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Andy Burton: Service above Self

Andy Burton
John Hart/jhart@theunion.com | The Union

For the past 13 months, I have been a newly minted member of the 49er Breakfast Rotary Club of Nevada City.

Every (or more accurately, almost every) Wednesday at 7 a.m., I meet my fellow club members for our weekly meeting over breakfast, and for the past several months I have been learning the ways and habits of being a Rotarian.

Of all the service club culture that I’ve been introduced to as a Rotarian, the most impressive has been the principal motto of “Service above self.”



Unlike the other mottos and traditions of our weekly meetings, this motto is not repeated out loud nor is it on display. Instead, and I have no idea as to whether this is by design or not, this motto is reinforced through the weekly presentations made by club members.

In early October, three local Nevada County Rotarians will be making a very special trip all the way across the globe to Nepal, visiting the hill country of the Kathmandu Valley, which sustained severe earthquake damage.

Each week, once everyone has arrived, gathered their breakfast and found a seat, the meeting starts with a typical agenda of meeting protocol. Pledge of Allegiance, Thought of the Day, sing-a-long (yes, we sing each week), birthdays and anniversaries — the entire first 30 minutes is spent running through the order.




The second half, however, is where things get interesting. The second half of each meeting is dedicated to a program presented either by a fellow Rotarian or a guest speaker. The topics are varied and often compelling, but none have been more compelling than the presentations and stories of our own club members and their personal avenues of service.

National Public Radio uses the phrase “Driveway Moments” to describe those times when you are in the car, already arrived at your destination, and the story being told on the radio is so interesting that you sit and wait until the end before leaving the car.

The programs presented at Rotary have often had a very similar effect. Stories of human compassion, service to others, international aid and relief, volunteerism and caring, these are the story themes that I have been fortunate enough to take in at many of these weekly meetings.

One recent story caught me completely off guard. It was a story told by Larry Meek, a longtime resident of Nevada City, retired educator and current elected member of the Nevada County Board of Education.

The story he told starts in Kathmandu, Nepal on April 25, when a violent earthquake hit Nepal. The devastation caused by this earthquake, and many subsequent aftershocks, is staggering. Over 9,000 lives were lost, 23,000 people were injured and huge parts of the region were quite literally left in ruins.

The images that Larry showed us were both shocking and predictable. People sifting through rubble, makeshift homes or shelters fashioned from leftover portions of buildings and tarps, sadness and despair on the faces of people confronting the unfathomable task of rebuilding. In describing the impact Larry used the term “emotional devastation” — a turn of phrase that left me empty.

One image, in particular, caught me by surprise. The image was of a line graph showing the number of news stories worldwide on the general topic of “Nepal”. The date range displayed was between Feb. 19 and July 21 and for the entire range the story count was way down close to the zero mark, but with two dramatic spikes on and around April 25 and May 12

On April 25, the day of the earthquake, the story count leapt well above the 32,000 mark, and when a major aftershock hit the region again on May 12 the number again jumped to over 13,000 stories.

And then the world lost interest.

Within two short weeks of the initial earthquake “media fatigue” had set in; individually and collectively we turned our attention to other matters.

On the one hand it seems understandable. Following news stories and events, whether local, regional, national or international, is a little bit like trying to take a sip from a fire hose.

New stories and new concerns emerge every day, each of them competing for our attention. On the other hand, it seems so fundamentally wrong that we are able to tune out such a dramatic example of human suffering — and so quickly.

Listening to Larry speak about the Kathmandu Valley region, and his detailed descriptions of the significant and varied impacts on the people, you get the strong impression that for him the tragedy is very personal. It was no surprise to learn that his connection to the people and culture of Nepal is indeed very personal.

From 2000 to 2003 he had lived and worked as a principal of a private school in Kathmandu, Nepal. In those three years, he and his wife forged many close friendships leaving him little choice but to do something to try and help.

In early October, three local Nevada County Rotarians will be making a very special trip all the way across the globe to Nepal. Larry Meek, Howard Wilson and John Byerrum, accompanied by members of a Kathmandu Valley Rotary club, will be visiting the hill country of the Kathmandu Valley, which sustained severe earthquake damage.

Prior to the earthquakes a local Nepalese Rotary Club had completed a detailed needs assessment for this village, with an emphasis on basic human needs like water infrastructure, sanitation and disease control. In the aftermath of the earthquakes, Larry and his colleagues, after meeting and talking with the villagers, will be updating this needs assessment and looking for ways to coordinate assistance from numerous Rotary clubs, including those here in Nevada County.

Planning and preparation for this trip has been underway for several months. The group has received generous donations from area Rotary clubs and businesses in the form of school supplies, dental supplies and even solar powered lights.

With the challenges associated with international travel, there’s not that much more that the group will be able to take with them. In the many months, years and potentially decades of work to come there will be many more trips, and many more opportunities to contribute to the rebuilding efforts.

Anyone interested in learning more about this project, or Nepal in general can reach out to Larry at larry@49errotary.org. For those interested, I encourage you to find a way to meet Larry and spend a little time listening to his stories of Nepal. The stories told will be about the places he’s been and the people he’s met, but the lessons learned will be all about service.

Andy Burton, who lives in Grass Valley, is a member of The Union Editorial Board. His opinion is his own and does not represent the viewpoint of The Union or its editorial board. Contact him at EditBoard@TheUnion.com.


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