District 5370: A leader in youth programs

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Students join discussion groups during RYLE

Today, our District has more Interact and Rotaract clubs than it does Rotary clubs.

A decade ago, that wasn’t the case. What happened? How did District 5370 become a Youth Services leader in North America?

Tamara Larson (RC of Edmonton Whyte Avenue), who has been the District’s Youth Services chair for the last three and a half years, credits 2010-11 District Governor Jackie Hobal (RC of Edmonton West) for getting the ball rolling.

“Jackie sat down and developed a strategic plan to grow youth programs in our District,” Tamara says. “At that time, we had 11 Interact clubs and one Rotaract club.”

There were 61 Rotary clubs.

Today there are 53 Interact (ages 12-18)  clubs and 10 Rotaract (18-30) clubs. That’s a total of 63 clubs for young leaders, compared to the 58 District 5370 Rotary clubs.

“The strategy was to build these clubs. Start with Interact, which would grow our Rotaract, which would ultimately grow our Rotary membership in our District,” Tamara says. 

“At RYLA (Rotary Youth Leadership Awards), we always tell Interactors that if they go to university and there is no Rotaract club, start one,” which is exactly what happened at one university this year.

“The president of the Concordia University Rotaract club was an Interact club member in Grande Prairie,” says Tamara. “She moved to Edmonton to go to Concordia. There was no Rotaract club, so she started one. It took her less than three months to get 15 people and they have done some great things.”

With a background in education, Jackie came to her role as DG with a passion for working with youth. 

“I was very aware of the demographics in Alberta, the demographics in Canada and the fact that the majority of our population was in that very young age group. If you are building for the future, and that’s what we are always thinking about in Rotary, we need to empower that particular age group.” 

“I saw the writing on the wall in terms of Rotary membership,” she says. “The decline of Rotary membership began about a year before I was governor, about 2009. People were not as excited about Rotary as they used to be and so I saw an opportunity with youth.”

Jackie feels there were two reasons that the District was successful in meeting the goals she set out in her New Generations Vision, which became the blueprint for developing youth programs in District 5370.

Screen Shot 2019-06-25 at 9.57.20 AMFirst, the District formed a partnership with the Alberta-based Servus Credit Union, which provided a grant of $250,000. The grant was spread out over three years and shared with District 5360, which includes Alberta Rotary clubs from Red Deer south.

 “That was the magic—having the flexibility of the dollars to build capacity. Those dollars were used to create events, to really beef up our RYPEN (Rotary Youth Program of Enrichment) and our RYLA. We also started RYLE, which is Rotary Youth Leadership Experience. That program has had great success.”

Making more great ideas possible

The funds from Servus Credit Union made numerous other great ideas possible. 

“Sometimes you have great ideas as Rotarians, but you don’t have the money to make it happen. We were able to bring youth to leadership events and international conventions,” Jackie says. “We sent them to Big West Rotaract in the San Francisco area, where they have huge Rotaract events that we don’t have here.”

The money also allowed the District to adapt the concept of the CBC program Dragon Den to provide opportunities for Interact groups to find money for their projects.

“We used some of the Servus Credit Union money—one year we put aside $5,000—and we said, ‘Come and pitch your project, sell us your project,’” Jackie says. “We brought some CFOs and CEOs to be judges and gave them criteria. The kids got up and pitched their projects and then [the dragons] doled out the money. It was great. The [Rotarians] really enjoyed that. I think that got clubs inspired. They could see the potential of what these youth groups could do.”

Screen Shot 2019-06-25 at 9.58.12 AMThe second component to success was having people with the passion to implement the plan.

“You need leaders and you need champions,” Jackie says. “I put a touch on Laura Morie (RC of Westlock). She became Youth chair.” 

Laura’s involvement with youth goes back to when the Westlock Rotary club hosted the orientation for inbound Youth Exchange students, which the club had done for over 30 years prior to the District taking on this task.

With the orientation off its plate, the Westlock club agreed to host RYLA for three years, beginning in 2009.

Giving youth a voice

“We decided that what we really needed was for these kids to have something that was a little more experiential than sitting in a room and having different people come and talk to them,” Laura says. “We figured that enlisting the help of the kids who had previously had the experience, from one year to the next, was going to be a path to success because with kids the voices of other kids resonate.”

Listening to youth led to the creation of the District Youth Council, which meant “kids had a voice,” Laura says. “They had influence. The assisted in creating programming for RYPEN and RYLA.”

Tamara, who succeeded Laura as Youth Services chair when Laura became District Governor in 2016-17, now chairs the Youth Council.

“The committee is comprised of Rotarians, Rotaract members and Interact members. We have Rotaract and Interact members in chair positions when it comes to RYLA, RYLE and RYPEN,” Tamara says. 

“This council drives our short-term and long-term youth programs. It allows young people to have a voice in where these are going and what is most effective. They have a very large voice in the future of youth programs within the District.” 

One of Laura’s first actions as Youth Services chair was to find out what Rotary clubs were doing related to youth programming.

“We did a District-wide survey of all the clubs, asking them to tell us what they were looking for and how much resources (money and effort) they put into their youth programs and we got this amazing picture of what was going on in the District, from scholarships to commitments to sending kids off, be it on an exchange or adventure trips or RYLA or RYPEN,” she says. 

Youth Services become part of presidents-elect training

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Concordia University Rotaract club receives its charter from 2018-19 DG Ingrid Neitsch

Growing youth programs required the support of clubs, so Jackie ensured that information about youth programs was part of the training incoming club leaders received. 

“I had been part of the training team for many years in our District and I made sure that became an essential part of training of presidents-elect and club leaders,” Jackie says. “Clubs sponsor Interact and Rotaract clubs and we have seen that grow exponentially, more so than in any other district in our combined zones, Zone 24 and Zone 32. My guess is we have more active youth leaders than any of those districts.”

Part of the strategy was to encourage Rotary clubs to send students to RYLA events.

“We thought we should use the RYLA program as way to help clubs kickstart Interact clubs. If clubs would commit to sending three participants to RYLA, what would happen would be a lot like what happens at our District learning sessions,” Laura says. “If you have two or three people who go back with a consistent message, they are not a lone voice in the wilderness. We figured out how to get kids from RYLA to start Interact clubs and we trained their advisors to support them.”

When they graduate from high school and go on to post-secondary institutions, some former Interactors look to become involved in Rotaract clubs.

Laura recalls attending a University of Alberta Rotaract fundraiser about five or six years after she was first involved with Youth Services, as an amazing moment.

Screen Shot 2019-06-25 at 9.58.52 AM“The U of A Rotaract had about 90 members and when I walked in the room at least half of the members of the Rotaract club were kids that had been through RYLE, had joined Interact and now they were Rotaractors. There were kids from Yellowknife and Peace River and Grande Prairie and Camrose and they had found and built their community in the Rotaract club and they had built-in mentors because many of them had attended RYLE and some of their counsellors who were putting on the program were university students. When these kids got there, they already had friends.”

What has happened in our District over the past decade has made it a leader in North America in terms of Youth Services.

You get out east, to the east coast and down into the U.S., and they don’t have a lot of Rotaract clubs. They don’t have Interact clubs,” Tamara says.

“Why is it that way in other districts? I can’t say, but I have been approached by two other districts to help them build their youth programs and maybe do workshops and things like that.”

Maybe someday those districts will also have more youth clubs than Rotary clubs.

DG Tracey prepared to begin her 2019-2020 journey

Someone once said that a journey of 1,000 miles begins with one step.

For new District Governor Tracey Vavrek, her journey to visit the clubs in our District will be much longer—an estimated 33,000 km. 

And the first “step” will involve driving approximately 1,200 km from her home in Grande Prairie to Yellowknife, in a Toyota Highlander which is nicknamed Amelia Kind Heart. Each word of that name was chosen for a reason.

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“First off, Amelia suggests strength, a voyageur, and it means someone who has been working hard,” Tracey says. Also, “Amelia was my grandmother’s name. She was a very special person to me, who took me under her wing and guided me through life.”  

Regarding the second part of the name, Kind, Tracey says, “I believe that gratitude and kindness can change the world and what we do as Rotarians is offer kindness. We offer kindness to each other in fellowship and friendship and we offer kindness through local projects and the work we do around the world. 

“Every time you see the Rotary wheel, you also reflect on someone who has provided service. That service was given through kindness and care.” 

The final word is represented by the graphic of a heart. “It represents the love we all share together and we know that’s key for the essential of Rotary continuing.”

Tracey, Vince and their family

Accompanying Tracey on her journey, which will take until late November to complete, will be Vince, her husband and fellow member of the Rotary Club of Grande Prairie After Five, who has just completed a year as club president.

Tracey and Vince have been together for 20 years and between them have raised a blended family of four, now-adult children. “We are passionate about community and giving and we have raised our children with that concept,” she says. 

tracyvince.jpg“The unfortunate thing is that none of them live in the North anymore. They are all in southern Alberta. It hurts that they are all so far away, but we appreciate any time we get together.”

They also have one four-year-old granddaughter, Olivia who attended the June 27 District Changeover Event with her mother.

Vince grew up in the Grande Prairie and Tracey moved there 27 years ago for work. For the last 18 years, she has been the executive director/CEO of the Community Foundation of Northwestern Alberta.

“In this role I am very fortunate to be able to work with wonderful individuals from our community, from social services groups to service organizations such as Rotary, with government and educational institutions to strengthen the community,” Tracey says.

She believes that there is a good fit between her job and being a Rotarian.

“Rotarians are very focused on helping to do good in our local communities and internationally and at the Community Foundation I am very fortunate that I do this every day and then I have the opportunity as a Rotarian to do it in my volunteer job,” she says.

Taking advantage of Rotary’s increased flexibility

Thanks to the flexibility Rotary International now gives District governors and thanks to technology, Tracey will be able to continue her work with the foundation, while also fulfilling her role as District governor.

“This is what is wonderful about the changes that Rotary International made. Rotary International has added more flexibility to the District governor’s position to allow the governor to continue to work full time during their year,” Tracey says. 

“I will be able to continue in my role but working out of my car. I will have a temporary office established in my vehicle. It will include my laptop, Wi-Fi, and my printer. I will continue to maintain my responsibilities as the CEO of the foundation, but also be able to meet my responsibilities as the governor to connect with all the great people throughout our District.”

Some of the flexibility afforded District governors is the relaxation of some of the previous requirements, which includes not having to meet with each club separately. “Maybe you can do some collective meetings. Or maybe  there are opportunities to change the style of the meeting. To do what is right for the Rotarians and clubs, and also for the District governor” Tracey says. “Based on that, I do have a few communities where we will be hosting collective meetings together. So far, all our clubs and members have been very positive in responding and sharing and some have asked, ‘Can we do more together? Can we not only have our governor’s meeting, but also do some social things and community work together?’ ”

It’s through her foundation work that Tracey learned about Rotary. She was working with someone from the city of Grande Prairie, who was also a Rotarian. 

“He said, ‘You know,  with all your passion for the community, you might want to consider coming to a Rotary meeting.’ I can tell you, that was the start of an amazing journey. I attended my first Rotary meeting, the Rotary Club of Grande Prairie Sunrise. I became a member not long after that.”

That was 2006 and in 2010-2011 she became president of the Sunrise Club. Later, she moved over to the After Five for scheduling and availability reasons.

“That’s the wonderful thing about Rotary. There’s that flexibility. Find what is the right place for the Rotarian. It’s OK to move. It’s OK to make a shift if you need to,” Tracey says.

In addition to being a club president, Tracey served for three years as an assistant governor and has been a member of the District’s membership and foundation committees. She has also been part of a number of service projects.

Participation in service projects

“I am very fortunate to have been a driver for the Highway to Mexico project in 2012. That project brings essential equipment—fire trucks, ambulances, school supplies, wheelchairs, medical supplies—down to communities in the Mazatlan area, including remote communities that don’t have access to these resources. 

“It was quite a journey, travelling from northern Alberta. Eight days of driving, pulling into Mazatlan very late at night and being able to deliver this equipment and these items to that community.”

In her own community, Tracey has participated in projects in support of the local food bank drive. “We literally bring in tons and tons of food every year to support the food banks in Grande Prairie and the surrounding area. It’s an excellent project, supported by all the clubs in the area, including the Rotaract Club, our Interact Club and our Early-act club.”

More recently, Tracey was part of a Project Amigo program, which involved several past and future DGs who spent a volunteer week in Mexico. 

“Truly, it was life-changing to be on the ground in Mexico and meet with families in very remote and tough places and to be able to offer them hope and to help children reach their academic goals. It’s a gift that we can do that,” she says. 

“It was very humbling to experience that journey and that adventure and in my heart I will never forget the feeling of what I felt when I was down there.”

A commitment to leadership

Tracey sees her role as District governor as one of leadership, rather than management. 

“There is a difference between management and leadership. Management is when you have the opportunity just to have a systems of checks and balances in place and to keep moving things along. Leading and holding the role of District governor is truly about inspiring and engaging our great Rotarians and also helping others to understand what Rotary is about. 

“I believe it’s important that we grow Rotary and that we connect Rotary clubs at a stronger level with their own communities, but also at the international level,” Tracey says. 

“Just imagine if we can increase the presence of Rotary by sharing and inspiring others. That’s what I am really excited about. We know that people have dreams. People have dreams to connect and do more for others. When we connect the dreams of people who desire to serve with the dreams of the people who are in need … wow! That’s amazing. I am really excited to be able to sit down, to have conversations with people, to hear about their dreams and look at ways we can continue to do what we are doing and do more,” Tracey says.

“I am truly, truly honoured today to be able to step into the role of District governor. There is a little bit of nervousness coming in as well. It is a key role in helping Rotary to go forward at the District level and for Rotary International. I don’t take it lightly. I am excited. I am honoured and I am humbled,” Tracey says.

“I believe we have one of the best Districts in the world. Look at the impact of our District, from our local work to our international work.”

Volunteering with Project Amigo was a life-changing experience for former district governor

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Children from a migrant camp

In 2008, Past District Governor (2005-06)  Elly Contreras (Rotary E-Club of Canada One) and her husband and fellow Rotarian, Ramiro, arrived in Colima, Mexico, for a volunteer week with Project Amigo, with the expectation that “we will be changing lives.”

What they didn’t realize was that the lives that would be changed were theirs. 

“Ten years ago, we came for a week of volunteering, not expecting the enormous impact it would make on our lives,” Elly says. 

“I became a different person, with an appreciation for life I never expected. The little seed that was planted by Project Amigo grew and created a bond that brought me closer to the culture [of Mexico] and its people. I am proud to be part of the lives of so many young people who have so much potential. I have seen them develop into confident young adults. All they need are people like us, who empower them, support them and tell them they are worthy.”

Project Amigo was established in 1984, by two Rotarians from California, to provide educational opportunities to children from poor Mexican families who would likely have little hope without the organization’s support. The Project Amigo Canada Society was formed in 2008, with Elly as its first president.

Darrel Martin (RC of Edmonton Northeast), the current president of the board of directors for Project Amigo Canada, says, “Project Amigo takes kids from elementary school age up now to university. Seventy-one have graduated from university. When I first went there in 2008 there wouldn’t have been anyone in university.

“There is a lot of pressure from the family to go to work to help the family, because these families have almost no money,” Darrel says. “For boys, if their fathers work in the sugar cane field, there’s pressure on them to go to work in the sugar cane field. That’s part of the cultural thing we are working against with the program, but as time goes by, more and more are graduating and getting jobs and people see that is a good thing.”

He believes that attitudes are changing. 

“Parents are realizing the bigger picture and thinking that my son or daughter is going to be able to do more for this family if we suck it up now and allow them to go to school. 

During Project Amigo workweeks, volunteers assist with construction projects,  deliver books and other materials to schools, and work with the children.

Volunteers and Staff

Project Amigo staff and volunteers

Many of the volunteers are Rotarians, but not all. “There have been non-Rotarians who have gone down there, and then come back and joined Rotary,” Darrel says.

To learn more about workweeks, or to volunteer to spend a week in Cofridia, in the state of Colima, visit the Project Amigo Canada website.

Since their first workweek, Ramiro and Elly returned often to work with the Project Amigo staff and now spend half the year in Mexico, where Elly serves as the Canadian Intermediary/Co-ordinator with Project Amigo.

“We have learned so much about this beautiful culture, its kind people and the hardship many of the indigenous people face on a daily basis,” she says.

“We have seen shy, insecure, barefooted, snotty-nosed eight-year-olds from the migrant camps, with no way out of the continuous cycle of poverty, develop into confident students, excited to have finished high school and enrolled in university—something which is unheard of in this culture. We have met many grateful parents, proud of having their child as the first one in their family continuing beyond primary school.”

Darrel sees evidence of the value of the program in the success of some of its graduates. “The village of Cofridia has had two mayors, who both are lawyers, who have come through the program,” he says.

Another example of the program’s success is a young man who completed university and now works for an export company. “I asked him, ‘What would have become of you if it had not been for Project Amigo?’ He said, ‘I would be working in the sugar cane fields.’ ”

In addition to participating in volunteer workweeks, you can support Project Amigo by sponsoring individual students. Currently, more than 300 students are supported in this fashion, including 76 who have Canadian sponsors: 39 in elementary school, 11 in junior high, 12 in high school, 13 in university and one in technical school.

“Our goal is to increase the number of students sponsored by Canadians to 100 by the end of 2018,” Elly says.

It costs $135 to sponsor a student in elementary school and $765 for a junior/senior high student. With the cost to sponsor a university or technical school student $5,000 or more, it’s common for several individuals or Rotary clubs to combine their resources for those sponsorships.

Representatives of Project Amigo have a booth at the RI Convention in Toronto and are often in the House of Friendship at District conferences.

“Project Amigo has changed my life,” Elly says. “It has given me a better understanding of who I am as a person. It may change yours too.”