Letter: From challenge to opportunity — silver linings in the pandemic

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A little over a year ago, my club could not have foreseen that we would add 18 new members during 2020 and do so in the midst of a global pandemic. There are silver linings in just about everything.

At the beginning of that year, we were planning to celebrate a century of Rotary in Kingston with other Rotary clubs in the city when COVID-19 struck in March. We watched as service organizations and agencies began to shut down or go into emergency mode and knew a celebration was out of the question. But it also became clear there was a huge service gap and Kingston was in great need.

If ever there was a time for Rotary to step up and take on initiatives for the community, this was it. We had folks ready to do something, but the question became what.

I run a local chapter of a non-profit, Isthmus, which provides support to food-insecure children on weekends. The kids receive food at school during the week. But when the schools closed, these children were immediately at risk and we had to come up with a new model. We partnered with the Food Sharing Project, an important organization that runs the in-school meal program, to use its warehouse and deliver large boxes of nutritious food directly to family homes. We also had to reach out to the local school boards to get contact information for the families. This plan would require a small army of volunteers — calling families, packing the food boxes, delivering boxes to homes and managing logistics. Not surprisingly, Rotarians quickly filled those roles.

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When the school year ended, the families were still in need. The summer was beyond the mission of our partners, but we raised over $100,000, with the generous support of Rotarians, organizations like the United Way, the local community foundation and members of the community. At its peak, we were feeding 550 families and have been at it for over a year.

Not long after the start of our food program, we began making Rotary masks for the same families who lacked the disposable income to purchase multiple masks for their children. Rotarians purchased and donated the material, a group of local seamstresses volunteered to make the masks, and donations flowed in from members and Rotary clubs far and wide. We not only helped families but unexpectedly raised significant funds for our efforts.

The third thing we did was reach out to isolated senior residents, calling them on the phone, delivering groceries and occasionally taking them to appointments. These activities raised awareness of Rotary in our community and we received significant attention from local media. The government and health authorities asked Rotarians to participate in the Mayor’s Task Force and Vulnerable Sector Committee. Donations flowed in from individuals and corporations to help fund our projects and pandemic efforts. And we received lots of praise through social media channels.

When a mass vaccination centre began inoculating people against the virus in March 2021, a member of the Kingston-Frontenac club, Mike Moore, reached out to public health officials and told them that Rotarians were eager to help. Officials accepted our offer and we soon had a group of more than 50 Rotarians and friends to act as greeters and ushers. Most recently, we were asked by the chamber of commerce if we could assist with the distribution of rapid testing kits to local businesses. Another 24 Rotarians were quick to volunteer, filling all of the needed spots.

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Another silver lining has been the extent to which Rotarians and our partners have collaborated on these projects. It is fair to say that the four Rotary clubs in Kingston operated independently prior to the pandemic. We now work closely together with the creation of a President’s Council and joint committees for communication, membership and international projects. This shared vision has been a bonus and we will no doubt continue our collaborative efforts post-pandemic.

Through all of this, the strangest thing began to happen. Like other clubs in North America, we had been experiencing a decline in membership. We had managed to stabilize this trend over the past couple of years. But now we began seeing a resurgence of interest in Rotary. And other Rotary clubs in our area are seeing it, too. In October, we chartered a new community-based Rotaract club for young professionals and grad students, and it quickly had 10 members. In total, over 40 enthusiastic members have joined the Kingston Rotary family over the past nine months.

There is no doubt the pandemic has had its challenges. But our desire to serve our community and meet those challenges head-on has led to a many silver linings.

Paul Elsley

President, Rotary Club of Kingston

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