Once in a while you live a day that defies description. 7 January 2019 was one such day. Nevertheless I will do my best to help you join in the emotion with those of us who had the privilege of being there.
Forty of us - Indians, Australians and Americans - arrived at the Vidya Prashala High School & Junior College in time for breakfast on the roof. Clear blue skies above dusty ochre coloured mountains were the perfect backdrop as we ate. In the background, hidden from sight,we could hear the beautiful singing of the school’s children at their morning assembly.
The taste of spice still on our palates, we were invited to visit two classrooms that had been specially prepared for this day.
The first contained an exhibit of tribal art and textiles made by the children to show us their skilful interpretation of the local artisanal culture. Beautifully embroidered dresses intermingled with exquisite watercolour paintings and others painted using traditional methods lost in time.
The second was a miniature science fair. Using the very limited resources available to them the children had made a range of exhibits: a hydraulic drawbridge; a low tech evaporative cooling system; a miniature smart village; a demonstration of organic farming.
We then moved to the main event - the unveiling of 30 new toilets. As a reminder of what the children had to deal with before yesterday here is a link to a video that many of you will have seen. https://youtu.be/r3xr13xFfto
Today the path to this abomination is blocked, but yesterday I made sure to take my fellow travelers to visit the old toilets. This is something we should never forget. It stands as a silent, abandoned memorial to the unacceptable.
There were a number of ribbons to cut - water stations, boys’ toilets and girls’ toilets. The highlight for me, however, was when I had the privilege of leading our chief guest, someone I am so proud to call a friend, to cut the ribbon on one of the toilet blocks. On the outer wall of the block was a granite plaque listing the names of the Rotary clubs that had contributed to this project - Nasik Road (India), Box Hill Central (Australia), Amesbury (USA), Clayton (USA), Warrnambool East (Australia) and Cobar (Australia).
There were a number of members of the first two clubs present. The third club, Amesbury was represented by two people. With a bit of luck one of them, Steve McKenzie will become a golfing partner of mine some time in the future. The other was Julia Phelps, a trustee of the Rotary Foundation and a past director of Rotary International. To give you some context, there are 16 trustees. Four of them are past Presidents of Rotary International. Only three are women. One of the three is bound to become the first female president of Rotary International. In an organisation of one point three million people, these three women have scaled some serious mountain!
You may remember I’ve spoken about Julia before. She was one of the unwitting victims of my “underwear sweat” talk in Toronto and we’ve been friends ever since. It was such a thrill when Julia accepted my invitation to join us for this unveiling. Even more so when her club agreed to contribute to the project. Not only was she attending as a VIP on the day. She had skin in the game.
As we approached the toilet block Julia’s eyes fell on the plaque. She lifted her hand to her mouth and with tears in her eyes she reached for Steve. She was so proud to see her own club’s name engraved in perpetuity. A really poignant reminder for me that no matter how high someone might rise in this organisation, they remain a member of a club. Just another Rotarian doing what they can to make the world a better place.
Ribbon cutting behind us we moved to the grand stage that had been set up for us in the main school outdoor assembly area. Lots of speeches. I always feel sorry for the kids. There were hundreds of them who had to put up with us adults. At least they had a shade sail overhead.
I was probably zoning out when I heard my name called. I stood up and walked toward the podium wondering why I had been called so early. My speech time wasn’t up yet. Next thing Julia stood up too. I was a little confused. Whats going now?
Julia handed me a small box. A Paul Harris Fellowship with three sapphires from the Rotary Club of Nasik Road. As a Rotarian being given a Paul Harris pin by another club is a pretty big deal. I won’t bang on about it too much but it is a great honour. To have it presented by a Foundation Trustee is next level. There is a photo of me with my hand over my heart, Julia with her hand on my back. It speaks a thousand words.
Ten minutes later it was time for my speech. I reminded everyone why we were here. Indians love having VIPs around. I shouldn’t admit it but I guess I do too. But we were not here for VIPs. We were here for the kids. India’s future is in their hands and our job is to help them build it.
I then turned to Julia planning to thank her and found myself lost for words. I managed to say “thank you so much for taking the time to join us here. I don’t know how to thank you.” I tapped my fist a few times over my heart and battled through the rest of my thanks with a wavering voice.
I returned to my seat still fighting back the tears. Julia was clearly moved by my heartfelt failure to properly thank her, offering a hug as I passed on the stage. Ten minutes later I was back at podium promising to be less emotional as I introduced Julia, rather offering to leave the crying to her. She stepped up, struggled only briefly with her emotions and delivered a powerful message to the assembled children. She read her Indian audience perfectly - they were truly enthralled! So great to see a humanitarian leader in action.
After Julia left our hosts lead us dancing to a delicious Maharashtran lunch. In the evening we danced again, well into the night. This had been a day worth celebrating and we did in Indian style.