From the very earliest days of Rotary, Rotarians have felt drawn to serve the needs of children and young people. While Rotary was founded in Chicago in 1905 as a business networking and social club, it wasn’t long until members of the new organization began looking beyond their business requirements to the needs of youth. 


In December, 1913, the Rotary Club of Syracuse, New York appointed a committee to facilitate the operation needed by a disabled girl whose parents couldn’t afford corrective surgery. The local newspaper endorsed the club’s efforts, and in just two weeks collected nearly $3,000 ($75,000 in 2020 dollars) from its readers for the child’ family.  


A subsequent survey of the city by the Syracuse Club found an additional 200 similarly needy children.  The knowledge prompted the Club and its many new members to mobilize social workers, medical caregivers and rehabilitation specialists to their cause. Club members provided food baskets to the most needy families, and clothes, toys and books to many others. A year later, the Club added 40 blind children to the program, and every surgeon and hospital donated their services.      


Rotary also focused strongly on what, at the time, was called “Boys Work”. Boys comprised the vast majority of juvenile delinquents, truants and youth prison inmates in the early 1900‘s. Rotarians saw the need for men to serve as mentors who could be positive role models with the resources and motivation to steer boys in the right direction. So many clubs launched Boys Work programs that in 1916, Rotary initiated an international committee to coordinate work programs throughout the Rotary world. It is easy to see why Boys Work appealed to Rotarians. The objectives - “to develop boys into good citizens and honorable businessmen, to afford every boy the opportunity to attain his full potential, (and) to encourage vocational training” - were certainly congruent with their own beliefs. Clubs frequently organized Boys Weeks, during which parades, conferences, and newspaper articles were dedicated to the projects. Many clubs sponsored Boy Scout troops, citizenship training, and vocational training classes, while others volunteered their time in juvenile courts, reform schools and prisons for boys already in trouble. 


When the Great Depression caused rampant unemployment and family despair, Rotarians responded by providing jobs, playgrounds and a sense of hope to children everywhere. 


Now, for decades, Rotary has served both boys and girls in many different ways. There are several different venues used to support Youth Service employed by Rotary. Broadly speaking, these include Interact, Rotaract, Rotary Youth Leadership Awards, and Youth Exchange. Many Clubs provide service and support to youth far beyond these programs as well.    


Rotary’s work with youth cuts across all Avenues of Service. When a club organizes a Scout troop or supports the local teen center,  that is community service. When Rotarians mentor teenagers with job skills or teaches a physically challenged youth how to use hand tools, that is vocational service. When Rotarians in one country provide assistance to children in another or host a Youth Exchange student, that is International Service. 


Interact, a program first began in Florida in 1962, is a service club affiliated with and supported by Rotary, and oriented towards boys and girls ages 12-18.   Interact clubs promote the development of leadership skills while enabling students to discover the power of service above self. Rotarians act as mentors and guides to Interactors. Our Club supports the Chimacum High School Interact Club here on the Olympic Peninsula.  


Rotaract was started in 1968. Originally envisioned as a service club affiliated with and supported by Rotary, Rotaract members are now considered Rotarians. Rotaract clubs bring together people ages 18-30 to exchange ideas with leaders in the community, develop leadership and professional skills, and have fun through service. In communities worldwide, Rotary and Rotaract members work side by side to take action through service. From big cities to rural villages, Rotaract is changing communities for the better. Rotaract members decide how to organize and run their clubs, manage their own funds, and plan and carry out activities and service projects. When sponsored by a Rotary Club, Rotary club sponsors offer guidance and support and work with the Rotaract Club members as partners in service.


Rotary Youth Leadership Awards (RYLA) began in 1959 in Australia, and has since expanded to Rotary districts and clubs around the world. Today, teens all over the world attend RYLA conferences to learn about leadership, decision making, setting goals, good citizenship, resolving conflict and other life skills from accomplished business, community and political leaders.   


Rotary Youth Exchange is one of Rotary’s most successful and popular programs, and is focused on building peace and understanding one student at a time.  Rotary began supporting youth exchanges in 1927, when the Rotary Club of Copenhagen, Denmark arranged to host several American boys. Within a year, the program had grown to 61 exchanges, and today, Rotary regularly places 7,000 students ages 15-19 with Rotarian families in another country for periods ranging from a few weeks to a year. The program has proven itself to be an excellent method to introduce students to cross-cultural sensitivity at an age when they are just becoming truly aware of the world beyond their home communities. 


Other Club-level programs. There are dozens upon dozens of youth-oriented programs supported by Rotary Clubs. Here is a very brief sample. 

  • Our Rotary Club supports Students of the Month, a program designed to honor two senior students each month for their academic and community activities.


  • Many Clubs host literacy programs for children who are having difficulty learning to read. 

  • Our Club is partnered with Chimacum Schools, and like many other clubs, focuses on meeting the needs of academic programs within the school system. This year, for example, our Club led the construction of a pavilion in the school’s garden, designed to support the vocational horticulture program. 


  • In 2019, our Club supported and enhanced the capabilities of the Jefferson Teen Center, an independent program focused on junior high school and high school freshman after-hours support.            

  • Many Rotary Clubs, like ours, offer vocational and college scholarships to graduating high school seniors. And, our Club actively supports the additional Fellowship and Scholarship programs offered by Rotary International.    


It is easy to see why Rotary has and continues to make such a strong commitment to youth for well over the past century. Rotarians recognize that all children are of inestimable value to society and are one of the very best investments of our time and resources. 


(A tip o' the hat to the book by David C. Forward, A Century of Service for much of the historical information in this story.)