Almost everybody has heard about a local Rotary Club in their community, but a lot of people still believe Rotary is just a business club — even an old boys’ club — and that couldn’t be further from the truth.
The Rotary Club of Peterborough Kawartha, for example, is a group of around 40 women and men who are passionate about making a lasting difference in the community.
It’s true that Rotary began as a social organization for business professionals. Way back in 1905. Chicago lawyer Paul Harris brought together a small group of businessmen in his nondescript office in the 17-storey Unity Building and they decided to rotate subsequent meetings between each other’s offices, eventually leading to the club being named Rotary. As it happened, membership grew so dramatically that a permanent meeting place was soon sought and acquired. But the name stuck.
In a small office at Stoneguide Realty Limited on Stewart Street in Peterborough — a workspace in many ways not unlike the one which Harris et al gathered all those years ago — Tom Bennett speaks one undeniable truth: “I couldn’t fathom my life without Rotary.”
Bennett, who unabashedly wears his membership in the Rotary Club of Peterborough Kawartha like a revered medal of honour, is not alone.
In all corners of the globe and everywhere in between, 1.2 million men and women come together weekly in 33,000 club settings with the goal of making their communities better places to live for all, while enjoying the fellowship that is an inevitable by-product of their efforts.
Some famous Rotarians include Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Sir Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy, Neil Armstrong, Pope Francis, Prince Charles, Bill Gates, and Angela Merkel.
Since 1922, the formal name of the service organization has been Rotary International but in terms of what Harris envisioned all those years ago, little if anything has changed. That’s perfect in Bennett’s world.
“It was just a couple of days before my 30th birthday when I joined and there were a fair amount of members in their 30s and 40s,” he recalls.
“It was a hands-on, let’s-get-at-it club. Our club was chartered in 1989. In 1995, it was only six years old. We didn’t have the funds in the war chest, so it was more about the service work, rolling up our sleeves and doing projects side by side — a lot of camaraderie, a lot of fellowship, a lot of fun. That’s held on throughout the years.”
The Peterborough area is home to three Rotary clubs. Besides the Rotary Club of Peterborough Kawartha, which meets early each Thursday morning at the Peterborough Golf and Country Club, there’s also the Peterborough Rotary Club, which meets Mondays for lunch at the Holiday Inn, and the Rotary Club of Bridgenorth-Ennismore-Lakefield, which convenes Monday evenings at Chemong Lodge in Bridgenorth.
For Bennett, a realtor and Broker of Record with Stoneguide, the breakfast club “was a better fit” for him based on his work schedule. Now in his 25th year as a Rotarian, he served as club president in 2000/01 and seven years later was district governor, responsible for the governance of 44 Rotary clubs.
Service work on behalf of Rotary has brought him to St. Lucia, Trinidad and Tobago, Honduras, and to every province across Canada.
“What drove my joining Rotary was my grandfather was a Rotarian for close to 50 years … I also had an uncle who was a Rotarian,” says Bennett, a native of Scarborough and a Trent University grad who lived in Kingston for three years prior to returning to Peterborough.
“When I got started in business here in Peterborough, I was looking for some way to get involved. I thought a good place to check out would be Rotary because it was something that was in our family blood.”
What was true then is true now, notes Bennett.
“Rotary is a great place, whether at the club level or at the district level, to learn skills. Business skills, presentation skills … there are a lot training opportunities for those that want to get involved in leadership.
“We have leadership training sessions every April and a big district conference every fall. That training has always been something that has helped me professionally; getting used to speaking in front of people, learning different management skills.”
With a current roster of more than 40 members, the Rotary Club of Peterborough Kawartha has seen membership numbers trend higher and lower over the years.
“There’s always room for more members,” says Bennett, noting Rotary isn’t all just fun and games.
While fellowship is at the centre of all club activities, there remains a grander purpose: the raising of funds to support community initiatives and hands-on projects that see members bring their particular expertise and skills to the mix.
“The neat thing is we’re not a single focus club,” says Bennett.
“We don’t have just one thing that we’re all working on. We’ve got so many different facets,” he explains.
“For people that like doing international work, we have a group of people involved in international projects. If you like community work, there are community projects. If you like working with youth, we have those opportunities too. There are so many different projects on the go all the time. Members choose to be as involved as they want to be.”
The list of projects and causes undertaken by the Rotary Club of Peterborough Kawartha is long and impressive, including:
- A commitment of $100,000 — Kawartha Rotary’s largest donation ever — in support of Hospice Peterborough’s the new palliative care centre.
- The Rotary Splash Pad at Nicholls Oval, for which the club raised funds.
- The outdoor gym in Beavermead Park, which was funded and built in 2017 in partnership with the Peterborough Rotary Club and the City of Peterborough as a sesquicentennial gift to the city.
- The recent funding of the acquisition and subsequent training of Isaac, a police dog who’s now a full-fledged member of the Peterborough Police Service.
- The two buddy benches donated to local elementary schools, designed to reduce loneliness and foster friendships on the playground.
- The 25 Little Free Library stations located throughout Peterborough, where users can leave a book for each one they take. Bennett has a station on his front lawn.
There’s also the Adventures in Understanding program, which Bennett points to as a great example of a member bringing an idea to the club, no matter how ambitious, and being encouraged to pursue it.
First proposed by Rotarian Don Watkins, it sees First Nations youth, together with local high school students and new Canadians, make a multi-day canoe trek from Beavermead Park to Curve Lake, learning about Indigenous culture as well as some pretty important life lessons.
VIDEO: “Adventures In Understanding” – a short film by Rodney Fuentes
“So many of the projects that we have done or things we have accomplished have come down to one person with a passion who got it started and built the support around it … Don did that,” says Bennett, admitting that attracting new members while maintaining the status quo is a challenge in a society where the demands on people’s time are greater than ever before.
“You have to look at ways to stay relevant and be interesting. One of the keys for Rotary is our projects are flexible so anybody can bring forward an idea and, if they build support, we can do it. But not every club member has to be involved in every project. There’s something for everybody … it’s pick and choose.”
Besides those projects that are hands-on for members — Rotarians do a major clean-up of River Road twice a year as well as volunteer with the Warming Room and One Roof — Rotary has raised considerable for funds for a number of Peterborough infrastructure projects.
The Peterborough Regional Health Centre, the Balsillie Family YMCA ,and Hospice Peterborough are but a few of the benefactors of Rotarians’ support and efforts.
Still, for all that activity, Bennett says the Rotary experience comes down to one indisputable fact: “It’s fun … we have a lot of laughs.”
“Some of the closest friends I have are Rotarians, and not just here in Peterborough but throughout the district. You make friendships around the world and the experiences you have are incredible.”
To that point, Bennett points to a trip he took to New Zealand and a Rotary meeting he attended while there.
“The next morning I was shearing sheep because the club president was a sheep farmer. I had made some joking comment about it and the next morning he had us out to do that. You’re always meeting great people and accomplishing things you never thought you would — and making a difference.”
Professing to be “a lifer” in terms of his Rotary commitment, Bennett stresses new members are always welcome, their ability to give time to projects not held up as a measuring stick for which they will be judged.
“You can be involved as little or as much as you want — it’s really up to individual — but you will be welcomed with open arms. It’s always been that way and that will never change. Fellowship is still the focus.”
Those interested in learning more about Rotary are invited and encouraged to come out to the Peterborough Golf and Country Club off Armour Road any Thursday morning. Meetings start at 7:20 a.m. but members start gathering at 7 a.m.
“If you like what you see and hear, you can come back and we’ll get you involved as a member,” Bennett says.
For more information about the Rotary Club of Peterborough Kawartha and current projects its members are involved in, visit portal.clubrunner.ca/220. You can also follow them on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
For membership inquiries, contact Paul Landau at 416-402-2461 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
VIDEO: Top 5 Rotary Membership Myths Exposed