All three Rotary International service clubs (Sunrise, Grand Cayman and Central) have seen recent change overs in the presidency of their individual club. Business Editor Lindsey Turnbull meets with Michael Levitt, president of Rotary Sunrise.
From a young age Michael Levitt was exposed to commitment to the community via the philanthropic presence of his family.
“My father died very young but was a force for good in our hometown of Thaba Nchu (Black Mountain) in South Africa’s Free State. My mother was busier when she retired than when she worked, devoting herself to both the Jewish community in which we lived, the local hospice and also Befrienders International (formerly known as The Samaritans).
My uncles and cousins were all Rotary members, so the act of helping the community was very much ingrained into our family’s culture,” he explains.
Although back in South Africa Michael was not a Rotarian, he was part of a very important group called the Reach for a Dream foundation, helping out youngsters with life threatening illnesses to fulfill their dreams.
Having arrived in Grand Cayman six years ago, a chance meeting with Rotarian Geoff Mathews was a turning point for Levitt.
He says: “Geoff was selling raffle tickets and I asked what they were for. Once he explained they were Rotary I was happy to oblige. Sensing my interest, Geoff suggested that I come along to one of Rotary’s meetings, which I duly then did.”
Although he had heard about Rotary and its good works, Levitt says that he did not really appreciate the breadth of the club’s work until he became a member (upon invitation only).
“I had a general understanding, especially when I began to attend meetings regularly (a pre-requisite for actually joining). Once I had become a member I got to appreciate why Rotary is called Rotary International, because its reach to help the needy goes far beyond these shores only,” he comments.
The introductory period is a time during which would-be members are required to attend at least four meetings in a two-month period (meetings take place every Wednesday at Grand Old House from 7am until 8am and only stop for Ash Wednesday and Christmas).
Levitt says this period is an important time for potential members to see if they can commit to this demanding schedule and it also gives existing members the chance to see if the prospective member will fit in.
The development of Rotary
The demographics of Rotary clubs have changed quite dramatically over the years, Levitt says. It was only in the late 80s that women were permitted to join and Levitt says that the clubs used to consist of mainly the top bastions of industry.
“Years ago if you had a lawyer or an accountant in the group they would have to approve anther individual in the same profession, usually at a lower level to theirs. Gradually, however, Rotary has opened up to a much broader membership as it recognises how the world has changed,” he explains.
Even so, Rotary tends to attract those individuals who are in senior positions within their organisation. “They tend to be in a strong position to mobilise resources when need be and they tend to be more flexible in their hours. Rotary membership requires considerable dedication, which takes up a great deal of time.”
Cayman’s oldest Rotary Club in Rotary of Grand Cayman, which celebrates its 44th year in 2010. Levitt says it tends to represent the very top industry leaders within Cayman. Rotary Central represents a strong showing by Cayman’s merchants and was chartered around 24 years ago. Rotary Sunrise is the newest Rotary club, having been formed in 2002 out of a need to reduce the size of the existing clubs.
“We have a really good mix of members, most of whom are young. The average age of a Rotary Sunrise member is just 42 years. Women make up around 38 per cent of our membership and about one third are Caymanians.”
Quick move to the top
Levitt joined Rotary Sunrise just four and a half years ago and so his move to president has been remarkably swift.
“I was required to oversee two projects almost as soon as I joined and I think my reporting skills (I have a management consultant background) were very much appreciated,” he says.
“I also became quickly involved in the District Conference, which was held in Cayman in 2007 and co-chaired by Rotary Sunrise’s president-elect at the time, Rosie Jamieson. She asked me to be her secretary after my assistance to her during the District Conference. I also went for training in Florida for the Rotary Leadership Institute with Rosie and the District Governor Alastair Paterson. I think all these efforts showed my commitment to the club.”
Focus on youth
Under Rosie Jamieson’s presidency, Levitt says the focus for Rotary Sunrise turned toward literacy, especially for the young. During a brain storming session last year with leaders in the club Levitt says the focus moved more specifically onto the youth, and even more targeted, on youth at risk in the community.
“There are lots of great programmes out there for achieving youngsters with strong family guidance such as Junior Achievers and the mentoring programmes; however we wanted to focus more on young people who tended to fall through the cracks,” Levitt says. “So we began by supporting a youth camp in July, working in tandem with the government’s Youth Services Unit.”
Rotary Sunrise also supports Rotaract, its service club geared toward the 18 to 30 age group or “Rotarians in training” as Levitt calls them.
“They are a great source of information because they are much closer to the age group with whom we are trying to forge links and assist,” he confirms.
As a result, a think tank has been formed looking specifically at youth projects with representatives from Rotary Sunrise, Rotaract, the Youth Services Unit, as well as invited guests such as Rotary Sunrise honorary members David Baines, commissioner of police and Margaret Ramsay-Hale, chief magistrate. This think tank will assist Rotary Sunrise with its projects moving forward.
Projects include the opening of a brand new recreational park in Spotts Newlands, which includes a half-sized basket ball pitch, free WiFi internet access, a sand pit and recreational play area.
“We really hope that young people can enjoy hanging out here after school to play basketball or perhaps use the Internet in a place of safety,” Levitt says.
A new photography competition will also be launched on 10 October, called ‘10 ten 10’, and will invite young people up to the age of 18 to take photographs with the theme of The nature of Rotary in mind.
It is anticipated that this will be a joint venture with the National Trust and hopefully the National Gallery also. Rotary Sunrise intends to provide disposable cameras to all young people interested who do not own a camera. They also hope to give training on the art of photography to youngsters.
A book that weaves into its story line the four way test (see sidebar) by which each Rotarian “lives or dies” and which is geared toward children is given to all year two and three students in the Cayman Islands. Levitt says that a committee, headed by Rotarian Marilyn Connolly, is looking to produce a Caribbean version that Rotary hopes it can sell to other Rotary groups in the district as a fundraiser.
Showing great heart
Levitt is a big believer in showing congratulations where it is due, so under his presidency he has developed the Heart of Rotary award, complete with a specially crafted pin, which can be given as frequently as weekly to Rotarians nominated by their fellow members who have done particularly great work.
“It has been my pleasure to award this firstly to past president Winston Connolly for the great work he has done as well as our president-elect who has worked extremely hard as the club’s welfare officer for the past three years. Subsequent club recipients have been past president Woody Foster and director JD Mosley-Matchett,” Levitt states.
Fundraising in the form of raffle tickets and games nights is the mainstay of funding for Rotary’s projects. Levitt explains that administration costs of the club are never taken from fund raised monies.
“We raise funds for administration by paying dues, as well as various fines and raffles,” he explains. “One hundred per cent of funds raised go towards projects.”
Rotary is an international organisation and therefore there are many projects ongoing for which funding is needed, primarily in Haiti, Honduras and Jamaica. Levitt says that about $30,000 is put aside for community service, youth and literacy projects each (i.e. a total of $90,000), while $30,000 is also earmarked annually for overseas projects.
“Although Cayman is generally more fortunate than most countries in the region, it works both ways,” he confirms. “When Hurricane Ivan hit Grand Cayman in 2004 we received around $1.2 million in aid from regional Rotary clubs.”
Levitt is anticipating a very busy year during his tenure as presidency, with much to achieve. If his passion for Rotary is matched by all the other members they will no doubt have much to celebrate a year from now.