Knowing What Matters: Kitchener Rotary’s First Female President

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Rotary Profile – Carol Wiebe

Carol Wiebe is clearly a leader with vision, enthusiasm for Rotary and very few regrets. If she has one regret, it is that her late father-in-law Abe Wiebe who was a very early member of Kitchener Rotary, did not live long enough to see her become president of the same Club. “The opportunity to become President of our Rotary Club was a wonderful moment for me; and to become the first female president was an added bonus. I know that he would have been very proud.”

When Carol joined the club in 1995, she was eager to “meet people in the community who shared similar values”. She found her involvement enabled her to combine her professional skills and to help others.

Although originally from Toronto, her university days at UW and her husband Carson’s family business connections created a sense of belonging in the community. Through her many years as a member and chair, Carol met numerous dedicated people in the local Waterloo Region community and abroad.  This provided a rich base for her presidency in 2000. When Carol first joined she became involved in the club’s major fund raising event the car draw. She was also active on the environment committee and eventually chaired both committees.  Her focus was to increased enjoyment to the Rotarians involved in initiatives.  One aspect of Rotary that Carol specifically enjoyed was the ability to involve her entire family in events.

A particular family involvement for her family was hosting exchange students.   According to Carol, Rotary afforded her family many affirming lessons about “giving back tour community, about making lifelong friends through Rotary, about realizing that people have to help each other and not become too self-absorbed in yours own issues.” Over the years, the Wiebe family hosted many exchange students with whom they continue to stay in touch.

One exchange student left a particularly lasting impression on the Wiebe family. She was being sent home due to infractions with Rotary rules. The young woman acknowledged her mistakes and took ownership of the situation.  During the five days needed to arrange a flight for her return to her home country, Carol and family determined that despite their disappointment with the young woman’s behaviour, they would do everything in their power to make her remaining time in Canada as positive as possible. It was their hope that she would remember Rotary and Canada in a positive light. After her return home, her father sent a heartfelt letter thanking the Wiebe family and expressing the incredible impact their care and attention had on her.  Without dwelling on her mistake, the gesture of kindness made a huge difference. She went on to study hard, become a nurse and maintains contact with the Wiebe family to this day.

While Carol’s current work commitments prevent her day to day involvement in Rotary, she actively supports fundraising events and “would encourage any woman to get involved in Rotary–it is such a diverse and interesting organization and very welcoming”. Carol goes on to state that in her corporate life, when “I meet people through business who are Rotarians, I immediately have a higher opinion of them”.  This speaks to Carol’s ongoing commitment to the ideals of Rotary and her connection with people of like values.

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Rotary and Beyond

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Rotary Profile – Cheryl Ewing

Cheryl Ewing can be described by anyone who knows her as passionate, determined, and dedicated.  And it is these traits that have helped her make a marked impact both locally and internationally!

Though born in Kitchener, Cheryl spent her formative years in the small railroad and mining town of Capreol. She raised a family in Kirkland Lake, but eventually made her way back to Waterloo Region. Working with the Elora Festival, Cheryl was invited by a local graphic designer to a Rotary meeting.  There she met a group of professionals active in their community.  Cheryl was intrigued by the fellowship and the opportunity to network with people outside of the arts. She joined the Rotary Club of Fergus but, when she launched her own business two years later, she transferred to a closer club, the Rotary Club of Kitchener.

And she got involved straight away!

“Rotarian Carol Wiebe told me to get involved in committees and I took it to heart,” said Cheryl, “and I am glad I did. That is where my true friendships came from.”

When, then District Governor Doug Vincent, invited volunteers to join him to see a ‘shoebox project’ taking place in Nogales, Mexico (a joint initiative between Pantano Club in Tucson and the Rotary Club in Nogales), Cheryl jumped at the opportunity. Cheryl had always been interested in learning about people in other parts of the world and felt this trip could help accomplish this. But what she found was way more than she bargained for.

“When I took my first trip to Nogales I finally truly understood the power of Rotary. The willingness of strangers to put us up and help us get to the project—the diversity among us, but at our core, common values— it was overwhelming.”

The project, now entitled “Shoebox & Beyond”, brings much-needed aid to two impoverished Mexican communities – Nogales and Aqua Prieta.  The program provides shoeboxes filled with necessities such as groceries, blankets, warm clothes, backpacks, hygiene supplies, and textbooks. Through the project they have also been able to provide the community medical supplies, firefighting equipment, educational fire safety colouring books, and one year, even an ambulance!

After four years with the project, one of the Nogales Rotarians said, “Cheryl, you keep coming back and we trust you because you do so.” Cheryl realized that her real success had been about building relationships with the Rotarians of Nogales; getting to know the people her work was helping on a deeper, richer level. Today she says the project is as much about going to visit friends as it is about doing the work of Rotary.

“It’s about sustainability; not necessarily in providing things, but in building sustainable relationships. By building these relationships, you truly know the people you are working with and helping, and they feel they can be honest with you about the needs of their community. Even better, understanding how much alike we are in our hearts, that this is where change takes place. That is the power of Rotary.”

Today Cheryl leads a District/US team of over a dozen volunteers to make the annual trip to Mexico. “Seeing the changes in the community as a result of our work, and being a major part of that, is something I am deeply proud of.”

In January of 2013 the Shoebox & Beyond project celebrated its 15th anniversary. And it shows no sign of stopping!

But Nogales isn’t Cheryl’s only Rotary accomplishment.  She has spent time with the Rotary Youth Exchange programme and even hosted an exchange student; she worked successfully with fellow Rotarian, Barry McLeod, to secure an Ontario Trillium Foundation grant proposal for the Peace Park at Waterloo RIM Park; and was Club President in the year that the club launched its inaugural strategic planning process. “I learned a lot about our club and our membership that year,” said Cheryl. “I was proud to be able to prepare the foundation for our first strategic plan.”

In 2012 Cheryl worked with the City of Kitchener staff to assemble a small fundraiser as part of the City’s elaborate New Year’s Eve celebrations. She worked quickly to assemble a team of volunteers, and as with most of Cheryl’s projects, it was a success. At the end of the evening, the City invited Cheryl and her team back for future years.

Beyond the modest dollars it raised, the event gave Rotary a very visible presence in the community. “It’s great when people see our Rotary signage and come up to thank us for what we do in the community,” said Cheryl.

This past year some of that gratitude spilled over onto social media. “It was nice to have the local politicians and City recognise us online; but when we started getting tweets and Facebook posts from the public…well, that was very cool.”

Today Cheryl provides that same sage advice she received to new Rotarians: get involved.  “You have to be open and willing and put yourself forward. Find what makes you passionate and know that you will have a group of committed people helping you”.

In addition to her busy arts consultancy, a full and rewarding Rotary life, and family, Cheryl always finds time for her other passion—dance.  “My love of dance has bridged the lack of a common language in my Rotary trips. In Brazil it led to a wonderful morning of dance with breast cancer survivors. A shared experience that words cannot transcend.”

And, as much as Cheryl has given to Rotary, she feels that she has been a recipient of its generosity as well. “The end of my year as Rotary President a member of my family was severely injured. I was stretched incredibly thin. But members visited him, asked about him, and offered their support to me. I was incredibly grateful for my Rotary family and humbled by their thoughtfulness.”

Shoebox & Beyond project, check out their Facebook page. To find out more about Rotary and how you can have an impact locally or globally, contact us by email at RotaryKitchener@gmail.com or visit our website, our Facebook page, or follow us on Twitter.

Day #3 Update from Agua Prieta

The school we visited yesterday, “Benito Juarez”, had a great deal of need for repairs and equipment just to ensure that the school children have the basics of clean water, etc. We distributed nearly 90 backpacks filled with useful school supplies and warm clothing.

Before we could do the grown-up Rotary stuff, the kids put on a performance for us. Under the beautiful Mexican sunshine, we enjoyed traditional songs and dances by kids from 3 1/2 years to 6 years old. It was entertaining and very well done. Their costumes were creative and the kids loved putting on the show. They had even learned to say ‘thank you” in English.

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The principle showed us the needs on the property; the classrooms that don’t function well, the merger resources, and an unsanitary water supply. The teachers are dedicated and professional, but have so little to work with. It is a sharp contrast to the wealth of materials we enjoy in our schools in Ontario. We see evidence of this harsh environment in every moment throughout our day. This school is just one of many that are crying out for help in educating their children towards a better life.

This morning, Thursday, we went to visit a centre that addresses the needs of children with multiple challenges; immobility for a variety of reasons, deafness, blindness, autism, and many other disorders. The centre has three teachers who work in such primitive conditions it is heartbreaking. They use hands-on therapy like massage in the case of children who cannot see or hear, and other methods to the extent of the facilities or equipment that is available. I cannot emphasise enough how little they have to work with, and we fought back tears as we saw and heard about their dedication and caring under such great difficulty.

Our next stop was a similar centre but for older children. Here the teens learn some basic skills in carpentry, iron work, sewing and cooking. They were well supervised and cared for, and we left some backpacks for them also. They lack transportation to move the students around, and because none of them can move around the community independently, the transportation is an issue.

There are so many encounters with these gracious people, as we stop and observe their needs and use the gifts of knapsacks as an opportunity to find out how to help in a longer-term way. Our trip is drawing to a close and it is important to do our information gathering and make decisions about what the team can or cannot do this time around. There is always tomorrow, and next year, and there will always be many needs with which Rotary can help.

Day #4 Update from Nogales

It’s the day we’ve been waiting for. We wake early: breakfast, check out of our hotel, and store our luggage. No one can think of anything but the task ahead.

The American team has already left Tucson. They cross the border by foot and join us on the bus bound for the Nogales Rotary Club House. The lines were deep by the time we arrive. Recipients have been lining up since 3 a.m. The line goes down the street, winds around an empty piece of land next to the club, and further down the block. An endless sea of need, punctuated with bursts of music, dancing, and the occasional announcement.

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Now in its 16th year, we have learned a lot about the best way to
manage the 3,000 or more people who will come through. The Bomberos have helped in various capacities in the past, but are especially welcome this year. Generally the Rotaracts manage the crowds but they are away running their own project this year. One of many spinoffs that have come about because of the simple idea of giving gifts to children. Care is taken to alleviate the wait for those with mobility issues and the elderly. They separate those without tickets quickly but still these people wait patiently hoping that there will be something left.

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Tables are set up outside of the clubhouse to hold groceries and blankets for those unable to negotiate the deep stairs into the clubhouse. They also hold extra blankets for those who have come simply seeking a blanket. The blankets have been donated by the State of Soriana, supplemented by Tucson and Canadian Rotarians.

A limited number of people can enter the club compound at a time. Here is where the children will come for a small gift or a coat. Many can barely contain themselves long enough to get out of the clubhouse; arms are flung into coat sleeves, gifts are hastily unwrapped.

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Those with grocery tickets are directed to the truck park alongside the club house. The truck has been provided by La Tienda Soriana and holds all the groceries we will distribute today. Each eligible recipient will receive two weeks’ worth of staples; beans, rice, oatmeal, milk, cookies, pasta, cornmeal, flour, tuna, tomato paste, lard, and soup base. Tickets are collected at each stage of the process.

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Over the course of the day, 851 bags of groceries, 1,108 blankets, 302 coats, 796 gift packages, 150 balls, and 102 matchbox toys are given out. Assorted mitts, hats, toothbrushes, and toothpaste are available to the families as well.

Though people are incredibly happy and grateful, there are difficult moments too.

My Spanish is not great, but even I can understand the heartbreak of a mother with only a grocery ticket, begging for a toy for her child, and us having none to give. We monitor our inventory right down to the last blanket to ensure we are not promising anything to people that we cannot deliver (our only flexibility is toys so that we can ensure the item is age and gender appropriate). We know that when we no longer have tickets, it means that all the items have been promised to someone.

In the days leading up to today, I have nightmares about accidentally giving out more tickets than we have items. It’s a system, and any system has its shortcomings. We try to keep accurate records of the previous year as a guide, but it doesn’t always work. Nogales is a community of people who change over time. Some years we will see a surge of infants, other years hardly any. It is difficult to truly prepare for this.

As the day winds down, and the stacked supply tables slowly recede, I see the proud faces of the 7 and 10 year old daughters of the Nogales Club President. They often help us prepare. This year they brought their own toys to give to the children in line. The girls realize the importance of helping others in their community. The importance of ‘service above self”.

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In three hours over 3000 people have been through the lines. A few bags of groceries, some blankets, and coats are all that remain at the end of the day. The Bomberos pack them up and take them to the families who live along the dump.

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My Rotary colleagues and I are all exhausted but happy. We go through ceremonies to thank all those organizations who contributed, to receive official greetings, and then to share food. Very quickly the day ends, we disperse to return to own countries, our ‘normal’ lives.

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For me, I will take a day to reflect; on the day, the experience, the people of Nogales. I will turn it over in my mind. What can be done differently? What can be done better? What should we stop doing to focus on other things? More importantly, how can we raise more in the coming year to help even more people?

But those are questions for tomorrow. Tonight I will sit down with my American friends and enjoy the feeling of knowing that 3000 families will go to bed tonight with a full stomach, and a warm blanket. We are committed to continue to return to address the needs of the family and those Bomberos working so hard to keep them safe.

Cheryl Ewing
Kitchener, Ontario
District 7080 ‘Shoebox’ Team Leader, Nogales Mexico
Rotary Club of Kitchener

Day #2 Update from Agua Prieta

I am writing at the end of a wonderful and productive day in Agua Prieta. We just returned from a visit to an after school program called ‘Sembradores de Esperanza’ which translates as “sowing seeds of hope’ or “sowers of hope”. I discovered the program two trips ago (as time is measured in Mexico trips), when we had planned to visit orphanages where other wealthy donors had already been and given plenty of gifts. I did not want to go where there was plenty, but rather where there was greater need. I asked the President of the Rotary Club to take me where nobody else was going, where nobody else had helped. I didn’t want to waste a penny of the funds entrusted to my care, determined to make a difference with every dollar and every visit. He took me to Sembradores de Esperanza and thus the new aspect of this project began.

The Agua Prieta portion of the “Shoebox & Beyond” project uses backpacks (‘muchillos’ in Spanish) in lieu of shoeboxes, thus the children are able to make use of the bags every day. We include school supplies in the backpacks along with some warm clothing and simple toiletries. I budget a very limited amount to buying backpacks and contents because I believe that the muchillos are simply the key to the door of the community.

We travel throughout the community, giving the backpacks to children in desperate need, using this key to the door as we prearrange visits to schools and orphanages. In this way we are granted a very private peek into how things are run and where the greatest needs are. As a result of this insider view, we can assess where we will spend the bulk of our funds; focusing our investment on sustainable, long-term projects.

In my travels I meet with teachers, mentors, principles, parents, press, and more to gain a fuller understanding of the inner-workings of the community. The Rotary Club here supports and encourages that we do that. They are proud and very involved. It is truly an honour to travel through the city with them as they have a powerful network of business associates and friends who are all just like family members. They epitomise all that is good about Rotary in the bonds they have created throughout Agua Prieta.

This morning I was at a school called La Paloma that the government built near the Colonias (the slum areas to put it bluntly). It had no electricity; hence no light, no heat, nor computers. In addition to the backpacks, we take school supplies to the teachers there to try to support their work in this tough environment. The supplies are simple; things that we Canadians take for granted: sticky notes, markers, construction paper, and more. The children sit in freezing cold classrooms with their coats on. I don’t know how they can learn in the bitter cold.

We gave almost 100 backpacks to the gracious and happy students. After, we meet with the principal and teachers and wander through the cold school building. The teachers assure us that our modest investments are stretched as far as possible, and that the education these children are receiving is making a difference. For them. For their families. For their futures.

Rotary donations have supported a few projects at this school, and today I see another one taking shape.

At La Paloma, the teachers have started a reading club. Their efforts are greatly hampered by the fact that they have no library. They dream of a small library; a few shelves in a small room is all they hope for. With books and some simple carpentry, the whole project would cost no more than $1000. Not at all like a library that our Canadian children enjoy. Far simpler but unreachable in this environment. I record the details and hope that we can make another dream come true here, especially when literacy is at the heart of this dream.

We travel in the late afternoon to Sembradores de Esperanza for a much anticipated visit.  This part of the Colonias is the most poor and the most heartbreaking area I have ever seen. We are deep into the poverty-ridden Colonias. It is all I can do to keep from weeping. I remind myself that we are here to bring help and not tears.

I take pictures and make notes. These I will take back to project donors  to show them where their dollars can have the most impact, providing opportunities to change the direction of young peoples’ lives.

The children who are able to attend this after-school program at Sembradores de Esperanza have to be collaborative and show a strong desire to get through school. They come from homes fragmented with drug abuse, alcoholism, prostitution, abandonment, neglect and more. Although they are elementary school age (6 -12yrs) they have seen the worst of the worst in life. For the program, there is a waiting list. Only 45 kids get to attend Sembradores de Esperanza under the careful care of Angelica the tiny teacher whom all the kids unequivocally respect.

The students go to school all day and then afterwards they come to Sembradores de Esperanza for mentoring and other help. The objective is to remove them from the negative influences that await them at home for as large a part of their day as possible. The kids go from being dropouts to A and B students. To remain in the program for the designated two or three years, they have to be respectful and work hard. I see the evidence of that clearly in the reports from Angelica and from the director. Most importantly I see it in the faces of the children who look at the visiting Rotarians as heroes.

Last year we provided two computers and a printer. We had no idea at that time the seed that we ourselves would sow with that gift. But, after we bought the computers, other sponsors heard of Rotary’s contribution, and collectively bought ten more. WOW! Sowing seeds of hope indeed.

The first time I went to Sembradores I saw that the only water available to the children was from a dirty hose on the ground and I was outraged that it was all they had. Now, thanks to D7080 they have a water tank of their own, filled with clean water and attached to a beautiful  water fountain. They have sports equipment and computers thanks to Rotary, and most importantly they have encouragement as they see that some people who don’t even know them care about their future.

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The statistics and reports from the director bear out the results that we have brought to this little program. But there is so much more that we can do for these kids to make sure the service remains and meets their needs.

This year I am delighted to be accompanied by Janet Lucas from the Rotary Club of Burlington Lakeshore and her husband John, who are firsthand witnesses to the magic happening because of our Rotary relationship and involvement in this community.  They  have been infected with the desire to do more and even bigger things thanks to D7080 and the Rotary Club of Agua Prieta.

Patricia Dimeck
Waterloo, Ontario
District 7080 ‘Shoebox’ Team Leader, Agua Prieta Mexico
Rotary Club of Kitchener

Day #3 Update from Nogales

Today was the day we had set aside for distributing tickets redeemable for blankets, gifts or food. Working closely with the Bomberos (Firefighters) and members of the Monster Team Nogales (“guys with jeeps”), teams of three (Canadians and Americans) travelled to various areas of the city determined to be in need. We ensured that at least one member of each team could speak both Spanish and English.

Word spread quickly as each team arrived in the various neighbourhoods. People lined up in the hope of securing the tickets needed to receive the much-needed items. Volunteers issued various tickets, depending on the type of items the families are most in need of. The tickets would be redeemable the following day during the highly-coordinated distribution from 9 am until noon.
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Almost 3000 tickets are distributed in a single day; redeemable for everything from food to gifts, coats to blankets. As with Christmas gift programs in Canada, teens typically are the ones with the fewest age appropriate gifts, so the volunteers supplement by giving them blankets. The youth here don’t seem to mind or feel slighted, they are happy to have been thought of at all.

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It is heartening to hear the people respond to our question “how many niños” with a proud honesty despite their poverty. They reply “six” and the next would tell us that they have none. They are unbelievably patient and grateful.

As we distribute the tickets we are forced to make hard decisions. I hate this part of the project. It is so difficult to try to measure poverty. How do you tell someone barely keeping their head above water that they are not “poor enough” to receive a ticket? These decisions are painful. Soul crushing. You have be strong enough to say “no”, when everything in you is screaming “please take two”. But you must to ensure there is enough for the families and children in the next colonia (neighbourhood). And the colonia after that. And after that.

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My team was dispatched to the dump. I was there last year and was appalled to see that the number of ‘homes’ in this area has doubled. It is heartbreaking. My job this time was to take photos, which allows me to distance myself to some extent. For this I am grateful. Witnessing the conditions they must live in—must raise their children in—is incredibly difficult for all of us. Even the Bomberos. They have no electricity and any clean water must be bought with the meager amount they earn scavenging through the dumpsite for anything that can be sold. It is a living; though barely.

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It takes us only three hours to complete our mission and return to the club. On the way, we stop so the Bomberos can push a stalled vehicle to a downgrade where they can try to restart their engine. All of the Bomberos vehicles are equipped for such ‘emergencies’.

After lunch, most of the team returns to the hotel for some down time. A few of us go on to see the Number One Fire House. It’s the oldest fire house in Nogales. I visited the House my first trip to Nogales. I was even given the privilege of sliding down the pole!

The Bomberos are very proud of the work they are doing and they should be. Last summer they offered a summer camp program, and 400 children got to go to camp! Many for the first time ever. There is no cost to participate (the families couldn’t have spared the money if they did) and if the photos they showed me were any indication, the kids had a fabulous time!

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The Bomberos showed me the compressor equipment that had been donated to them. The compressor allows them to refill their air tanks more quickly and efficiently than in the past. This is important with a community with an official population of 250,000 people to protect. The Fire House has only 30 professional firefighters and another 115 volunteers. They receive their training in Arizona, then return to their country to train other firefighters, firefighting teams, and volunteers. They are proud to be known as the best firefighting team in their State. They continue to perfect their skills, and hope one day to be the best in in the country.

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I am proud of my own club’s efforts to help this team where we can, so they can meet this goal. Jim Aslin of the Rincon Club in Tucson has also taken on the Bomberos as a project helping to equip an ambulance that our club sent down last year. This year we were able to present three jackets from the Waterloo Fire Department. As always, they are grateful. Every little bit helps, they say.

By eight we have returned to the clubhouse to finish the few final preparations, share some food and laughter with friends old and new, and prepare ourselves before the final day. Some of us stayed for hours afterwards, having fun. Wonderful to see both kids and adults line dancing or performing to Michael Jackson’s Thriller.  The youngest son of Past President Apolitico could make a living with his screams!

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Later, President Fito and I talk about the challenges his club faces. He tells me that all Mexican border towns and cities struggle with the same problem. People from southern Mexico and South America flocking to the border expecting to find the “American Dream”.

They dream of getting across the border—no matter the reality. Because they have no plans to stay in Mexico, they don’t set down roots. They do what they can to survive until the day they can begin their dream. But their dream is impossible.

What this will do to generations is frightening to me. The Mexico that I know well is not the beautiful tourist cities with their warm beaches and abundance of food and drink. It is the reality of a northern border cities, which can be harsh, cold, and unforgiving. My friends here are sad that this is the Mexico I know.

Yet, even in their adversity, there is an incredible beauty in the people of Nogales. Their culture, their faith, and their incredible gratefulness. It’s what keeps drawing me back.

Cheryl Ewing
Kitchener, Ontario
District 7080 ‘Shoebox’ Team Leader, Nogales Mexico
Rotary Club of Kitchener