Reflections on Champions of Polio Eradication

June 7, 2012

by David Hawks

It was over a month ago that the Rotary Club of Dupont Circle, itself only a month removed from its official chartering, was invited to attend a reception to honor Congressional Champions of Polio Eradication.  There, we were reminded of the scope of influence of Rotary International, the world's largest and oldest service organization.  Since 1985, with the creation of Rotary's PolioPlus program, Rotarians have raised over US$1 billion and been a huge factor in the 99% reduction of polio cases over the last twenty-five years along with key Congressional, federal, and organizational partners.  1.2 million + people together can truly achieve a lot together.

Approaching the Capitol from a few blocks away gives a person plenty of time to appreciate the size and weight of the building.  Being ushered down a path by a young guard carrying an automatic rifle, no matter what station one occupies in life, is a bit sobering. As we passed through the security checkpoint and entered the halls of power, it was hard not to be a little intimidated.  And by the time we had arrived at the Mansfield Room to honor seven new Congressional Champions (Rotary established the award in 1995), many of us, no matter what had transpired within our own workday, were thoroughly in the moment.  Around us, the deep blue of the carpets and stained wood walls, hung with gold-framed oil paintings of Congressional leaders past, lent further gravity to the proceedings.

Almost immediately, the connection between Rotarians all over the world and the Congressional polio eradication effort was highlighted; as each Champion made their speech, they took time to thank Rotary for all its efforts.  “I forgot my pin,” remarked Congressman Steve Austria, who wanted to make sure those in attendance knew he is a proud member of the Xenia Rotary Club (District 6670) in Ohio.  Dr. John Sever, a pediatrician and Vice-Chair of the International Polio-Plus Committee, served as master of ceremonies.  A longtime Rotarian in the Potomac, Maryland Club, it was Dr. Sever who first suggested to then Rotary International President Sir Clem Renouf that Rotary International focus on a program of worldwide polio immunization. 

Currently, only three countries are left which have reported cases of polio: Nigeria, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.  Dr. Server, Centers for Disease Control Director Dr. Thomas Frieden (CDC is the primary federal agency that guides the polio eradication effort), and each Congressional Champion made it clear that while getting to this point is monumental, it will mean nothing if polio is not completely eradicated.  Dr. Frieden likened the current status of polio worldwide as a "game of inches" that had to be won.

Towards the end of the ceremony, two very special people were honored and gave remarks.  Their remarks above anything else defined the night and the mission.  Grant Wilkins and Ann Lee Hussey are longtime Rotarians who have an ineradicable desire to see polio removed from existence.  Both are polio survivors who have made it their life's mission to see that no child ever again has to endure what they, their families, and countless others had to.  Their accounts brought tears to the eyes of more than a few of us. For those of us who had never known, even through degrees of separation, someone with polio (I am one), it was a powerful realization.  Statistics often fail to move, while photographs and video have that power they also are subject to a certain distancing from the viewer once they are put away.  This was different: it was a call to action from two people who had not only battled the disease on their own, survived the tragedies it inflicted, but who had and would continue to battle for others.

As the youngest Rotary club in D.C., we made a good showing- most of our members attended the event, along with members and leaders of other clubs, including District Governors Claude Morissette (7620) and Jim Roney (7630).  We were in the presence of leaders from all walks of life, people with years of noteworthy impact who were rightfully lauded as true difference makers.  The entire experience was humbling, but none more so than listening to Ms. Hussey and Mr. Wilkins recount their stories with zeal in their eyes and compassion in their voices.  It was the most humbling and also the most inspiring.  I believe that listening to them, we were reminded of why we wanted to join Rotary in the first place.

The 2012 Congressional Champions of Polio Eradication are:

The honorable Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina)
The Honorable Richard Shelby (R-Alabama)
The Honorable Steve Austria (R-Ohio)
The Honorable Norm Dicks (D- Washington)
The Honorable Tom Price (R-Georgia)
The Honorable Denny Rehberg (R-Montana)
The Honorable Harold Rogers (R-Kentucky)

 

Rotary Club of Dupont Circle at the reception.

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