IOWA CITY — Rotary International got its start 115 years ago — with its Iowa City offshoot joining the century club in 2015 — and the average Rotarian reflects that deep history, as much of its 1.2 million global membership is older.
But many of the 35,000-plus rotary clubs — including the Iowa City Noon Rotary Club, boasting about 300 members — want to diversify their ranks by, among other things, including more young people.
“The challenge is really a worldwide challenge for rotary, and I think a lot of service clubs like it, to keep growing and keep some of the younger folks — younger professionals especially — aware of what rotary is and what it can do, both for their career path and then also for that kind of human necessity of belonging to a community and feeling part of something bigger than themselves,” Ryan Bell said.
Bell, now 41, exemplifies that target Rotarian in that he found the service club in 2013 at age 34. He was an entrepreneur living in the Quad Cities and a friend invited him to a meeting.
Bell told The Gazette he was struck by its positivity.
“I quickly fell in love with the idea of it being a way to network and grow your personal connections,” he said. “But not in the way I had been used to through different networking clubs and things. It’s a lot more focused on service and on giving back to the local community and the larger world.”
Bell eventually grew his company — Locals Love Us, which polls various communities and shares feedback on favorite businesses, like restaurants — and in 2016 moved to Iowa City, where engaging with rotary seemed a natural part of his transition.
“Joining rotary in Iowa City was probably the first thing I did,” Bell said. “Even really before I launched my business, I became an active member in the local club.”
He found a similar mind-set and mission to other rotary clubs with whom he previously engaged.
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“It’s always kind of the same concept,” he said. “Of a lot of like-minded, positive-thinking individuals who are in it for the opportunities bigger than themselves.”
But another similarity Iowa City’s club had with others was its demographics. And Bell, currently serving on the Iowa City club’s board, recently wrote an article meant to inspire more young Rotarians.
In Livability, an online resource for America’s “most livable small and mid-sized cities,” Bell acknowledged many of today’s youths don’t know much about rotary — if they’ve heard of it at all.
“If you have, it was probably from your grandpa and you tuned out after three minutes of hearing about his club’s weekly lunch spread,” Bell wrote. “And hey, maybe you were interested until he got so passionate about the salad bar. I get it.”
But, he urged, “Rotary is kind of a big deal.”
He touted service projects and community-centered work the club has engaged in locally and nationally — including international efforts to eradicate polio, improve maternal and child health, promote basic education and literacy programming and address water sanitation issues.
In Eastern Iowa, specifically, Bell pointed to one of his “passion projects” — planting trees. In spring 2018, about 75 Iowa City Rotarians planted about 560 trees one morning near Lake Macbride.
“And now that project is ongoing to where we go out there twice a year and maintain those trees,” Bell said, noting another planting project on the horizon in April — with about 300 planned for another space near Lake Macbride.
The local group for years has sent members to Mexico and Guatemala to help treat individuals with clubfoot. And the Iowa City club is in the early stages of creating CPR stations with automated external defibrillators in local businesses around town.
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In conjunction with those stations, the group aims to create a comprehensive online map and database of all the AEDs in town — a tool to be made available via an app on user phones, Bell said.
“I think it’ll be something great for the community,” he said, noting about 15 Rotarians recently became CPR-certified. “It has the potential to save lives, obviously, but then also has great potential to just educate a lot of members of the community on quick action.”
The Iowa City club also recently shifted its noon lunch meetings from a more traditional banquet-style setting — at least in the warmer months — to Big Grove Brewery, a local restaurant and taproom with open indoor and outdoor space that has become a fast “pillar of the community.”
“That’s a huge one,” Bell said about the youth appeal of the change, which he acknowledged was forced on the club when its old home — the University Club — was closed and razed last year.
Big Grove — with its community-centered mind-set — was eager to have the club and has congealed well with its goal of engaging the younger generation.
“For them, I think rotary was a great fit.”
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