Rotary was born out of a desire to feel connected to people and places. Paul Harris, like many Americans before and after him, moved around seeking the kind of professional opportunities that eventually landed him in Chicago. However, he missed the sense of belonging he felt growing up in a small town and wanted to re-create that sense of camaraderie with other professionals who wanted to make a difference. On February 23, 1905 Harris and several colleagues met in downtown Chicago for what would become the first Rotary meeting (the name reflected that they rotated meeting venues every week).  From that meeting, Rotary eventually spread around the United States and the world. 

It’s not a coincidence Rotary began in a city. Cities can be disorienting when you don’t know anyone, the language(s) and culture(s). The majority of the world’s population lives in urban areas and, just as Harris did, multitudes leave small and medium sized towns for the professional and social opportunities that large cities offer. Whether passing through or putting down roots, it is comforting to connect with people who have similar values. This is part of the appeal of Rotary.

I belong to the Dupont Circle Rotary Club in Washington DC but am working in Kyiv (Ukrainian spelling). Ukraine is a beautiful country with a tragic past, a challenging present, and a promising future.  Its civil society is strong, resilient, and Rotary is a small but growing part of that.  Rotary has a long but interrupted history in Ukraine.  The first Rotary Clubs were registered well before World War II in Uzhgorod (1929), Chernivtsi (1932) and Lyiv (1935). During World War II, Rotary International suspended Rotary Club activity in then-occupied Ukraine. The first post-war Rotary Club was established in Kyiv in 1991 but there are now several. Country-wide there are approximately 50 clubs with a combined membership of 850 Rotarians.  Ukraine, being an enormous country, shares its district (2232) only with Belarus.

14723459_1361897453822348_1244049608137506816_nI’ve been wanting to find Ukrainian Rotarians since I arrived.  As a first step, I used the Rotary Club Finder to determine where and when clubs meet.  Lunch meetings are tough, so I focused on clubs that meet in the evening.  Not knowing very much Russian or Ukrainian, I tried the “Kyiv Multinational Club” but when I showed up at the specified venue, the hotel staff had no recollection of the club.  I then reached out to the Ukraine E-Club which was very welcoming and asked me to participate in an E-Meeting.  E-Clubs are increasingly popular with younger members, parents with children, and people who travel a lot. It also provides an opportunity for people living in different geographic areas to stay connected. For example, the Ukraine E-Club had members from Kyiv, Odessa, and Lviv.  E-Clubs typically use an online platform like Skype Business or Google Hangout. Unfortunately, my internet connection was poor and I lost the connection several times. Even with the technical issues, I enjoyed meeting them.  Their club is young, energetic, and has a female president like my own.  Several of their members may be traveling to the United States next year and I hope to give them a proper welcome in Washington DC.

The next day I went to a meeting of the “Kyiv” Rotary Club.  The Kyiv Rotary Club is small, formal, meets in a classy Ukrainian restaurant, and business is conducted only in Ukrainian. They told the Kyiv Multinational Club was still active and connected me with the President.  Rotary is like that – find one Rotarian and before you know it you will have met many.  It turned out that the Kyiv Multinational Club meets every other week and the hotel has a new manager.   (Note to Clubs: be sure to keep your venue and meeting days/times updated in Rotary Club Finder).

IMG_4581I then attended a meeting of the Multinational Club whose venue is the bar of a nice hotel.  True to its name, the club has members from a number of different countries.  The President is a Ukrainian woman and others are Danish, American, Swedish, Canadian, etc.  Members are involved in a variety of community projects such as supporting after-school programs for at-risk youth, upgrading medical clinics, and providing computers to schools in rural areas so students can study information technology – which they will definitely need as Ukraine’s economy grows and becomes increasingly connected with European Union countries.

No matter where one travels in the world, with just a few exceptions, there is a community of Rotarians to plug into. The diversity of clubs keeps these interactions interesting.  As I learn about Rotary in Ukraine, I will post additional blogs. In the meantime, have you visited or worked with Rotary Clubs while abroad?  Please share your experiences at @bryan_schaaf.