical personnel to other countries, and Rotaplast International became an independent nonprofit. Rotaplast has conducted 220 missions in 26 countries, carrying out surgery on nearly 21,000 patients and providing dental and orthodontic care and speech therapy. The organization also supports education for medical personnel in host countries and the development of centers to care for patients with cleft lip and palate.

In 2004, six San Francisco club members established a second nonprofit called Alliance for Smiles, which also provides surgery as well as ongoing treatments including dentistry, orthodontia, speech therapy, and sometimes psychological counseling. To do this, Alliance for Smiles trains local health care providers and establishes treatment centers where patients can receive such care.

“Medical missions are really important, but so is education, training, and extended care of cleft lip and palate children,” says Anita Stangl, a member of the Rotary Club of San Francisco, who was the president and CEO of Alliance for Smiles from 2004 to 2016. Since 2004, Alliance for Smiles has treated more than 7,000 children.

The COVID-19 pandemic has put missions on hold. Alliance for Smiles is training medical professionals virtually, and both organizations are using the time to explore new ways to serve. Stangl says that there is a backlog of needed surgeries and that medical missions should resume as soon as travel restrictions are eased.

  • Globally, about one in 700 babies are born with a cleft lip or palate.