Twenty-five years ago, Rotary International began leading the way to eliminate polio worldwide. When Nancy Madru caught wind of the organization’s most ambitious project to date, she discovered the passion she has for helping others locally and worldwide—a passion that only grew from there.
“It was the polio campaign that really charged me up and got me involved,” Madru said, who has since climbed the Rotary ranks and completed her term as district governor for central Indiana on June 30.
While America hasn’t had a polio outbreak since 1977, that wasn’t good enough for Madru or the other 1.2 million Rotarians, since the disease is highly contagious and can potentially be transferred to any other county at any given time.
At the time Rotary launched its eradication effort in 1985, there were in excess of 300,000 new cases of polio reported each week.
“What a daunting task, you think. But that didn’t stop us Rotarians. Think about it. We’re an international organization, so we have roots in the ground. We can go everywhere,” she said.
With Rotary groups worldwide joining efforts in their countries and receiving support from outside organizations, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the World Health Organization, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cases of polio have been dramatically reduced over the past two and a half decades, sparing an estimated five million children from a lifetime of paralysis.
“As of today, there have only been 68 cases all year throughout the world from January until now,” she said. “All of last year, there were only 267 cases total. So isn’t that amazing?”
Currently, only three countries have endemic polio, those countries being Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nigeria. India just recently was taken off the list after going one year without any cases of polio.
While Rotary International has led the way in the private sector of eliminating case after case of polio, not much press has gotten out about Rotary’s involvement.
“There are two schools of thought on that,” said Madru.
The first school of thought, she explained, was that much of the credit goes to the big partners Rotary has, like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that has given over $455 million to the cause, and to the CDC and the World Health Organization. The second part, she said, is that Rotary doesn’t want people to think that polio is only Rotary’s project and that others don’t have to worry about it.
“The other reason we haven’t taken all the credit for polio eradication is because we don’t want people to think that it’s just Rotary’s deal, that they don’t have to think about it or give to that cause,” she said. “They have to think about it because their grandchildren today could be exposed to it so easily.”
Rotary began as an international service organization in 1905 and has since flourished worldwide with members in more than 200 countries and geographical areas. However, membership has remained at a steady 1.2 million over the past eight years with no net gain in members. Those who have been with the organization for decades are leaving due to age, meaning new members are needed to keep Rotary at the level it has been over the years.
“I think the real tragedy is that if we went away, if the Rotary clubs in Kokomo folded tomorrow, who would miss us? You ask, ‘Would they miss us?’ Yes, you would miss us, but because we haven’t been out there patting ourselves on the back, you wouldn’t know it until it’s gone,” she said.
One thing Madru noted is that Rotary isn’t just an elite group of wealthy white men and that the organization is constantly working to make the local and global communities better places.
“We want the face of Rotary, we want our story about Rotary, to be something other than your father’s Oldsmobile store. It can’t be the white, rich American guy because that’s what everybody thinks Rotary is—secret, elite,” she said. “That’s not what it is at all. It seemed that way because they weren’t braggarts. They didn’t want to brag about their accomplishments, but it’s a different world now. We have to tell the world what we’re accomplishing because if we don’t tell the world, the world doesn’t know.”
Wells and clean water
Most recently, Rotary International launched a new funding model called Future Vision, and the central Indiana district was chosen as one of 100 pilot districts worldwide. As part of the three-year pilot, the district is challenged to improve the needs of others.
The Future Vision project is funded on a $250,000 grant for the pilots to do humanitarian work in six focus areas, those areas being peace and conflict resolution, disease prevention and treatment, water and sanitation, maternal and child health, basic education and literacy, and economic and community development.
Though the prevailing mission for Rotary is peace and conflict resolution, Madru said all conflict centers around resources, and improving resources, in turn, will help out with Rotary’s main mission.
“There are a lot of issues that are so tied to one another that it’s hard to decide where you get on the merry-go-round. So we’re going to focus on all of those things,” she said.
After talking to other members and finding out where their passions lie, Madru discovered that many people in the area have their hearts in Africa.
Since then, a project focused on water and sanitation has been started in Sierra Leone in the eastern part of Africa to drill 100 water wells.
“There are communities in Sierra Leone where adults have never seen clean water in their entire lives, so how great is this?” she said.
In January, Madru traveled with other Rotarians to Muira Village in eastern Uganda on a mission to improve water and sanitation in this area, too. The village of more than 200 people has no electricity, no running water, and no flushing toilets—save for one used by the entire village.
“There’s something so beautiful about these people. They have so little, but everything they do have they’re so grateful for. They’re basically joyful, and it’s wonderful to be a part of that. It makes you think maybe your priorities are a little out of line,” she said.
While the village doesn’t miss what they don’t have, Madru and others couldn’t shake the feeling that improvements could be made to better the lives of these people. For this reason, the central Indiana district is sponsoring a grant for the southern Indiana district to bring clean water to the village and educate them on sanitation issues.
“I love that Rotary is focused on sanitation because we’re not only focused on giving them clean water, we’re also focused on the sanitation part of that, too, because it is important that they keep a clean water source,” she said.
Not only will the village have clean water and improved sanitation, it also will improve health conditions and education—two other focus areas of Rotary.
“The clean water stops the kids from having to cart water all day, so they’ll be able to go to school and be educated. It stops the dysentery issues immediately, and the diarrhea and nutritional issues and the sanitation related to that,” she said.
Along with a shortage of clean water, the village also was struggling in the area of healthcare. The village’s only health clinic was previously held in a lean-to structure where people had to wait in line in the oppressive heat for a chance to maybe see a doctor.
“That’s the only opportunity they have to see anybody health related at all. So they wait in this heat all day long, and they may or may not see the doctor that day. If they don’t see the doctor, hopefully they’ll come back tomorrow and get in,” she said.
As a stepping stone to improved healthcare, the central Indiana district helped sponsor a grant for the southern Indiana district to put up a brand-new cinder block, multi-room healthcare center where patients can wait inside rather than stand outside under the sun.
“It’s good that they had something before because a lot of villages have nothing, but they’re going to get into a cinder block building. We’re giving them clean water, of course, restrooms to go to. It’s going to improve vastly and immediately,” she said.
Steve Currens, past president of Kokomo’s Early Riser Rotary club got the opportunity to watch the villagers wait in line at the clinic and even watch one boy be treated for chiggers—a treatment Madru called barbaric.
Chiggers, or jiggers as they’re called in that area, are a big issue due to the fact that they multiply very quickly in dirt and dust.
“The roads over there are very dirty and dusty, and they had a severe outbreak of this. You would see people with their hands and feet just covered with all these black spots,” he said. “They itch, and it’s very easy for those things to become infected. You can die from the repercussions of that.”
One day, Currens was at the clinic and two young boys came to the clinic to be treated for the jiggers. They were given something that looks like a loofah that grows naturally over there to scrub their feet with.
“They brought them in to remove these little jiggers out of their feet,” he said. “They used a double-edged razor blade and a big safety pin to pick those out. That’s the treatment for it. So invasive. That opens their body up to all the stuff around them.
“Can you imagine anyone doing that with your toes? The boy sat there for a good two hours while they worked on him. He never said a word, but then a big tear rolled down his cheek,” he said.
There are other methods to treat jiggers noninvasively, said Madru, but because resources are scarce, it’s unavailable to the people in this area.
“They are so poor that they have no treatment for these. It is something as easy as hygiene and having water to bathe in,” she said. “If they had more water and sanitation and their hygiene was better, a lot of that would go away.”
While building the clinic isn’t going to directly impact the type of treatment used to fix certain health issues, the attention the Rotarians attracted to the village may, Madru said.
Women have only been allowed to join Rotary since 1988, and while Madru said being a woman district governor in Indiana is a pretty big deal here, she said it’s a huge deal over there.
“I think it is neat for Kokomo to have a female district governor, but in Africa, it is a really big deal. So when we were there, all these politicians came and legislators from the Ugandan government because I was there.
“It was really quite nice because we got to meet some very important people. But they came, and as a result, media came, too. We did press interviews. We did print interviews and radio, but the beauty of that is that you’re shining light on the problem,” she said.
One of the issues Madru addressed in the interviews was the problem of jiggers in the village.
“One of the legislators who was there said, ‘I had heard jiggers were a problem, but I didn’t realize until now that it’s not just people talking about it. It really is a problem,’” she said.
Since then, a newspaper article came out in Uganda about the infestation of jiggers.
“Anything we pay attention to usually improves. So the fact that he’s paying attention to it now, we’ll take whatever means we need to get them there to look at that problem. And I think they are taking a look at it,” she said.