Volunteer service 'can actually change lives': Rotary International president - Korea Times
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Volunteer service 'can actually change lives': Rotary International president

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Rotary International President Shekhar Mehta speaks during an interview with The Korea Times in Anguk-dong, Seoul, Oct. 8. Courtesy of Rotary Korea
Rotary International President Shekhar Mehta speaks during an interview with The Korea Times in Anguk-dong, Seoul, Oct. 8. Courtesy of Rotary Korea

By Nam Hyun-woo

In July, Rotary International, one of the largest volunteer service organizations in the world, embraced the new leadership of Shekhar Mehta, chairman and founder of India-based real estate developer Skyline Group.

Under Mehta's leadership, Rotary is becoming a more action-oriented organization, focusing on practical goals that can actually change lives.

"When I say 'serve,' I'm asking you to do some action," Mehta said during an interview with The Korea Times, Oct. 8, during his visit to Seoul. "And what happens when you serve people? It changes their lives. As you keep changing other people's lives, your life becomes sublime."

Mehta became the global head of Rotary International on July 1 and will serve in the post until June 30 of next year. As the president, he has set his theme of leadership to, "serve to change lives," which he said refers to providing tailored and practical help to people in need.

"Let's say we are providing service to keep the peace," Mehta said. "Peace is not just the absence of war. … Providing a piece of bread to a family that hasn't eaten for days could be peace for them. So that's what Rotarians are doing ― giving homes to those who are homeless, giving health to people who do not have health, giving education to people who are uneducated."

Mehta visited Korea to attend the 2021 Rotary International President Conference in Gyeongju, North Gyeongsang Province, which was held from Oct. 5 to 6. The conference highlighted ideas and actions for disease prevention and treatment, with leading domestic experts in healthcare providing lectures.

One of the diseases that Rotary International focuses on is polio; the organization has played a key role for more than 30 years in the world's effort to eradicate the disease.

"I've been in Rotary for 36 years, and even today when I speak of polio, I have goosebumps," Mehta said. "Thirty-six years back when Rotary started this program, 350,000 children were either dying or getting paralyzed. This year, there are only two cases in two countries ― Afghanistan and Pakistan ― and there has been not a single case for the last eight months."

As a founding partner of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, Rotary has been one of the most active organizations in the world's battle against polio, by helping more than 2.5 billion children get immunized in 122 countries. Following these efforts, polio cases have declined by 99.9 percent since Rotary's first project to vaccinate children in the Philippines in 1979.

"In mankind's history, the only vaccine-preventable disease to be eradicated was small pox," Mehta said. "The other one could be polio. For 36 years, 1.2 million Rotarians have had one corporate goal, and that is eradicating polio. And we are now nearly there. Keeping our fingers crossed, for the next four months, I hope there will be no polio cases."

According to him, if there are no polio cases in the next four months, the World Health Organization will wait for three additional years to certify the world as now polio-free. However, even if the world reaches polio-free status, he said that Rotary will maintain its focus on its program, to support vaccination programs for the prevention of other diseases.

To support this program, Jimin of K-pop group BTS donated 100 million won ($83,700) to Rotary International in July and received a letter of appreciation during the conference here.

"It is a big amount," Mehta said. "What's more important is the message. For a man who is so popular, that person is giving hope. I don't expect others to give $80,000 also, but people should see the message in it."

During the interview, Mehta showed appreciation for Korean Rotarians' passion in engaging in service, saying that their efforts are providing a boost in Rotary International's global programs.

"Let's talk about India in comparison. It is one of the best countries for Rotary performance. There is so much need and people are wanting to donate and serve," he said. "In Korea, the needs are not so much but the passion to serve is there. People here want to do something. They want to serve so they have been doing programs and projects not just here but around the world."

Mehta noted that Rotary Clubs in Korea are engaging in a series of projects, such as e-learning programs in India and building blood banks in African countries.

According to Rotary officials, Korea was the second-largest country in terms of donations to the Rotary Foundation, with $22.7 million last year, following the U.S.

"It's important for people to take care of other people," Mehta said. "And when I say other people, it's not just those in your own backyard. The world is your backyard."

Nam Hyun-woo namhw@koreatimes.co.kr

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