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Leigh Brownell
Leigh Brownell (HANDOUT)

When Leigh Brownell first came to McDaniel College, she began spearheading an initiative to launch the school's first Rotaract Club.

According to the website of the service organization Rotary International: "Rotaract is a club for adults ages 18-30 that meets twice a month to exchange ideas, plan activities and projects, and socialize. While Rotary Clubs serve as sponsors, Rotaract clubs decide how to organize and run their club and what projects and activities to carry out."

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The club organized by Brownell, who now is in her junior year, has been acknowledged and chartered by Rotary International, expanding the group and allowing its members to undertake new service projects.

The Times caught up with Brownell to discuss Rotary, service and Thanksgiving in Spain.

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Q: How did the McDaniel College Rotaract club come about?

A: When I was a freshman, I was in this program that they called Lead. One of the points that they were building on was that the college was interested in starting a Rotaract Club. I figured since I had been very active in the Rotary Club since I was in high school — in fact, I started the high school Rotary Club — I wanted to keep that relationship going.

Q: What is the charter process?

A: The charter process started officially my sophomore year, through many trials and tribulations on our end. We had ourselves an adviser and we began working with four different Rotary Clubs in the area to sponsor us. Eventually we became internationally recognized and official. It puts us officially on the books. We're officially connected with other Rotaract clubs nationally and around the world. We actually were honored in the district for work we did last year and for our own creation. To get chartered, it's mostly just a lot of paperwork. You have to prove you had a number of people who have expressed interest in the club. You have to prove you're doing work in the community. You have to be sponsored by a club and have a Rotary adviser.

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Q: How did you get involved in the high school Rotary Club?

A: My ninth-grade Spanish teacher was always talking about her experience in the Rotary Club and her experiences going abroad. It turns out that's what formed her interest in Spanish. When it became an option for me, I applied to become a youth ambassador for the U.S. I had to go through four different interview processes and a background check and a visa check. I ended up going to Spain and speaking on the behalf of the U.S.

Q: What sort of work did you do in Spain?

A: I was alone in my town, but there were about 50 students throughout Spain from the U.S. Rotary Clubs. We would give presentations to all of the students in the Madrid area. I remember on Thanksgiving, we had to explain what Thanksgiving means to America, in terms of our history and traditions. It's all about fostering international understanding as well as building different talking points.

Q: What are some of the projects the Rotaract club has undertaken?

A: One of the biggest projects of the Rotaract club was we wanted to get a Jan-term in place, which would be an extra winter semester. We wanted to do a service trip initially to Haiti. No club had ever done this before, and there were a number of hoops that we had to jump through. Eventually we changed our plans to have a Jan-term trip to Ecuador via the Rotary Club, where we take students who have experience with Spanish and child care. We help the Rotary with their Oktoberfest fundraiser. We developed an unsung heroes program which was a week of appreciation for all of the staff on campus that doesn't always get recognized. We celebrated the grounds and maintenance crew and other employees that don't get recognition. We had students write out thank you cards, sign a banner and give presents to all of the different departments.

Q: What distinguishes the Rotary Club from other service clubs?

A: The Rotary Club is active in more than 200 countries throughout the world. There are thousands of clubs. They actually began as a club to eradicate polio throughout the world. Since polio is really only currently active in a few countries, we work on other projects as well. They create a shelter box for when a natural disaster occurs. The Rotary Club is one of the first to respond and give direct aid. We hand out shelter boxes equipped with anything needed to live, from tents, pots, pans and flashlights. In addition to touching upon international crises, each club has local projects. We all have different passion projects to work on.

Q: What is it about volunteering and service that appeals to you?

A: It's definitely one of my passions, ever since the experience I had with being an international student in Spain. It's allowed me to be able to look at my own country with objective eyes. It allows me to see the faults and also the huge benefits of the country. It's made me better able to open up my eyes to the rest of the world. Having international experience is beneficial to anyone who wants to be involved.

Q: Why be a part of a club like this?

A: It's really a foothold to any student who is interested in international understanding. It's about the connections you can get and opportunities you find. It makes me so much more confident in school life, and even just in my physical being. We're about building self-defined community service. Rather than us telling you what to do, you tell us about your passions.

Reach staff writer Jacob deNobel at 410-857-7890 or jacob.denobel@carrollcountytimes.com.

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