"Service above self."
That is the motto shared by over one million members of Rotary International worldwide. Here in Highland Park and Highwood, the local Rotary Club counts 68 members who meet weekly for fellowship, mentoring, networking and development of shared service projects.
This week, I was invited to attend the Highland Park/Highwood Rotary Club's luncheon as a guest by current club president . Before heading over to the , I did some homework on Rotary International, and was pleased to learn more about the organization's activities.
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Rotarians, as they are known, participate in community service activities all over the world, large and small. Focus areas include scholarship, eradication of Polio, and student exchanges.
Here in Highland Park, a key program of the Rotary Club is called "TABU", which stands for "Towards a Better Understanding." For 20 years, starting in 1992, the Highland Park Rotary Club has participated in an exchange program with Northern Ireland. Every other year, six high school students, one faculty member and three Rotarians visit Northern Ireland. In alternating years, a similar group comes to visit the Highland Park club.
This year, six students from the Belfast area arrived in Chicago last Wednesday. The six, who come from different schools and different religious backgrounds, had never met before this trip. They stay with host families in Highland Park, and participate in an action-packed schedule each day during their visit. Some of the highlights of this year's trip have included a private meeting with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a Cubs game, a visit to Great Lakes Naval Base and a workshop at the Anti-Defamation League. The group will also visit the Skokie Holocaust Museum, and Woodstock High Schools, and participate in religious events.
At the Rotary Club meeting, each of the six students spoke of their initial experiences in America, along with impressions about conflict. Some were Protestant, some Catholic, and some in mixed households. None were alive when the Highland Park Rotarians started their exchange, in much more troubled times in Northern Ireland. Still, each spoke openly of conflict at home -- as severe as bombs and killings, as recently as a year ago. They all indicated that they chose to participate in the exchange program to expand their horizons and experience other cultures, yet learn about other conflicts. They toured segregated neighborhoods of Chicago, visited the Bahai Temple and met Jewish people for the first time at a Passover Seder. They saw the unity of military service, the openness of religion and snapshots of every day life.
During lunch, I was seated next to Ronnie Porter, one of the chaperones from Northern Ireland. Porter is semi-retired from the road construction industry, and has received the Order of the British Empire award for merit. He was surprised to learn that I had visited Belfast on two occasions; yet he also immediately offered me his business card and encouraged me to connect with him should I pass through again.
At the conclusion of the Rotary program, read a proclamation that this week is "TABU" week in Highland Park, and presented each of the students and chaperones with keys to the city. The students seemed in no hurry to leave the Rotary meeting, even though program coordinator Martha Gray had several activities planned for them yet that afternoon.
The Rotary Club members come from diverse backgrounds and walks of life, but for 90 minutes on Monday, they all came together to serve a higher purpose. Fostering understanding and ways to work towards conflict resolution are lofty goals, but these Rotarians have been quietly achieving for more than two decades. In that time, peace has mostly settled over Northern Ireland. These students were living, breathing examples of what happens when people stop fighting and start listening. Surely there are some lessons for all of us in that?