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My friends, my world-class governors:
My friends, my fellow Rotarians, and my 2016-17 district governors:
Welcome to this International Assembly.
A Greek philosopher once wrote that great enterprises begin with small opportunities.
That sounds good, doesn’t it? But you know what? I don’t think it’s true.
Great enterprises don’t begin with small opportunities. They begin with great opportunities. It’s just that great opportunities sometimes have a way of looking small.
Every one of us here has been given a great opportunity. And I’m not talking about the opportunity to serve as a district governor, or even the opportunity I’ve been given, to serve as RI president. I’m talking about the great opportunity that first set us all on the path to being here today.
That opportunity didn’t come with the phone call saying, “Congratulations on your nomination.” It came in the form of a Rotarian saying, “I’d like to invite you to a meeting of my Rotary club.”
It might have seemed like a small opportunity at the time. But for whatever reasons, for each of us, it also seemed like a good idea: an interesting chance to meet some good people, and do some good work, and have some fun along the way.
Looking back on that now, I think every one of us recognizes the opportunity to serve through Rotary for what it truly is: not a small opportunity, but a great one — the great opportunity that led all of us to the great enterprise that is Rotary.
And what I want all of us to take from that — today, tomorrow, and in the year ahead — is that the only difference between a small opportunity and a great one is what you do with it.
All of us are here in San Diego this week because we’ve been given an opportunity: an opportunity to motivate, inspire, and direct our clubs to better, more effective, and more ambitious service.
What we do with that opportunity — that’s up to each of us. But the decisions we make won’t end with us.
The effects of our work, our decisions, will ripple out all over the world to people we’ll never meet but whose lives Rotary will change.
Like the women who, right now, at this moment, are walking down dirt paths with water jars on their heads, on their way to get water from a polluted stream that’s an hour away from their homes. Next year, they won’t have to carry that water anymore, because of the bore wells that Rotary will dig.
The girls in India, who have to leave school at age 12 or 13 because their school has no toilets. Next year, those girls won’t have to leave, because of toilet blocks that Rotary will build.
And the children in Pakistan and Afghanistan, who live every day with the risk of being paralyzed by polio. Next year, they won’t have to worry about that, because we’ll have vaccinated those children. And soon, their countries and the whole world will be polio-free.
All of that can happen if you, and your club presidents and your Rotarians, recognize that the opportunity to join Rotary was the opportunity of a lifetime. A great opportunity to change the world for the better, forever, through Rotary’s service to humanity.
My friends, we are at a crossroads in Rotary. We are looking ahead at a year that may one day be known as the greatest year in Rotary’s history: the year that sees the world’s last case of polio.
We are so close — so much closer than we’ve ever been before. All of South Asia, and all of Africa, are now polio-free. Only two countries now share one remaining reservoir of the wild poliovirus. And those two countries, Afghanistan and Pakistan, are giving it everything they have, with all of the help we can give them, to make this the year that polio finally falls.
We started this more than 30 years ago. We’ve stuck with it, all this time. And soon, $1.4 billion — and more than 2.5 billion immunized children later — we’re going to finish it.
And when that moment comes, we need to be ready for it, to be sure that we are recognized for that success, and leverage that success into more partnerships, greater growth, and even more ambitious service in the decades to come.
We need to make sure that everyone knows the role that Rotary has played in making the world polio-free. That is tremendously important. Because the more we are known for what we’ve achieved, the more we’ll be able to attract the partners, the funding, and most important of all, the members to achieve even more.
We’re working hard to be sure that Rotary does get that credit. But it can’t all happen in Evanston. We need you to get the word out through your clubs and in your communities about what Rotary is and what we do.
And we need to be sure that our clubs are ready for the moment that polio is finally eradicated. So that when people who want to do good see that Rotary is a place where they can change the world, every Rotary club is ready to give them that opportunity.
We need clubs that can not only attract new members but engage them in Rotary service — clubs that are welcoming and active, that truly follow The Four-Way Test. We can’t forget that the reason Paul Harris founded Rotary, 111 years ago, is still very much the reason people come to Rotary today: to find people who share their values. People who believe in honesty, diversity, tolerance, friendship, and peace, and who believe that serving humanity is the best thing they can do with their time on this earth.
Whether we’re reading to schoolchildren or building a blood bank or holding a dental clinic, even as we change and adapt and move forward, the essence of who we are and what makes a Rotarian doesn’t change.
We’re still based on a classification principle, because our diversity is our strength. We still hang The Four-Way Test on the wall, because high ethical standards don’t ever go out of style. And we still believe, as Paul Harris believed, that serving humanity is the most worthwhile thing any one of us can do with our lives.
And that is why our theme in 2016-17 will be simply Rotary Serving Humanity.
My friends, we are doing so much incredible work already. Judy and I have seen so much of it this year, all over the world. But we could be doing so much more.
We need more willing hands, more caring hearts, and more bright minds to move our work forward. We need clubs that are flexible, so Rotary service will be attractive to younger members and recent retirees and working people. We need to seek out new partnerships, opening ourselves more to collaborative relationships with other organizations, to achieve even more together. And we need to prioritize continuity in our leadership. Because if there’s one thing we’ve learned from polio, it’s that if we want to go as far as we can, we all have to be moving in the same direction. We have to be serving humanity.
We’re all in this together. We’re all on the same team. If one of us scores, we all score. And we take just as much pride in an assist as we do in a goal. Because in Rotary, we lead just like we serve: together.
So next year, we’re not going to call ourselves first or best or world or any other kind of a class. We’re just going to be a team: Team Rotary. All 1.2 million of us, working together, serving together, striving together, for our shared goal of a better world.
And that’s the way it should be. But all of you here this week, you’re different. You’re special. You’re the best players we’ve got. You’re not just regular players. You’re the Rotary All-Stars.
And we need you — the best of the best — to lead our Rotarians in transforming the lives of the people who need our help the most.
They’re waiting for you. They’re waiting for us — to dig the wells, to build the schools, to put an end to polio.
Every day that you serve in Rotary, you have the opportunity to change lives. Those opportunities might look small. You might sometimes think that what you do doesn’t matter.
But they’re not small. And everything you do matters, especially to the people you help and the people you love, in this generation and the next and the next. Every good work you do in your life makes the world better for them all.
One good work at a time. One day at a time. That’s all it takes.
That’s what we’re here for in Rotary. That’s what we do. And next year, it’s going to be your responsibility to make sure that we do it well.
To make sure that Rotary serves humanity as much as it can as well as it can, and that Rotary changes as many lives as it can for the better.
So that the mothers who are still carrying water on their heads, and the girls who have had to leave school, and every one of the world’s children who are still at risk for polio, see their world change for the better next year because of Rotary Serving Humanity.
Because each one of you saw a great opportunity, and you took it.
John F. Germ
President, Rotary International, 2016-17