MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury Rotary Club is well known for its good works in and around Addison County’s shire town.
But members of the group are now increasingly making a philanthropic impact in all corners of the world.
Two of those members, Judy Brown and Jason Schnoor, recently returned from trips to India and Ghana, respectively, during which they helped further Rotary International’s efforts to eradicate polio and provide clean water to rural villagers.
These trips not only resulted in critical, health-related services being extended to people in need, but made life-long impressions on the travelers who are now excitedly sharing their experiences with others.
“It was wonderful,” a beaming Brown said of her trip to India, during which she helped dispense the polio vaccine to several young children.
It was Schnoor’s Rotary trip to India last year that inspired Brown to embark on her own two-week odyssey on Feb. 14. Schnoor had recounted his experiences dispensing polio vaccine in Rotary’s ongoing, so-far-successful campaign to wipe the disease from the face of the Earth. She acknowledged having a few moments of trepidation, given recent reports of violence against women in India.
“I decided to go outside my comfort zone and do it,” Brown said. “Hearing (Jason) talk and getting emotional was something that pushed me.”
Brown and her crew landed in Delhi but spent most of their time in villages in India’s Mewat district, located in the northwestern part of the South Asian country. Her big moment came on a national immunization day on which many thousands of Indian children were immunized throughout the country.
Brown personally administered around a dozen immunizations, carefully squeezing out two drops of medicine into the mouths of each child as a family member held them. And this was not merely a routine procedure conducted in a doctor’s office. Villagers treated it as a celebration.
“A big group of people was there,” Brown recalled. “The children were dancing.”
It was indeed a transformative experience — and not only for the health of the children. Brown recalled seeing some rather stern looking men survey the visiting group with some initial frowns. But once the drops were dispensed, those frowns turned into sunny smiles.
“It was a wonderful experience,” she said.
And her experiences were not confined to administering polio vaccines.
She and her 18 Rotary colleagues also spent four days building a dam, key in collecting monsoon rains as a crop irrigation source for seven villages. They threw buckets full of sand and cement mix into the dam site.
Also on the agenda: visits to Rotary-sponsored schools that had been put together for Gypsy children. She explained that because Gypsy families are largely itinerant, their children do not have a set address and therefore cannot enroll in public schools. The Rotary schools allow them a place to study and eventually (after two years) an address that allows them acceptance into public schools.
When not engaged in charitable pursuits, Brown was able to drink in some of the sights and culture of India, including the “Golden City” of Jaisalmer. That city includes a large fort made with a golden-hued sandstone built in 1156. The fort still houses around 2,000 people. It was a bittersweet visit, however. Jaisalmer is only 20 miles from the border of Pakistan, where eight Rotarians — who were there to administer the polio vaccine — were killed by suspected Taliban forces in an incident only weeks before Brown’s visit.
Fortunately, the only harrowing experiences Brown encountered were on the roads.
“There was no wrong or right side of the road,” she said. “You would dodge a huge truck and then go over a hill and see a cow, and come to a full stop.”
The cow of course is a sacred animal in India, in which Hinduism is the predominant religion. Brown has photos of women washing cows, sometimes in the middle of the road.
It was Brown’s first Middlebury Rotary trip, but she promised it would not be her last.
MISSION TO AFRICA
This was the second Rotary trip for Schnoor, who this time helped further Rotary’s mission to promote clean water efforts in the West African nation of Ghana.
He explained the clean water sources have been so scarce in Ghana that people sometimes have to walk miles to get to the nearest well. Rotary International has been helping dig new shallow wells, while contracting with companies to drill deeper wells equipped with hand pumps to provide potable water for an entire community.
Schnoor returned on Feb. 13 from a two-week trip during which he and other Rotarians toured extensively throughout Ghana, surveying the various water projects and how they were benefitting the local populace. They first landed in the capital city of Accra and eventually made their way to the northern part of the nation. There, they connected with the Rotary Club of Bolgatanga to see the variety of wells that had recently been excavated in the area — many of them by hand. Schnoor marveled at the lengths — or perhaps more appropriately depths — to which workers would go in digging the wells. Some extended as deep as 60 meters, requiring a rotation of workers due to the lack of oxygen at the base of the hole.
Schnoor recalled seeing one worker shimmying up the length of the well, in bare feet, with a hard-hat as his only safety gear. The workers gradually built up the cement foundation as they climbed higher.
The Bolgatanga Rotary Club had been asked if it could provide a half-dozen wells. By the time Schnoor and his crew arrived, that number had climbed to 13.
“It was an amazing experience for me,” Schnoor said.
The 13 benefitting communities insisted on giving thanks to the Rotarians, sharing their limited food in celebrations that united people of all ages and religious beliefs.
“There were Christians and Muslims together,” he said. “Usually, there is a lot of conflict, but when you bring water into the community, it brought them together and people were willing to work together for the cause of water. That was a humbling experience.”
Schnoor and his visiting group also took inventory of repairs needed to existing wells.
“Hand pumps wear out and need maintenance,” he noted.
Many of the communities have set up water sanitation committees that offer guidance on how to repair water systems when some troubleshooting is needed.
Rotary has also sponsored water projects for village schools. Schnoor and his colleagues stopped at some of those schools and got hearty thank-yous.
“You’re going into these schools that have never had water, who had their kids travel these distances just to bring back water,” Schnoor said. “Now they have mechanized wells pumping water into the schools. It was pretty gratifying. The kids and principals would come out and thank you; everybody wanting a picture with you.”
In one village, Schnoor was given an almost unprecedented honor — a seat in the chief’s chair.
Clean water has helped eradicate some nasty parasites — such as the Guinea worm — and related diseases that used to be common among residents of Ghana, Schnoor noted.
Like Brown, Schnoor returned to Vermont inspired and more than willing to embark on yet another Rotary trip.
“It is extremely rewarding,” he said. “You live in your own little bubble here in Vermont and sometimes you don’t realize there are all these Third World countries that don’t have a lot of the things we have, like going to the kitchen sink and turning on the water. They have to fetch their water or pump it out of a bore hole. It was a humbling experience to be a part of this.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]