There are so many opportunities to change the world, says Ron D. Burton, president elect of Rotary International during an interaction in Chennai

“If I threw a dart on a world map blindfolded, and it fell on a landmass anywhere (except for three countries) I will know somebody there, and they will know me,” says Ron D. Burton, president elect (2013-14), Rotary International. That’s the reach of Rotary, and Rotarians, he says, are united in wanting to make the world a better place. Rotary is not merely about meeting, greeting and eating, avers Ron. “I want Rotarians around the world to get involved in some project, locally or internationally”. And it is because of his long association with Rotary (from 1979), he’s been able to forge partnerships with P.T. Prabhakar (director, Rotary International, 2013-15) and V. Raja Seenivasan (district governor) in Chennai, and impact the projects they’re involved in.

On a recent visit to the city — Chennai being the first Indian city he is visiting as president elect — Ron says there are so many wonderful projects in the country (he’s especially impressed with ‘Happy Villages’), which will do well to be emulated worldwide. He talks about being moved during his visit to the blood bank where he saw Rotaracters donating blood, and in the next room, Thallasemic children receiving a transfusion. “I thought, they could be my children,” he says, moved. “And when I looked into their eyes, it melted my heart.” And it’s this message that’s at the heart of his theme for the year — ‘Engage Rotary, Change Lives’.

While a life in service changes lives, the one it will change the most will be yours, says Ron. He recalls a training programme in New Jersey, when a gentleman walked up to him, with a picture of his three children, all of whom had a congenital kidney disease, necessitating kidney transplants. “The father told me that the oldest child got a kidney from a donor, and the second, received a kidney from a member in his Rotary club,” he said, adding he had many similar stories. “Every second, 1.2 million Rotary members worldwide are changing lives; what can we do if we had 2.4million?” Monetary contribution accounts for 200 to 300 million dollars, annually, but if you put a value on the time that was contributed by members, that number becomes astronomical!

Cheerful and energetic, Ron recalls what initially seemed like a humungous task — raising $ 120 million to eradicate polio back in 1987-88. Only, they managed to raise more than double that, he laughs.

Early successes

But, he acknowledges, there were a lot of early successes; and maybe they lost focus, because, 26 years later, they’re still at it. “However, look at a map with endemic polio countries (marked red) from 87-88 and look at it now; the red has gradually bleached out to white.” The world thought India would never get rid of polio, but Ron says he tips his hat to the government of India and the Rotarians on the field, for their commitment to eradicate the disease. “We’re this close, it’s time to finish it,” he says, adding he will be back in India in January 2014, when WHO is expected to certify India polio-free.

Commenting on the diversity in Rotary, Ron says that every-time he sees his club directory, he’s chuffed to see new members, cutting across age, sex and race. “I see so many opportunities, if they can get out there, they can change the world!” he says. Rotary International may soon see a woman president, says Prabhakar, while Ron adds that the women in the executive committee and Board got there primarily because they’re great Rotarians.

Touching upon the grants India receives from Rotary Foundation, Ron says the country also raises a great deal of money (India is the second largest monetary contributor to Rotary, besides recording the highest growth in terms of membership numbers, add Raja Seenivasan and Prabhakar). Ron talks of instances when people in developed countries do not wish to contribute money, as they think the ‘money goes out there’ (to developing nations). “I tell them ‘take a vacation, go to India ad see what they’re doing with your money’. Rotary is alive and well in India,” says Ron.