In 1905, Rotary International was founded as an opportunity for professionals with diverse backgrounds to “exchange ideas, form meaningful, lifelong friendships, and give back to their communities.”
Today, it's a 1.2 million member global organization whose stated purpose is to take action on issues like disease, education, and the growth of local economies in communities around the world. To achieve this, Rotary has over 35,000 locally-based service organizations called “clubs” that embrace members from every demographic. But that wasn't always the case.
For it's first 82 years of operation Rotary wasn't open to women. In fact, since Rotary's admission of women is relatively recent, most female members today were already adults when the boys' club became just the club. Around the country, many Rotary groups are still fighting to shake the stereotype of being a “gentlemen’s club.”
But not Mt. Pleasant’s Rotary Club.
“When women were allowed to become members in 1987, they had already been letting us into meetings as visitors, which was something other clubs weren’t doing at the time,” says Eileen Jennings, one of the first women allowed to become a member. “It was wonderful,” she says, ”and we felt very welcomed. The president at the time brought six women into the club at once because he knew that bringing in just one wouldn’t work. He also looked at all professional women for membership, not just wives of current members.”
She relates a story of those early days and the support women felt from the club and community as a whole. At a large fundraising dinner, when the women were brought to the front of the room to be introduced as new members, a man in the back yelled, “Look at all the new dishwashers!”
The room was stunned...and then immediately started booing the man.
Jennings says they later learned it was tradition for new members of either gender to wash the dishes at the dinner, but it was the immediate response from the room that set the tone, “We knew after hearing how the room defended us that we were going to be OK.”
The influence of that first class of six Rotary women is still felt today. Mt. Pleasant’s Rotary Club currently has 58 members. 52% of them are female, and almost half are under the age of 50. This demographic makeup is uncommon among Rotary Clubs, which typically skew towards men over 50.
Jennings credits their even representation to how women were first introduced as members into the club, as well as how the club is currently run.
“I think our club has some of the best programs. Every week we have something. Older people are welcoming and younger people are eager in being part of the club. We have a diversity of interests, nonprofits, and local businesses...and we have FUN.”
To be clear, when Jennings says “fun” part of that is doing a lot of work in Isabella County...and around the world.
“We’re first and foremost a service Club,” says Alysha Fisher, the Club’s current president. “We do fundraisers so that we can work to distribute funds for community and global grants.” One hundred percent of the net money they raise with fundraisers goes towards local and international projects.
The Rotary Club award grants three times a year, with local grants being given to organizations such as the Discovery Museum, Girls on the Run, Habitat for Humanity, the Community Compassion Network, and the Foster Closet of Michigan.
Along with local grants, they also give service awards to two people who have been nominated for doing good within the community each year.
“Golden Apple is a program that nominates and honors teachers and other professions that work with kids,” Fisher says. The Club also reaches out to kids through Student Citizen of the Month, a youth leadership program, and an international exchange student program.
Mt. Pleasant’s Rotary Club’s acts of service don’t stop at Isabella County, either.
Paul Siers is in charge of the Club’s international projects. “We have a high school exchange program: we have a young lady from Japan here right now, and then we sent one student over to Finland and one to Austria.”
The Club is also starting its fifth and sixth projects in Zambia. “We’ve built four water wells there, and we’ve also done a midwife certification program. There’s a high rate of infant mortality in Zambia because a lot of the girls don’t know they have to go to the hospital, so we offered a midwife certification program and gave the graduates bicycles to be able to get out into the bush to help women.”
The Club is also active in the Democratic Republic of Congo where they are helping fund an HIV/AIDS study.
“We tested 400 people, and 75 of them had HIV/AIDS and didn’t know it. It’s extremely important work,” Siers says.
Fisher says that the diversity of people and ideas the Rotary Club now embraces is a key to accomplishing the acts of service they set out to accomplish.
“Men and women, young and old, everyone has different qualities and strengths. We’re getting stuff done. Rotary is very welcoming to new people and new ideas to keep the foundation of what we do moving and growing so that we can continue to be a good presence in our community and do good things.”