FACE TO FACE: Rotary needs to change, not just for the sake of it but to make things better

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FELICITY DARVILLE

By FELICITY DARVILLE

The cover of the international magazine the Rotarian features Barry Rassin and his wife Esther with a group of flamingoes gathered in front. They are at the Ardastra Gardens and these pink beauties are doing their dance together. All the birds are going the same way, except for one. One flamingo is standing still on one leg, like only a flamingo can. He’s facing the opposite direction. When that bird decided to get going, Rassin learned an important lesson that he shared with me as he handed me a copy of the magazine.

“I call him… the flamingo of change,” he said.

“When he started going off in the other direction, all the other birds turn around and they go with him.”

Rassin believes that even if you are going in a totally different direction, once you are going the right way, people will support you; and you can bring about change in your world. As we sat in his house and talked for this week’s Face to Face, Rassin reflected on a whirlwind year which included spending a few days each month at Rotary’s headquarters in Chicago managing a team of 500, spending a few days in Nassau at home just to unpack and repack, and the rest of the time, visiting Rotary clubs around the world.

“Change” was one of his personal mandates while he led Rotary International as its president from July 1, 2018 to June 30 this year.

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Barry Rassin with his wife Esther at Ardastra Gardens.

“We really sensitised a lot of people,” Rassin said of his presidential year.

“Rotary is 114-years-old and we need to do some things differently… not just for the sake of change, but to make things better.

“We also wanted to work on our image. People still think of us as a bunch of old white men having lunch together. They see us as a group that meets for lunch and makes donations when in reality, we have to work hard and raise money. We end up doing more together and forming great relationships. It’s a formula that works around the world.”

That tactic worked well. Rassin wanted to see the amount of young professionals involved in Rotary’s service projects grow. Rotaract, the youth arm of Rotary with members ranging from age 18 to 30, grew significantly under Rassin’s watch. He increased the organisation’s presence on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and he tried to make a social media post almost daily to document the work being done around the world. Rotaract grew by 1,223 clubs around the globe – an unprecedented number in the history of Rotary.

But Rassin isn’t new to making history in Rotary. He is the first Bahamian and the first ever in the Caribbean region of having the honour of leading hundreds of thousands of Rotarians around the world. Prior to his year as president, he served as president-elect, and has been making the kind of impact that won’t soon be forgotten.

“You only have that one year as president, and you know you can’t change the world in one year… but you can begin,” he said.

“The change you make can take on its own life and continue into the future. We have to think longer term. Don’t just think of your year, but think of how the organisation can continue to improve over time.”

Rotary has definitely changed under Rassin’s watch, because Rotaract members become Rotary members, offering a lifetime commitment of service to others. I learned from him that Rotary is so much more than cutting cheques for donations or photo opportunities. The men and women of Rotary actually work hard, putting in sweat equity in every venture they embark upon.

He found that out when businessman John Robertson invited him to join the club back in 1980. Back then, he had just returned to The Bahamas with his Masters in Health and Hospital Administration and a wealth of knowledge, having served at Mt Sinai Medical Centre in Miami Beach as well as American Medicorp.

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Rassin, back left centre, poses with Rotary International’s membership committee at headquarters in front of the flags of countries where Rotary is represented around the world.

He was very much an introvert back then, but he knew he needed to meet key businessmen in the country, so he agreed. What he wasn’t prepared for was that he would be flung immediately out of his comfort zone and into the spotlight. He was called on to give a 20-minute presentation on his life, family, and his plans for the Rassin Hospital (now Doctors Hospital) at his very first Rotary weekly meeting.

He met prominent businessmen such as Sir Durwood Knowles, Terry Hilts, Terry Mosco and McGregor Robertson. Over the years, Rassin realised that hard work was a part of the Rotary deal. Rotarians have helped most of the NGOs in Nassau and the Family Islands. During the annual Rotary fair, members would take two days and erect the booths themselves. When they used to bring in the flying circus, it was such a massive undertaking that Rotarians would take a week off from work to make it happen. Currently, they would also rally big companies for assistance and over time, the introvert had learned to be an extrovert, realising that Rotary “helps to develop your personal leadership skills”.

“I learned more about leadership from Rotary than I learned in my professional life,” Rassin shared.

“I always say that Rotary should give out a master’s degree in real life leadership. If you can lead a group of volunteers, all going in the same direction, that’s amazing. I brought the skills I learned from Rotary back to the job and that makes better leadership for people.”

The group of volunteers Rassin led are from every part of the world. He was chairman of the Board, and that involved policy making. In addition, he and Esther had the privilege of seeing Rotary clubs and districts around the world to get first-hand knowledge of what they were doing.

What’s so good about it, is that they represented The Bahamas. Everywhere they went, the Bahamas’ national anthem was played. They heard awesome variations of the anthem sung by natives, including a touching rendition by school children in El Paso, Texas and sung Opera style in Italy. In Kenya, Rotarians took the Rassins out of the conference and two miles deep into the Karura Forest. In other parts of Africa, in India and in Taiwan, locals got them to wear traditional clothing. In San Diego, Ira Storr and the Spank Band raised the roof, at the Rassin’s invitation.

During Rotary’s convention in Hamburg, Germany, 17,000 Rotarians were expected, but 27,000 showed up. There, Julien Believe sang the national anthem in what Rassin called the best rendition he ever heard. Grammy award-winning Bahamen brought their magic, and Jamaal Rolle the celebrity artist painted a portrait of a mother holding a baby and receiving polio vaccine drops. He painted upside down and ended up painting twice because the room was not big enough, so they had two opening ceremonies. The auction of those two paintings brought in $25,000 for The Rotary Foundation.

In typical Bahamian woman style, Esther stole the show. Each year, Rotary’s first lady designs a scarf that is sold only by the organisation. The ocean blues, corals and sunshine yellows of the scarf made it a much sought-after accessory and Esther set a record of her own. The scarf and the tie made $1.4 million dollars for The Rotary Foundation within the first three days of their release. By the end of the year, they reached $2 million in sales.

There were many highlights during the two years the Rassins gave seven days a week, 365 days a year to Rotary. One of them included organising a vocational training team which travelled from India to Madagascar this year, including 19 surgeons and 12 volunteers. In eight days, the team performed 3,500 procedures, and 80 percent of the patients were children. Rotary’s greater mission since its inception, to rid the world of polio is almost realised. All except three endemic countries in the world are now polio free. Nigeria is about to be certified after three years without a case. But Pakistan and Afghanistan still have some cases due mainly to Taliban interference.

With two fantastic leadership years in pocket, Rassin looks forward to spending time with his three children and five grandchildren. He has an even greater appreciation for this country, after seeing the world, and being so much to so many people.