Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.
Jill Anderson has never been one to shy away from a challenge. As a community activist in Battle Creek, she has been on the frontlines of working for change in Battle Creek which now extends to her newest role as President of the Rotary Club of Battle Creek
Anderson officially began her duties as the Club’s newest leader on Saturday, July 1 replacing Ed Guzzo. She says she wants people to know that the worldwide service organization has been changing and evolving with the times, something she intends to continue during her one-year tenure.
“It’s a very different club than it used to be,” says Anderson who joined Rotary six years ago. “There’s that whole notion that Rotary is male, pale, and stale, but it’s really changing. I think Rotary has been seen as an elite club for a long time. What it is is a way for people to come together and make a difference at the local, district, and international levels. I joined because I wanted to see that change and I’m going to make the change from the inside and there are a lot of people like me that also want that.”
She got an up close and personal view of the Club courtesy of her father, Larry Anderson
who passed away in October 2020. He was a member of the organization for 33 years, serving as its president in 2016, the Club’s 100th
Her appointment to the leadership position makes her part of the first father-daughter duo to be Club president. But this is where the comparisons end.
“My father was sort of a high-caliber leader. He was the CEO and COO of Leila Hospital. I’m more of a boots-on-the-ground community organizer,” Anderson says.
While her leadership style is different, she says, “Rotary to me has always been more than a club. It’s been kind of like a signal that I’m doing the right things as sort of a legacy Rotary member that if I grew up and I was a member of Rotary I was on the right path.”
In addition to seeing her father’s involvement, she had the opportunity to have her own experience with Rotary when she was 17 and participated in a Rotary Exchange program that took her to Madrid, Spain. While there she had the opportunity to visit the Spanish Embassy among other places of note and says that what she saw and experienced stayed with her.
That Rotary exchange was really important in understanding that there was a larger world than Battle Creek and showed her that “We’re all just people and we can have a pretty big influence creating relationships with people in other parts of the world. If we align our causes like polio eradication, we can have a tremendous impact.”
Rotary has been working to eradicate polio for more than 35 years. Their goal of ridding the world of this disease is closer than ever. As a founding partner of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative
, the organization has reduced polio cases by 99.9 percent since its first project to vaccinate children in the Philippines
Rotary members have contributed more than $2.1 billion and countless volunteer hours to protect nearly 3 billion children in 122 countries from this paralyzing disease. Rotary’s advocacy efforts have played a role in decisions by governments to contribute more than $10 billion to the effort.
For Anderson polio is personal. Her great-grandfather became a paraplegic after contracting polio. Her grandmother was his legs on a farm they owned in Iowa where she raised Anderson’s father and his cousin who also had polio. Given this family legacy and her knowledge of the impact polio can have, she says she wants to continue the Club’s emphasis on polio eradication as part of Rotary’s worldwide efforts.
“There’s a little bit about polio that just isn’t very sexy to people and I know people are hesitant about vaccines these days. If we weren’t doing the eradication efforts that Rotary is and we change the focus and left it where it is with six cases in Pakistan and Afghanistan, within 10 years polio will be paralyzing 200,000 kids per year. Our goal is to go three years with no polio cases and we’re this close.”
Another major initiative for Rotary clubs locally and worldwide is addressing a mental health crisis
that escalated during the pandemic.
Rotary International’s new president, R. Gordon R. McInally
is from Scotland and his focus this year is on mental health. Anderson says McInally’s brother committed suicide.
Like her experiences with polio, Anderson says mental health issues also are personal for her.
“My best friend killed herself in 2018 when we were working at the Battle Creek Community Foundation. She was very frustrated with her healthcare situation,” Anderson says. Her plan to address this initiative is through arts and creativity and the connection to mental health.
Serendipity plays a role in life experiences and leadership
Except for time spent in Arizona and Wyoming between 1992 and 2016, Battle Creek has been home to Anderson, who owns a business focused on grant writing and special projects.
But, that time away had helped shape her into the individual she is today. After graduating from the University of Michigan where she earned a Bachelor’s degree in Literature and attained a certification in Archeology, she went to work as a museum curator and also worked in higher education out west.
“I hit a really rough time. Things got real bad for me in Arizona. I got divorced and my son, George, and I ended up homeless and we lived out of a storage unit and in a car,” she says, adding that this experience showed her she could bounce back with resourcefulness. “I am the most resilient person you’ll meet and I have the privilege of knowing how little I need which most people luckily never get to experience. This allows me to have some audacity. I’m not worried about losing things by taking some risks.”
Her return to Battle Creek with her son, now 14, was prompted by the hard time she was experiencing and her father’s health issues.
“It was a convergence of those things. As soon as I stepped foot in Battle Creek, life was great. One major thing was that I went from living out of my car directly to working at W.K. Kellogg Foundation
, which was like whiplash,” Anderson says.
During her time with WKKF, she worked with Dr. Gail Christopher
, the driving force behind the America Healing initiative and the Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation
effort which she was launching.
Anderson has been involved with TRHT since that time and says this allowed her to learn deeply and start to understand the concept of Diversity Equity and Inclusion and the crucial role it plays in the lives of all people.
“I knew very little and then I started understanding DEI in a very real way through racial healing and that just happens to be one of Rotary’s new initiatives at the international level and Sharalyn Davis is our new District 6360 Governor and that is a huge interest of hers.”
Her own experiences with homelessness, poverty, and racial disparities are what prompts Anderson to volunteer at community-focused initiatives including the St. Thomas Episcopal Church’s Breakfast program, and deepens her commitment to help the community’s unhoused because she knows how exhausting that lifestyle can be.
“I don’t think people understand how tiring it is at our homeless shelter. People there are not allowed to go to sleep until 11 p.m. and they have to be up at 6 a.m. and then you wonder why people are sleeping in the library,” she says.
Becoming a leader for future leaders
The selection of Anderson to be the Rotary Club of Battle Creek's new leader was by no means a sure thing. She says a great deal of time was spent figuring out who needs to be a leader and who needs to be challenged by being a leader as well as looking at the previous president and the one who will follow Anderson. That will be Rod Auton, President-Nominee.
“We look at the strengths and makeup of the next president and try to have a new makeup and it ends up being very complimentary,” Anderson says. “Ed (Guzzo, previous president) was a mentor to me and we’re really different people which was really helpful. I’m not sure how many new things I can teach Rod Auton. Our different lived experiences can help Rotary in different ways. Sharalyn challenged us to be bold and to make it fun so that’s what I intend to do.”
In August the local Rotary Club is partnering with “Color the Creek”
to clean up the Washington Bridge skateboard park. Anderson says this will be a “wonderful, collaborative effort with a whole bunch of different partners that will introduce Rotary to younger, hipper" potential members.
The skatepark project symbolizes the Club’s commitment to embracing initiatives that are more contemporary and have a greater appeal to the community and show that the organization is not “stodgy.”
Anderson says that “You don’t have to be the CEO of a company to be in Rotary. You can be just anyone. You don’t have to be sponsored, but sponsors are there to help you find your way.”
Rotary, she says, is an excellent opportunity for Millennials.
“I think millennials are born leaders. I just think they’ve been raised to see that they have power and it’s not financial power. They have technology at their fingertips and can do things differently than what we did growing up. They have no limitations and they’re built-in visionaries.”
As an example, she cites Vania Word, a 28-year-old who is leading the work of the Arts and Culture Collaborative of Battle Creek
where Anderson works 20 hours each week.
“She is the best boss I’ve ever had,” Anderson says.
It is this blending of ages, experiences, and backgrounds that will continue to help Rotary help the Battle Creek community and its residents.
“In a community, there is typically a gap between the family and the government and what government provides as a safety net to families. Strong clubs and strong nonprofits bridge that gap between how a family can support itself and how the government can provide aid,” Anderson says. “We support the food bank. We build ramps so people who are challenged by disability can have access. Right now we have a Period Poverty program where we’re working with Charitable Union U to bring period supplies into the Battle Creek Public Schools so that girls can dependably be in school all the time.”
Guzzo learned about other Period Poverty
efforts during Rotary’s International Convention in Houston, TX, and brought the idea back to Battle Creek.
“I’ve worked by myself for a long time and I’m learning a lot about being a servant leader and polling membership and understanding what they want and making that happen. Instead of being an ego-driven leader, I want this to be fun and I want to challenge our members and get them on board and for this to be an adventure for all of us,” Anderson says.
“I kind of stand behind the credo, ‘If not now, when? If not me. who?’ That sort of fits well with Rotary because sometimes when you have a passion to do something, you have to be the leader.”