Local Rotary clubs work to inspire the younger generation

Evening Rotary Club of The Villages club member Marvin Ivy, right, of the Village of Poinciana, weighs a bag of food donations as part of a food drive by the three Rotary Clubs of The Villages.

Members of The Rotary Clubs of The Villages are setting an example for the rest of the world to follow.

With younger generations losing interest in Rotarian ways, the local groups are working together to appeal to a new wave of helpers.

“We have been going to high schools throughout the surrounding areas to get students involved in a variety of activities,” said Gay Ratcliff-Seamens, former president of the Evening Rotary Club of The Villages and a Village of Belle Aire resident. “Our goal is to get them involved in community service projects so they can help make their community a better place because we will eventually be leaving it to them in the future.”

Data from international rotary annual reports show that Rotary membership is falling around 0.5% each year. Meanwhile, membership in the three Rotary Clubs of The Villages seems to be increasing each year due to efforts by club presidents. As the clubs continue to work with the younger generations, they hope to be able to get more people involved and eventually increase their numbers at the international level.

“The younger generation is the future,” said Sean Donnelly, former president of the Rotary Club of The Villages and a Village of St. Catherine resident. “Everything we do, is to serve our community. If we get more people involved, we can do more at a local, state, country and international standpoint.”

The Rotary Club began in February 1905 when Paul Harris, a Chicago attorney, formed the first club. He created the club so professionals with diverse backgrounds could come together to exchange ideas and form lifelong, meaningful friendships, according to the Rotary International website.

“As a Rotarian, we have a common goal of creating a better world while improving lives and building international relationships,” said Randy Bayliss, the former president of the Noon Rotary Club of The Villages. “We work together to fight diseases like polio. We try to help provide clean water and sanitation to Third World countries, and we work with local students to support education and grow our community.”

Barry Gainer, district governor of District 6980, which consists of Lake, Orange, Osceola, Seminole and Sumter counties, said the district membership is approximately 1,650 people throughout 47 clubs in the five counties.

The three clubs in the Villages account for 300 of those members.

“This year, we are hoping to have a district-wide service project to help combat the needs of the numerous citizens in our own district by aiming to collect and distribute 1 million meals to food banks, charities and other charitable organizations in our own backyard.”

Over the course of the past year, the three groups came together to hold a community-wide food drive to help people in need living both inside and around The Villages.

“The pandemic hurt how we were fundraising,” said Julie Schmied, of the Village La Reynalda and current president of the Evening Rotary Club of The Villages. “But we got together to find new ways to help the community. Throughout the year, we collected baby supplies for mothers in need, collected food for local food pantries, brought awareness for polio, along with a number of other projects.”

The other clubs also raised money to help local groups like Habitat for Humanity of Lake-Sumter, help causes internationally like supplying brick ovens to families in Guatemala to cook with and providing people in need with a ShelterBox USA, an emergency kit given to families in disaster areas.

“Our Home and Garden Show had to be modified because of the pandemic,” said Jeff Cohen, Area governor elect for the Rotary Club and a member of the Rotary Club of The Villages. “We had to cancel the chili cook-off, but we still brought in more money than we expected.”

The Noon Rotary Club of The Villages also raised around $30,000 over the course of the year to be divided between student scholarships and local charities, and to provide disaster relief to St. Vincent in the Caribbean after a hurricane.

Despite the pandemic, the clubs have continued to gain members.

“We lost a few members, but then we gained even more,” said Bayliss, of the Village of Mallory Square. “The key was to resume in-person meetings and to get more involved with the Interact Clubs.”

The Rotary Interact Clubs were designed to bring young people together and give them opportunities to volunteer in their communities. Over the last year, these students have participated in food drives held by the three clubs, held car washes for an anti-bullying campaign they started in South Sumter High School and worked with the community to help raise awareness of various causes.

“We want to continue seeing our membership go up and to do that, we have to be willing to work with the younger generations and show them what we do,” said Stephanie Fernung, president of the Rotary Club of The Villages. “Our mission is to continue working together to make it a better and safer place for generations to come.”

To learn more about the three Rotary Clubs of The Villages, visit their websites at villagesrotary.org, rotaryclubofthevillagesnoon.org and rotaryvillagesevening.com.

Senior writer Andrea Davis can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5374, or andrea.davis@thevillagesmedia.com.