Editor’s note: This is the first of a series of posts from polio eradication volunteers, Rotary staff, and survivors in honor of World Polio Day 24 October.
By Nancy Barbee, past governor of District 7730 (North Carolina, USA)
Picture a small town country girl from North Carolina on her way to India for the first time with her 12-year-old son. A personal mission to visit friends in the remote state of Bihar was the beginning of my Rotary story that has lasted for more than a decade.
In the city of Dhanbad, we met Rotarians. They showed us many projects but the ones that impacted me the most were dropping the polio drops in the mouths of babies and observing polio corrective surgeries. I’d never met anyone with polio and had no idea it was still in the world. It was in Dhanbad that we learned the realities that those affected with this terrible disease live with every day. It became my dream to bring other Rotarians to India so they could experience a National Immunization Day and witness first hand the devastation of polio.
“I cried when the mother bent down and touched my feet. I knew she was saying ‘thank you for saving my child.’ ”
In 2010, 35 Rotarians from around the world traveled with me to India. We saw many Rotary projects. Heart surgeries, eye surgeries, water wells, hand washing stations, toilets and so many others. Finally the National Immunization Day arrived. Parents brought their children on foot, motorcycles, horse drawn carts, rickshaws, and cars. They were so happy to see Rotarians and the polio booths because they knew we were there to save their children from the disease.
Over the past decade, many of those who have traveled with us have expressed their reactions. I’ve heard, “I’ve been in Rotary for 10 years but today I became a Rotarian.” A young Interact student said, “I had no idea what polio was or that people still had it. Today, I pledge to tell everyone I know about polio. We have to get rid of it.”
A gentleman from Maryland, tears flowing, held the hand of a young girl lying alone on a gurney preparing to go into polio corrective surgery. He told her, “You are not alone. I am here with you.” Their eyes met and though they spoke different languages, they understood each other.
A young man on our trip said, “I cried when the mother bent down and touched my feet. I knew she was saying ‘thank you for saving my child.’ ”
So many stories by those who have gone to India with me, but all have a common theme – gratitude for the privilege of immunizing a child against polio and of being allowed to gain a different perspective of the world in a beautiful country filled with generous people. And of living in a world where Rotary changes lives.
Many of them have told me their own personal Rotary journey, and of how in India they came to understand the impact Rotarians have on the world. It happened to this country girl so many years ago. And that’s what takes me back every year. We won’t stop until we eradicate polio. And WE WILL.