Barry Rassin heads an organization with 1.2 million members and 35,000 clubs in more than 200 countries.

For 110-years, Rotary International has promoted peace, fought disease, supported education, fed children and, more than anything over the past three decades, worked to eradicate polio. There were only 33 cases worldwide reported last year.

Even so, Rotary membership has been flat for years and, like many service organizations, its membership is graying. That’s why Rassin, Rotary International’s 2018-19 president, says he is focused on youth – energizing clubs, exploring ways of starting new clubs and getting better at social media.

Rassin, who is from the Bahamas, was recently in the Sun City to visit with area Rotarians. The clubs in El Paso and Juárez used the occasion to celebrate 93 years of cooperation. Today, there are more than 20 clubs in the region and hundreds of Rotarians.

In El Paso, they build wheelchair ramps, support a free medical clinic in the Lower Valley, sponsor a youth leadership camp and host an annual Christmas party for more than 4,000 kids. This year, the foundation is providing the Rescue Mission of El Paso with a $50,000 grant to support the opening of Hallelujah! BBQ, a restaurant and rehabilitation and job training project for the homeless.

Rassin is from the Bahamas – a tropical paradise with more than 700 islands and 2,000 rocks and cays southeast of Florida. But these days he spends much of his time visiting Rotarians around the world.

Recently, he was in South Korea, Japan, Kenya, Ghana and Nigeria. Next month, he visits five more African countries, starting with Egypt.

Rassin grew up in Nassau. Later, he moved to the United States to attend college, earning an MBA in health and hospital administration from the University of Florida. He recently retired after nearly 40 years with Doctors Hospital Health System in Nassau, where he was president.

A Rotarian since 1980, Rassin led Rotary’s relief and recovery efforts after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. For that, he was given Rotary’s highest honor, the Service Above Self Award.

Rassin sat down with El Paso Inc. and talked about eradicating polio, innovative ways some Rotarians are doing Rotary, life in the Bahamas and his first – petrifying – speech.

Q: How did you first get involved with Rotary?

This has been a 39-year journey. I started because a Rotarian walked up to me one day and invited me to lunch and said that I needed to meet the people in the group.

Q: This was in Nassau, Bahamas?

Yes. Interesting story. I had been asked to join earlier when I was in Hollywood, Florida, running a hospital. But when I looked around the room I was 30 and they were a lot older than me, so I didn’t join. 

It wasn’t until I got to Nassau that I knew I had to join. It was a younger group, and they were the movers and shakers in the country.

I’m an introvert, so I had to put myself out of my comfort zone.

Q: Yay for introverts!

So you’re with me, huh? 

I made sure I spent time meeting all the members of the club. I’ll never forget. Usually, we give a “my job” talk. You have three to five minutes to tell about yourself. I had an MBA but had never made a speech before. 

I was starting a new hospital in the country, and they wanted me to do a 20-minute speech, which I was petrified to do. But I thought: OK, I have to do this. 

There’s time after the talk for questions, and I’ll never forget there was a Rotarian in the back of the room who stood up. He said, “I just want to know one thing: Why did your father fire my mother?” Huh? That was my introduction to Rotary. (Laughs)

It was probably a year or two later, as I started getting more involved and seeing what Rotary really does, that I discovered a passion for what this organization can accomplish and does accomplish around the world. It is incredible.

Q: Is this your first visit to El Paso? I imagine it’s quite a bit different from the Bahamas – plenty of sun and sand but a lot less ocean and conch.

It is my first time. It’s definitely different, but it’s much better than Chicago. We closed Rotary headquarters for two days because of the cold weather. 

Q: You timed your trip to the Southwest well. What are you doing while you are in El Paso?

I’m very lucky to be here. You guys have great weather. Basically, I want to see what Rotary here does – see some of the projects and get a chance to talk to as many Rotarians as I can and meet with some of the youth. And just give them support – whatever I can do to provide support and motivation. That’s what I enjoy the most.

Being on the border, you really touch on one of the aspects that make Rotary unique. We avoid politics. We avoid religion. That opens doors for us that nobody else can open. 

We’ve had a Rotarian meet with the Taliban in Pakistan to ask that they lay their arms down so we can immunize their children. And they did. We’ve done the same in Sri Lanka, meeting with the Tamil. 

I’m sure you have heard of the Four-Way Test. Rotarians believe in that, and we try to hold others to that standard.

Q: Are you visiting the clubs in Juárez?

Yes.

Q: Why did you choose “Be the Inspiration” as your theme for 2018-19?

All of us who have been in Rotary are there because we want to do good things. We want to make our world better, and what I want this year is to remind us all of that – to be inspired and inspire others to do more good.

Q: You mentioned in a recent speech that Rotary membership hasn’t grown in 20 years and about 300,000 members have left Rotary over the past two years. Like many service clubs, it’s graying. Can Rotary change?

Yes. Absolutely. My message for Rotary clubs is we have to stand back and look at ourselves honestly. While we are comfortable and enjoy our club and meeting every week, are we relevant to today’s world? Are we relevant to young professionals? And if the answer to that is no, we need to start thinking about how we are going to change. 

I’m starting to see movement in that direction. But I’m also talking to our Rotaractors – that’s our 18- to 30-year-olds – and saying if they don’t see a club they feel comfortable in, they should start their own club. We are beginning to see some motion with our young people starting new Rotary clubs – the way they want to do it.

We are very flexible these days. I met with a club in Denver last week, and they meet online. They only have to do service projects. The bottom line is it is about doing good in the world. If we are helping humanity, then we are good Rotarians.

Now, don’t get me wrong. We also need to be relevant to the recently retired, because this is a natural fit – they’ve worked hard, had a good life and want to do something good to give back to society. Rotary is the perfect vehicle for them. 

Q: As you’ve toured the world, have you seen any other innovative things clubs are doing?

There are a couple things that are growing rapidly. One is satellite clubs, where it is part of the club but they meet at a different time and place and they can start with only eight members. In the United Kingdom, I think we have about 145 of those already started.

The other one is passport clubs. That means they don’t meet as a club, but they meet at all other clubs and carry a passport with them. So it gets stamped showing they attended.

Youth is our emphasis this year. The goal for Rotaract is to double in size this year. I believe in setting ambitious goals.

Q: How will you do that?

By exciting the young people. They’ve made comments to me that, finally, they feel like they are being recognized as a partner – not a program. They are Rotarians just like we are.

I like to meet with Rotaractors wherever I go. In Kenya, the Rotaractors said they don’t like to meet in a conference room and that they were going to take me to the forest and we were going to go on a two-mile walk together. 

What a fantastic experience, and they are so energized. They have already increased by four clubs in the one little place.

Q: What is the latest on Rotary’s longtime effort to eradicate polio?

That is our No. 1 priority. We started with 350,000 people a year; last year, we had 33 people with polio. But that’s not good enough. We never dreamt we’d still be doing this more than 30 years later, but we’ve stuck with it. 

This year, we could see our last case of polio. We have to wait three years to get it certified. 

It’s not just about the vaccine, which is saving children. It’s about the infrastructure we’ve created; that’s going to last for the long-term. We are able to get vaccines to kids in remote regions. We are able to talk to governments. 

I’ve visited 47 countries so far. In at least 40 of those countries, I have met the head of the country, and every one of them expresses respect for Rotary and what it does. I don’t know any other organization that can say that.

In Pakistan, we don’t wait for people to come to the clinic. We go to transit points where they are crossing the border constantly, so we can catch them wherever we have to.

We have to get stronger internally, so we can make sure these kinds of programs can continue in the long run.

Q: What’s the next big challenge to tackle?

You know, we get that question, and it’s the same answer: We have to finish the job before we start something new. Rotarians, they are committed people – 1.2-million people who are changing the world. If we say water is next, they are all going to go over and do water. We can’t afford to do that. We have to finish polio.

We have a plan to develop what that next project is, but we are not going to implement that at least one year after the last case of polio.

Q: In a recent speech, you mentioned climate change and said people, in general, have to move from reaction to action.

I am just trying to sensitize Rotarians to think about what we are doing as individuals and clubs to help our environment. It’s not about judging whether there is global warming or not; it is about looking at our environment and asking what we should do differently. 

If you look at the last 10 years, where the level of water has risen more than predicted, if that continues to happen, in 50 years my country (the Bahamas) is under water. And we are doing nothing about it as a world.

Q: When do you think there will be a Rotary International president who is a woman?

I think it will be within the next three years.

Q: What are the top characteristics of an effective leader?

Four things. You have to have love – empathy for other people. You have to have infectious energy and enthusiasm. You need audacity; we’ve got to think bigger than ever before. We can’t just be thinking: This community needs water; let’s dig a well. No. How are we going to bring irrigation to the whole country? 

The last is we have to lead by example. I can’t approach people about becoming major donors to the Rotary Foundation unless I have done it. A good leader is always out there ahead doing things and asking others to follow.

We have to stop using the word “I” altogether, because it’s not about me, it’s not about us as individuals; it’s about us together.

Q: If you had to pick one place in the Bahamas to go, where would it be?

Staniel Cay in the Exumas. There is a place in Staniel Cay, a neighboring island, where there is a little canal going through the island. And you get to one point and the water reverses direction. So it will take you out and then back in. It’s amazing.

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