When assistant governor Sally Schilds (RC of Dawson Creek Sunrise) encountered young men begging in the market near where she and other volunteers had spent a day administering polio vaccine, two drops at a time, into the mouths of children, it brought home the importance of what she was doing.
Sally, her husband, 2015-16 PDG Tim (RC of Dawson Creek), their daughter, Brenna, and a friend of their daughter were part of a national immunization day in an Indian village near Agra, the site of the Taj Mahal, in January 2018.
“We were going through the market, and as we were going to our bus, we saw all of these young men lined up, sitting by the bus,” Sally says.
“My [daughter’s] friend turned to me and said, ‘I don’t understand why they are always sitting on the ground.’ I said, ‘It’s because they had polio. They are victims of polio. That’s why we were giving those drops to those babies and those children, so they don’t end up like this.’
“She was absolutely shocked and teary-eyed because she hadn’t made that connection,” Sally says. “For her to see why we are doing it also hit me like a ton of bricks. I said, ‘That’s why we are here, to help these children not have to worry about it.’
“’I had seen the pictures and I know the facts, but to actually see it, and live through that realization by this young woman was very touching for both of us.”
National immunization days (NIDs) are supported by Rotary International, through tax deductible donations by Rotarians to the Polio Eradication campaign, and by its partners in the campaign to eradicate polio, such as the World Health Organization and UNICEF.
Rotary volunteers are responsible for their own travel and accommodation while participating in NIDs.
“Like many Rotarians who have been involved in Polio Plus, it was always the (goa)l to go and do a national immunization day,” Sally says.
The idea become a possibility when they received a letter from friends in India. “The reason we have friends in India, why we’ve met these people from India, is through youth exchange. Our very first youth exchange ‘daughter’ is living in Delhi,” Sally says.
Initially, only Sally and Tim were planning to volunteer, but then she asked her daughter if she would be interested in making India the destination of the graduation trip her parents had promised her after she completed university.
“ ‘That’s exactly what I want to do,’ she responded,” Sally says. It would be an opportunity for a family reunion with Brenna’s “big sister.
For another assistant governor, Marilyn Mucha (RC of Edmonton Whyte Avenue), participation began in 2011 with a telephone call from a Rotarian from Drayton Valley.
“I got a call from Mary Drader saying, ‘[2019-10 PDG] Terry doesn’t want to go, but I would like to go. Can we go together?’ I said absolutely. We did the research and went on a pre-arranged trip that was organized by a past district governor from California, who is a travel agent,” Marylin says.
For Marilyn, it was an opportunity to experience first-hand how Rotary serves people in another part of the world. “We’re separated from the work that we do internationally. Rotarians don’t get to feel the impact of what we do and see how we’ve touched the lives of people when we’re donating money,” Marilyn says.
“This provided me an opportunity to be on the ground, to be connected with children and the people of a country that needed so desperately to get this vaccine, and of course, to work towards our overall goal of eradicating polio.”
The same travel agency that arranged Marilyn and Mary’s visit is organizing another polio eradication trip, which will begin with participants arriving in Delhi on January 11. Like the one in which Marilyn and Mary participated, this trip will visit tourist sites for a few days, before participation in immunization activities near Delhi.
“The travel arrangements were already taken care of for you. You’re also going to be connected with local Rotarians. The Rotarians there embraced us and had receptions for us,” Marilyn says.
“Of course, they wanted to show us their projects, some of which were tied to the polio, such as providing braces and corrective surgeries for polio victims.”
Click here for additional information about this trip.
While in India the polio vaccine has in the past been administered with two drops into the mouths of children, the nation is switching to injectables in its effort to ensure the country remains polio-free. This means that 2020 may the last time to be involved as these Rotarians from District 5370 were.
“The typical national immunization day protocol [begins with] a briefing with the World Health Organization and the Rotary co-ordinators,” Marilyn says.
The first day for both hers and Sally’s immunization campaign was devoted to informing the local residents about what would be happening.
“We discovered we were going to be used mainly to spread the important message of polio immunizations,” Sally says. “One day, we took to the streets in a great big parade and walked through this poor village area. There were whistles and bells and music.”
Marilyn says, “because so many people in the area are illiterate, you have to demonstrate what it is that you’re going to be doing, with something really loud and colourful. We participated in that parade. It was huge. We all had our [Polio Plus] shirts on. There was a marching band and a banner that showed a child getting two drops.”
Click here to view a slide show of a parade in Ghaziabad, a city near New Delhi.
“The next day, we participated in what we called ‘booth duty.’ There were multiple booths set up in neighbourhoods and cities around the country,” Marilyn says. “We were participating in actual immunization, which was doing one of two things: we were either administering the drops or marking the left pinky with indelible purple ink [to show that children had been immunized].”
Parents brought their children to the immunization booth using every mode of transportation imaginable. “They came by foot, on bikes, on scooters, in cars—it was almost like a drive-through,” Marilyn says.
“They came by the booth and we would immunize them and away they went. It was very fast, very efficient.”
Personnel from the World Health Organization were present at each location. “They were the ones in change of the vaccine and they were tracking how many people were immunized,” Marilyn says.
That day, the immunization activity was interrupted by an unexpected visitor.
“In India, cows are sacred. You can’t disturb them. So if they sit in the middle of the road, you drive around it,” Marilyn says. “A bull decided he was going to go through our tent, which was very dramatic to say the least. We all cleared away and let him pass through. Then we continued with what we were doing.”
Tim and Sally were paired with two Dutch women on the day they were to immunize children. “We met very, very early in the morning and we were all given our gear—the hats, the vests, the toys,” Sally says. “Then we were all put in the little tuk-tuks with our interpreter and taken away to a small, little brick schoolhouse.
“I would like to say it was an abandoned schoolhouse, but unfortunately it was not. All around us was extreme poverty, absolutely extreme poverty,” she says.
They were joined at the school by a nurse practitioner. “She did a baby clinic and gave the polio vaccine by needle to the babies and the rest of us were there with our interpreter to do the drops.”
Some children were familiar with the process, having received the drop several times before. “In India, in some vaccination areas, they have to have the drops about 12 times for it to be strong enough,” Sally says. “Some of the little kids who came stood there like birds and opened their mouths and we gave them the drops and then we gave them a little toy—a ball or whistle.”
For other children, the experience wasn’t like what’s illustrated on the posters promoting polio eradication—all those little babies, with their mouths open wide, looking up adoringly at the volunteers.
“As you can imagine, lot of children were really afraid of us,” says Sally. “The Dutch women were these tall, blonde women. Then you’ve got Tim with his burly moustache and you’ve got me with my white hair and glasses. They were excited to see us, but also terrified. I would say it was half and half—children looking up at us adorably and being very proud to get their drops, and others who were absolutely terrified to get their drops.”
After that day at the school, Sally and Tim’s polio immunization experience was over, but for Marilyn, there was one more day. “This day was for me the most impactful because this is when we went out to the slums. These were people who did not come to the booth for whatever reason.”
The people living in this area tended to be transient and living in what Marilyn describes as filthy conditions. Nevertheless, “the children seemed happy, but they were playing in the mud, with snakes and everything else roaming around.”
She was impressed by the local organization, which worked with the World Health Organization. “They had schematics of the settlement and were able to tell who lived in which tent and if they had been immunized. We went to each of those dwellings and immunized the children and it was documented.”
The visit to slum involved more than immunizations. “We were told we would be visiting a project and we brought clothes and school supplies, like pencils and pens. We delivered those to that particular slum,” Marilyn says.
Having been part of national immunization day has changed what Marylin does when she travels to other countries. Before the Indian immunization trip, she would always buy jewelry for herself to remember where she had been.
“When I saw the conditions that these people were living in, I then and there stopped my tradition of buying a piece of jewelry from my travel destination,” she says. “I rationalized this by asking myself, ‘How many people could I immunize for that same amount of money?’ I realized that material things and baubles are really of so little value at the end of the day, when the money can be used in a different way.”
Of her national immunization day experience, Sally says, “there’s a sense of accomplishment, but it is more than that. It’s making us feel that we are really part of humanity. We really have done something. It seems simple, just two little drops, but you feel like you are part of the team. It can be quite overwhelming.
“I would encourage anyone who gets the opportunity to take it and go on a national immunization day. If you don’t have that opportunity, still be part of the team and donate to Polio Plus.”