Rotary on The Rock

It’s an old cliché: “A stranger’s just a friend you haven’t met.”

Well, it WAS an old cliché, anyway – before Cathy and I made our first trip to St. John’s.

It was already a special occasion because neither of us had been to St. John’s and this was my first-ever trip to Newfoundland and Labrador. (I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I didn’t make it to a province just across the Cabot Strait until I was four months shy of my 46th birthday.)

But the catalyst for this ground-breaking journey – my participation in this year’s Rotary District 7820 Conference – added several different colours, layers and dimensions to our initial pilgrimage to The Rock.

That’s partly because I’m still relatively new to Rotary. I’ve only been a member of the 57-year-old Port Hawkesbury club for 18 months. But I recently had the honour of being voted in as the club’s new secretary, and with my duties officially beginning next month, the other club members thought I would benefit from the training, education, and fellowship that a district conference would bring me.

To say they were right is putting it mildly.

For one thing, it was remarkable to share the Port Hawkesbury club’s experiences with so many other Rotarians, many of whom had experienced the same successes, challenges and extraneous issues that we’ve encountered here in the Strait area.

On my first full day at the conference, I joined several other delegates for an optional leadership training day at the Manuels River Hibernia Interpretation Centre in Conception Bay South, a 10-minute drive from St. John’s. At my table were Rotarians from Bridgewater, Lunenburg, Pictou, and Middleton, clubs that are similar in size to Port Hawkesbury and have a lot of common ground with us.

A surprising, and refreshing, number of delegates were under the age of 35, even though that age group only makes up 3.5 per cent of District 7820’s membership. The future of Rotary in Atlantic Canada was prominently on display through participation by the district’s Roteract Clubs for post-secondary students and Interact Clubs for high school students. Saturday’s seminars included enthusiastic discussion from the Interact Club at Yarmouth High School, which has me even more hopeful for a revival for the Interact Club that flourished at Richmond Academy not so long ago.

Connections occurred in the most unexpected places. While on a walking tour of St. John’s as part of the conference’s Partners’ Program, Cathy got a question from Pat Sword, the wife of outgoing 7820 District Governor Don Sword: “Is your husband the one who likes MAD Magazine?”

Why, yes he is. Which is why, in the hallway of the Holiday Inn later that day, Don and I found ourselves chuckling over the inventive sound effects of MAD legend Don Martin (“SHTOINK,” “THWAK,” “FIZZAZITT”). To put this in perspective, this took place a few hours after Don (Sword, not Martin) presented me with the District Governor’s Citation given to the Port Hawkesbury Rotary Club, one of 10 such awards handed out to clubs around the region during the conference’s opening ceremonies.

Surrounded by Prince Edward Island Rotarians at the Saturday morning breakfast in the Holiday Inn, I struck up a conversation with the incoming secretary for the Charlottetown Royalty Rotary Club, Ouma Cuniah. She’s now on the faculty at the University of Prince Edward Island but hails from Mauritus, a small island near the Maldives in the Indian Ocean. Small talk included barbequed-versus-boiled lobster and the timing of our respective Rotary Club meetings – upon telling Ouma that Port Hawkesbury’s club gets together Tuesdays at 8 a.m. for breakfast at the Maritime Inn, she laughed: “You guys are LATE!” Turns out her club meets at 7:15 a.m. I guess they’re a little tougher over in Charlottetown.

Only a couple of hours later came a team-building exercise, and much to my delight, it involved music. Growing The Voices, a Newfoundland-based program that develops “instant choirs” at large gatherings, had nearly 200 Rotarians – wearing white as part of the conference’s Peace Day – harmonizing on The Beatles’ chestnut “With A Little Help From My Friends.” (No, I’m not kidding. It’s on YouTube. Check it out.)

Of course, it wasn’t all fun and games. We learned that Rotary membership is stable in our district but dropping around the world. (Asia is the only continent experiencing growth.) Hard work awaits us all as we return to our respective communities to continue our work with our own clubs. But now I feel more like I’m doing this work as part of a bigger family and community than I ever dreamed possible.

And, as you’ll learn next week, the Rotary conference is but one reason I’ll remember our first trip to The Rock for the rest of my life…