Rotary is an international community service organization with 1.2 million members world-wide. These are people from all walks of life who work together as a club to promote peace, fight diseases, promote education, and support communities. Local Rotary clubs throughout Maine and the world provide college scholarships, participate in international student exchange programs, host community fundraisers, and invest in youth leadership. The clubs also foster business relationships, friendships, and community connections, and they host dozens of offshoot programs.
Rotary was formed in 1905 by Paul Harris, an attorney from Chicago. Women were not allowed to become members of the club until the late 1980s. Now, Rotary International of 2021 has thousands of women in leadership positions, including the first woman president of the organization who starts in July of 2022.
Ann Lee Hussey of Portland is one such remarkable Rotarian woman. She is a member of the Sunrise Club in Portland.
Ann Lee was introduced to Rotary when she accompanied her late husband Michael Nazemetz, who was a member of the organization, on an international service trip to India in January of 2001. During that first trip Ann Lee helped immunize children against polio. In April, Ann Lee and Michael took a second trip to India, where they assisted with providing cleft palate surgeries.
After that second trip, Ann Lee told her husband, “I think I need to join Rotary.”
While she has been active locally in scholarship programs and the food pantry, Ann Lee said she was most attracted to the international work because of the polio project. She has a personal connection to the illness.
“I have polio, so that’s probably my driving force,” Ann Lee said. In fact, she was one of the last people in Maine to contract polio. She has done a lot of public speaking around the world because of her ability to speak firsthand about the disease. “Putting drops in children’s mouths, knowing that I’ve helped protect them from a crippling disease, is just huge,” Ann Lee said.
She has also done a lot to help other polio survivors throughout the world, including giving tricycle wheelchairs to survivors for free through grants.
Since joining Rotary, Ann Lee has done work in India, Chad, Nigeria, Mali, Egypt, Madagascar, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, to name a few countries.
With the help of people like Ann Lee, Rotary International and their global partners have eradicated two strains of polio worldwide.
Carolyn Johnson is another remarkable Rotarian woman. Carolyn is a member of the Yarmouth Rotary Club. She joined in 2001, and her husband was a member first, as had been the case with Ann Lee.
Because she was a teacher and a principal in Maine schools for many years, Carolyn found herself drawn to an education-based project in Guatemala when she attended a Rotary International convention in 2005. “When Rotary opens a door, we say ‘why not?’” Carolyn said.
While the original purpose of the project was to get textbooks and computers to middle school students in Guatemala, Carolyn soon discovered the country was facing a literacy problem. The teachers in the Central American country’s schools told Carolyn and her fellow Rotarians that many of the middle school students did not have the skills to read the textbooks that Carolyn and her fellow Rotarians were bringing. So, Carolyn got to work.
By 2008 Carolyn had developed an intensive program for primary school teachers in Guatemala to help them to teach literacy. A Guatemalan instructor works with the primary school teachers and then goes into the classrooms and assists with implementing the instruction.
Carolyn said the program, named the Culture of Reading Program, has seen many results and has spread to many schools throughout the country. In schools where they have implemented the Culture of Reading Program, 50 percent more of the children are being promoted to the next grade level. This means more Guatemalan children are completing school, too. Statistically, Guatemalan children who get promoted to second grade are more likely to complete school up to sixth grade.
The program is now self-sustaining, and Carolyn said more than 100 schools and 12,000 teachers have implemented or been trained in the program.
Being a Rotarian does not require global travel, though. Every Rotary club and member does amazing and important work in their own communities, many without ever traveling outside of their home state.
Kimberlee Graffam of Rockport is a remarkable Rotarian woman who has made Rotary a family event. Kim and her husband Leni Gronros are both active members, and their daughter Megan Peabody is also a member after growing up attending Rotary events with her family.
Kim joined Rotary in 1998 after her father Sandy Graffam passed away. Sandy had been a Rotarian for many years, and Kim joined as a tribute to him and to follow in his footsteps.
Kim said she jumped into Rotary with both feet. She became more and more involved in Rotary at the local level.
Her first exposure to the larger world of Rotary was in 2002 when she attended a district conference in Bethel. The next year she met Leni at the same conference, and they were married in July.
Locally Kim is involved with many community events and fundraisers through her club that support local businesses, charities, and scholarships. Internationally, she and her family have sponsored students from Croatia and Mexico. Kim says her family still stays in touch with the girls, and they have all taken trips together as well.
Kim was president of her club in 2008 while she was pregnant with daughter Kylii Gronros. Although she worked with her doctor to schedule her c-section to avoid missing a Rotary meeting, Kim likes to say her daughter had other plans.
Kim went into labor the night before a meeting. She sent an email to her Vice President that he would need to run the meeting because her water had broken.
During her time as president, Kim only missed two meetings. One was just before Christmas, and the other was to give birth to her daughter. The week after giving birth, she was back and residing over the club. “That’s how much I’ve loved Rotary all these years,” Kim said.
To learn more about Rotary, or find a club near you, go to Rotary.org.