President-elect’s Address to the RI Convention
Dong Kurn Lee, 2008-09 RI President
18 June 2008
There are certain moments in our lives that are filled with such joy that we wish we could hold on to them forever. Standing here, at this Rotary convention, speaking to all of you, is one of those moments.
In my many years as a Rotarian, I have seen how Rotary changes lives. All over the world, Rotary means hope. It means health and literacy. It means honesty and fellowship. It means the courage to make things better. All over the world, there are people whose lives are different, whose lives have been touched, and transformed, because of Rotary. But as much as Rotary
service changes the lives of others, it changes our own lives more.
Rotary changes who we are because it changes how we see ourselves and the world. We do not only see how things are now, but how they might be. We see potential, and we see possibility. Together, our abilities are stronger. Together, we really can make a lasting difference on a global scale. Together, there is no limit to what we can accomplish.
But when we truly understand the power that we have through Rotary, we must also understand that this kind of potential brings a responsibility: the responsibility to do the most good we can and to inspire other Rotarians to do the same.
How can we do the most good that we can? We do it by keeping our clubs strong, by bringing in new members and making sure that all of our members are serving well. We do it by giving to our Foundation, so that we have the resources to support projects around the world. And in the coming Rotary year, we will do it by coming together to succeed in our $100 million challenge. This challenge is a promise we have made, as part of our promise to eradicate polio. And I will quote President Wilf when I say, “We Rotarians keep our promises.”
Every project we take on in Rotary is a promise we must keep, which is why it is so important to choose our projects carefully. Our choices are not always easy or obvious. They are not simple questions of right or wrong. They are complicated questions of who needs our help the most and whom we can help the best. This is why, every year, it is the job of a Rotary president to choose his emphases, to help guide the service of Rotarians in the coming Rotary year. It is one of the biggest decisions a Rotary president makes. And it was one that I spent many months considering.
I thought carefully about the emphases of past presidents and looked at some of the many projects that these emphases had inspired. Water, health and hunger, and literacy — these are the
categories of Rotary service that have endured now for several years, and with good reason. These are the areas in which local Rotary clubs, working individually and in cooperation with other clubs, can do the most good. They are areas in which we now have many years’ experience and expertise. They are areas of wise Rotary investment. They are areas that let us do the most good with everything that we have. I knew with my mind that these were the emphases we should continue.
And yet, my heart was pulled in another direction. Because, in the midst of my research on possible emphases, I came across a number. That number was 30,000 — the number of children
under the age of five who died every day from preventable causes. At first, I thought that it had to be a mistake. Maybe there was an extra zero in that number, if not two. Maybe the number was per month, or per year. It was impossible, unthinkable, in the 21st century that 30,000 of our most precious children could be dying, needlessly, every day. But there was no mistake. I asked, how can it be possible?
The answers were as heartbreaking as the number. Children die needlessly of pneumonia, measles, and malaria — for the lack of basic medicines, vaccines, and mosquito nets. They die of diarrheal illnesses — for the lack of a packet of rehydration salts that costs only 10 cents. They die in the thousands, every day, because they have no clean water to wash in and to drink. They are killed by illnesses that become deadly in combination with poor sanitation and malnutrition. They die because their families are trapped in a cycle of extreme poverty, a cycle that is not interrupted because there is no access to education.
So much can be done to keep children healthy, with so little: mosquito nets, rehydration salts, vitamins, and vaccines. And so much can be done with just a little bit more: a trained birth attendant, a simple clinic, a school feeding program, a visiting nurse. These are simple and direct ways to save children’s lives. In the last few years, the number of deaths per day has already gone down, from 30,000 to 26,000. I believe that part of the improvement has been through Rotary service in the areas of water, health and hunger, and literacy. We are already doing a great deal. But I believe that if we focus our efforts, we can do a great deal more. This is why in 2008-09, Rotary will keep the service emphases we have had in so many of our past years, the emphases that are grounded in our knowledge and experience: water, health and hunger, and literacy. But this year, I will ask you to direct your work in each of these areas toward children, and toward reducing the terrible rate of child mortality in our world. In 2008-09, I will ask you all to Make Dreams Real for the world’s children. This will be our theme, and my
challenge to all of you. We will Make Dreams Real by giving children hope and a chance at a
We will Make Dreams Real by bringing clean water to their communities, and by this I mean not only providing safe water to drink but creating the sanitation projects that keep children healthy. We will be as proud of building public toilets as we are of supplying drinking water, because by improving sanitation we prevent water from becoming contaminated, and we avoid so many needless deaths.
We will Make Dreams Real by giving children the chance at health through improving their
environments and their access to care. We will Make Dreams Real by making sure that more
children have a chance to go to school, because it will only be through education that the deadly cycle of poverty can be broken.
We will Make Dreams Real by working together on Rotary’s $100 Million Challenge.
And in 2008-2009, I ask you all to ensure that we will be able to continue to Make Dreams Real
for many years to come by bringing new members in to Rotary. For many years now, worldwide Rotary membership has remained at the same level — just over 1.2 million members. Our
membership is not growing. But the needs of the world’s children are. In order to keep pace with
these needs, we must have more members. And we must have more clubs.
This is why I have set ambitious new goals for membership in this Rotary year. This is why I asked every district to work toward a 10 percent net increase in membership. And I asked each district to establish at least two new clubs. I have asked each of my district governors to announce their own targets for new members and new clubs in their districts. If each district rises to the challenge that they have accepted, then by the time we meet again in Birmingham, we will have over 1.3 million Rotarians, and over 33,000 clubs.
How will we achieve this? We will do it by looking for qualified members where they are and not waiting for them to come to us, because in every community, we overlook candidates for membership simply because they are different from ourselves. They may be of a different age or profession. They may come from a different background or live in a different neighborhood. But this is all the more reason to invite them to a meeting. If you know someone who is qualified for membership, but you think would not fit in your club, perhaps it is time to reconsider. What might that individual bring to your club? What skills and talents could that person contribute that your club does not now have? How could that person help Make Dreams Real?
In every zone, in every district, more Rotarians are needed to help us reach our goal of saving children, because in every community there are children who need our help. Child mortality is highest in developing countries. But there is not a single Rotary district where local club projects cannot save lives. Every day, in every part of the world, children die for the lack of a seatbelt or a smoke detector. Children die because they have nowhere safe to play. Children die because their parents cannot afford health care. Children die not because nobody can help them but because too often, nobody does. But you and I, here in this room, are Rotarians, and helping is what we do best.
And so it is our job to open our eyes to these needs, in our own communities and in communities far away. Our job is to work together, one club with another, to do what is needed. Our job is to Make Dreams Real. We will turn those dreams of a safe and happy childhood — a childhood that
becomes a long and healthy life — into a reality because all of the world’s children are our
children. And our job is a simple one. It is saving lives with our hearts and our minds and our souls. And if, in 2008-09, every one of us does this job well, at the end of our year we will all have achieved something wonderful.