My dear friends:
Thirty-four years ago, the 72nd annual convention of Rotary International, chaired by that great past president from Brazil, Paolo Costa, was held right here in this very city.
On that day we were honored by a very special guest: Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Mother Teresa was often asked, as we are asked in Rotary, if she really felt that her work made a difference; after all, the needs of the world were so great.
She answered, “It is true. Everything we do is only a drop in the ocean. But the ocean would be the poorer, if not for each drop.”
Today, I am proud to be a part of an organization that affirms the truth of those words through service; which makes the world not poorer, but richer; which replaces despair with hope; which raises up those whom fate has brought low; and which is a gift to so many, while allowing each of us to Be a Gift to the World.
In Nepal, when the devastating earthquake hit, Rotarians were among the first to react. Medical teams arrived from Singapore and India. Solar lanterns, ShelterBoxes, tarpaulins and tents, water filters and medicines followed. And hundreds of thousands of dollars have been raised already to help rebuild the lives of the millions who have lost their homes. When the camera crews leave, when the eye of the world looks elsewhere, Rotary will continue to remain.
In India, where half of government schools lack the most basic sanitation, Rotary is responding by committing to build 20,000 toilet blocks in schools around the country over the next two years.
Each block consists of two toilets for boys, and two for girls. For countless thousands of girls, these facilities will make the difference between dropping out of school at age twelve and carrying on to finish their educations, and perhaps find a better life.
In Africa, as you have heard, we will soon celebrate a milestone that once seemed unthinkable: one year without a single case of polio.
And my friends, it will not be too long before we will come together to celebrate a world free of polio because of Rotarians who made the choice to do the work — not for profit, or for glory, but simply because it needed to be done.
In a few weeks, President Gary will leave us as president. He leaves us with an organization of unprecedented strength: one with more members, in more clubs, than ever before. It is not enough simply to thank him for his work — although we do! We must continue it, by building our membership, in new and innovative ways — giving potential members more reasons to join, and current members more reasons to stay.
One way we will do that is through an exciting new program, which will debut on July first. This program is named Rotary Global Rewards. It will allow Rotarians to connect, online and via their smart phones, with hundreds of businesses and service providers around the world — and that number is growing. These companies will offer Rotarians discounts and concessions on the everyday business that you do — and you will notice that they include major brands with a worldwide footprint. And in some cases not only will you benefit, but our Foundation will as well, by receiving a contribution with each transaction. It will be another way to benefit from being a Rotarian and being part of the Rotary network. And so I urge all of you to become a part of that scheme, by signing up for My Rotary at Rotary.org.
In the past 12 weeks I have had the pleasure of personally addressing nearly 14,000 club presidents-elect around the world at their multidistrict PETS. The feedback I have received on this program has been very positive.
And what’s more, I have seen the strength that lies in your clubs, and I know that we are ready to face the challenges that lie ahead.
My friends, a new Rotary year awaits us, full of promise: a new chapter in the book of our lives, its pages empty, waiting to be filled. The pen is poised over the page. I ask you: What will it write? Will it write of generous deeds, of ambition, of responsibility; of work done well, and a life well lived? Or will it write of days that follow after days, each one alike, unremarkable? In their coming, hardly noticed; in their passing, hardly missed?
Remember that every moment of our lives — every page that we are given to write — is a gift. And each one is a choice. A choice, as Martin Luther King put it, whether to walk in the light of creative altruism, or the darkness of destructive selfishness. To be selfish — or to be selfless. To live for ourselves alone — or to live for others.
Rotary gives us that choice. And I think sometimes we lose sight of that.
Sometimes, in the rush and immediacy of our own lives, in the rough-and-tumble of each day, our Rotary projects become just another task, and we forget — we forget what it is all about. Until something happens that makes us remember, that brings it crashing down on us — what we are in Rotary and what it is that we do.
A few years ago my club, together with Rotarians from Germany, with the help of our Rotary Foundation, made a choice. We decided to rebuild a maternity hospital in the southern part of my country, a hospital which had been destroyed by the tsunami. We made a choice to build it better than it had ever been before, fully modern, fully equipped, and we built as well a mother and child ward, complete with an intensive care unit. There was nothing at all like this in that area at the time, and the need was great.
And so our German friends stepped forward with tremendous commitment, we worked together over many months, and in the end we had a hospital of which any country would be proud. So when then chair of our Rotary Foundation, D.K. Lee, visited Sri Lanka, we took him to see our new hospital.
We saw the mothers coming to deliver babies and others bringing their newborn babies for care — hundreds of families receiving these vital services, which had simply been absent from that area. From there we went into the neonatal intensive care unit — the product of so much work and investment. Inside it, nine incubators, every one of them with a Rotary wheel, and every one of them occupied. In one of them lay a baby girl, weighing just 900 grams — she could have fit in the palm of my hand — covered with tubes and wires. And she was fighting for every breath — fighting harder than someone a hundred times her size.
As I watched that tiny chest rise and fall, I realized I was holding my own breath — waiting for her next breath, and the next, and the next. Each one, a result of so much effort, from someone so desperately small. And my heart went out to her, this little baby who came into the world too soon. I whispered “Fight, baby, fight! There is a wide world waiting for you out there — if only you will fight!”
She was small, she was poor, she was sick — but she was not forgotten. She would not be left to die by a world that saw no value in one baby’s life. She was someone’s precious child, a nd we had cared for her.
We had done all we could to give her that chance to live. The rest was up to her.
And as I walked out of that hospital, I hoped, I prayed — and then, for months, I wondered.
In January of this year, I had the chance to visit that hospital again. We were allowed into that same intensive care unit; this time only a few of the incubators were occupied. And then after our visit, we all came out into the hall, where we stopped and talked to the doctors and nurses, who told us that 140,000 babies had been born in that hospital since we built it.
And there, I was introduced to a young mother with a child, who had come for her routine visit. Sweet kid, big, dark eyes, beautiful smile — a year or two old, busy learning to walk and talk. I love kids, so I just reached out and picked her up and carried her around as I chatted with her mother. And just then, one of the doctors came up to me with a smile on her face, and asked, “Do you remember, Mr. Ravindran, the last time you were visiting, there was the one child you seemed anxious about?”
“Yes, of course! How could I forget?” I replied.
She reached out and patted the little girl I was holding, and said, “This is that child.”
And it was I who struggled to breathe.
That was the child. There in my arms: a little girl who lived because of Rotary. Who smiled, who laughed, who gave joy to her parents — because of Rotarians who had chosen selflessness over selfishness.
Rotarians who had chosen to Be a Gift to the World.
When you think about that, everything else just falls away. And you see it so clearly: the choice that we have. We all have so much. Others have so little. We have received so many gifts; others, so few.
And I am asking you all today: when you go home, when you go back to your clubs, when you make your plans for next year: Remember what it is we do. Remember why we are here. Remember who it is we serve.
And so, with God’s blessings behind us, and your prayers before us, let us set forth together. This is our time. Let us grasp it.
Let us Be a Gift to the World.