The ramblings of a first-time Rotary International Conference goer
G’day from Sydney!
This is my first Rotary International (RI) Conference. The conference is a privilege and requirement for incoming Presidents of the Rotary Club of Kitchener; and certainly something I was looking forward to. I viewed it as a chance to connect with Rotarians across the globe and discover a bit about the southern hemisphere.
But, only one day into the conference, what I have found is so much more.
Since arriving nearly a week ago, David and I found the watermark of Rotary everywhere. Stepping off the plane, we were greeted by two Rotarians from Australia—Past District Governor, Alex McHarg and David Martin—as well as a volunteer friend, Robert Scott. The trio helped us with travel information and offered a friendly face after the fifteen-hour plane ride.
This welcoming atmosphere would be replicated right across the city over the course of the next week. Where ever we went, Sydney welcomed us with specular restaurants, Rotary flags lining the streets, and the incredible Vivid Light Show which included a display of the Rotary wheel.
We quickly discovered that a simple Rotary pin gave us free access to all means of transport; bus, ferry, and their sophisticated network of trains. A gift from our generous host state, New South Wales. A gift we put to great use exploring the city.
Although the trains of Sydney are traditionally quiet (in fact, they have entire cars dedicated for this purpose), the trains to Sydney Olympic Park for the opening ceremonies was anything but! Stuffed with Rotarians from the four corners of the globe, laughter and camaraderie echoed freely throughout the cars of the train. Many people meeting for the first time and filled with excited anticipation of the day ahead.
I rode the train with new friends from Arizona and a community radio host, Peter Saville from Mid North Coast of New South Wales. An outside observer would think we’d known each other for longer than just 30 minutes!
We were greeted on the Olympic Park platform by a jazz band playing despite a soft drizzle. Peter promptly informed us that jazz is very popular on Australia, with its own dedicated station. In the midst of the Park the Olympic Caldron burned brightly. Special authorization was granted to have the caldron lit in recognition of the many Rotarians who hosted Olympic families.
With over 20,000 in attendance, it was no wonder we soon lost each other in the House of Friendship. The building, dubbed The Billabong (the waterhole) by Australia’s indigenous people, was an enormous space. It was fitted with replica outback homesteads and pseudo-habitats—even an enormous replica Harbour Bridge!
To secure a good seat for the opening ceremonies (this year’s conference is so full that they’ve had to arrange two opening ceremonies!), I made my way to the AllPhones Arena. The arena was typically reserved for entertainment industry’s most prestigious and spectacular events. On my way I crossed paths with another President Elect, Karen Morgan. Karen is incoming President of the Rotary Club of Juneau. We shared stories of our clubs and hopes for our upcoming leadership roles. I was intrigued to learn that her club is nearly 50 per cent female and they have found an interesting way to engage young professionals—especially new moms. She was interested in our President’s Advisory Breakfast and our wine quizzes.
We were successful in our efforts, locating two seats on the floor in the second section. We were soon join by the very outgoing, District Governor Elect for 5440, Julie Phares. She danced away with Human Nature and even showed us the tattoo of the Rotary wheel that she had been dared to get when she accepted the DG role. I can’t wait to share this bit of information with our own DG Nominee, Bill Proctor!
The ceremonies launched with a stunning performance by traditional dancers from the NSW Public Schools Traditional Dance Company. The performance was a ‘welcome’ to the Rotarians gathered on aboriginal lands by the aboriginal custodians of the land. It was very powerful. After which, Convention Chair Mark Maloney took to the stage to welcome everyone. He rang the bell like he’d been waiting ten years to do it (and he had!).
The Rotary Parade of Flags were delivered to the stadium by the young men and women of Australia’s Surf Life Saving. The group, known for their selfless acts of bravery, rowed the flags to the stadium starting at Manly Beach. The reading of the 180 countries (including the recent addition of Myanmar!) was provided by RI Director-elect, Julie Phelps.
The Honourable Mike Baird, Premier of New South Wales (only six weeks into his role) told those gathered that he’d seen the great work of Rotary tackling issues such as homelessness and mental health. He went on to say that when emergencies broke out, like bush fires and floods, Rotarians were always prepared to step up; to say, “we are here to help.”
But it was the surprise announcement of Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott—whose father Dick, a 40-year Rotarian, was in attendance—that drew the greatest applause. Abbot stated that his government would commit a whopping $100 million towards fighting polio! He also dubbed everyone in the crowd “honorary Australians.”
Canada’s Monty Audenart introduced RI President Ron Burton. Burton highlighted the innovative work being done on every corner of the globe to change lives, all in the name of Rotary.
When the lights finally came up, the convention hall was electric! Everyone excited for the days ahead and proud to be a part of something bigger than ourselves. I wondered how I would ever be able to bring the essence of the day back to our Club in a meaningful way.
On the way out I ran into our unstoppable District Governor-elect, Patsy Marshall, and rode the train back to my hotel with the Rotarian couple; District Governor Debra Rodenbaugh-Schaub and Past President of Konza Rotary Club, Patrick Schaub. They shared a very touching story about how they met and married because of Rotary. “He came pre-screened,” said Debra, referring to the Rotary four-way test.
Changing for final train, I was stopped by one of the many Rotarians in yellow vests stationed on the platforms.
“You’re from Kitchener,” he said reading my badge. He beamed as he pointed out a small gold pin on his lanyard that read, “Kitchener”. “I met a Rotarian from Kitchener earlier today and he gave me this pin.”
I smiled. “Was his name John Thompson?”
“It was!” he responded.
Today I was reminded how proud I am to be a Rotarian; proud to be a part of an organization that includes so many of the wonderfully warm and friendly people I met today; and those, like John Thompson, that I have known for years.
I wonder what day two will bring…