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.

Below, we look at three 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.

Easterseals

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.

DID YOU KNOW?

• In 1930, Paul Harris and Edgar Allen drew up "The Crippled Children’s Bill of Rights," which led to the first 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.

Learn more at easterseals.com.

ShelterBox

 

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 o 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."

shelterbox

 

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 official 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.

DID YOU KNOW?

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

Learn more at shelterbox.org.

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.

little free library

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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.

DID YOU KNOW?

• 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.

Learn more at littlefreelibrary.org.