By Ann Marie Ellis, Rotary Club of Austin, Texas, USA
I had been to Serbia in 2019 before as a tourist, but I didn’t expect that I’d develop a life-long relationship with the people, the country, and its traditions through Rotary. However, that’s exactly what happened.
In the spring of 2020, I received an email from former Governor Vladimir Matic in District 2483 (Serbia & Montenegro) asking if my club, the Rotary Club of Austin, would participate as the international partner on a global grant. The grant would be part of a new initiative called Hearts of Europe, which is a collaboration between the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and Rotary International.
This initiative builds ties between Rotary clubs in Europe and the United States as a vehicle to improve Transatlantic relations and promote public policy for free and open markets. Through small grants, jointly funded by Rotary and USAID, local Rotary and Rotaract clubs across Europe and Eurasia design and implement activities to benefit their communities, demonstrating a commitment to enhancing local leadership, capacity, and accountability.
This was early in the COVID-19 pandemic, and one project stood out: the town of Čačak in a region of around 250,000 people in southwest Serbia had no way to test for COVID. Matic connected me via email with Vesna Baur, the Serbian lead on the project from the Rotary Club of Čačak, and we began to work right away.
From the beginning, Vesna and her affable husband, Balz, who sometimes served as interpreter, became delightful, hardworking partners. We often emailed daily as we discussed next steps in the grant development. I was proud of our work, and the proposal was successful – one of the first projects approved. Today there are ten approved Hearts of Europe projects, five of which are in Serbia.
The grant proposed a remodeled space for a PCR Lab within an existing and older regional healthcare center. But the importance of the lab and its need for versatility prompted the regional authorities to build an annex just for our lab. While good news, it created a major delay in starting up the COVID testing project.
During the delay, Sam Kendall, our project officer, suggested that our clubs have a social activity. Vesna and I settled on a wine-tasting. As they took part in the 2022 Rotary International Convention in Houston, Texas, USA, Vesna and Balz took the opportunity to attend a meeting of the Austin club where we exchanged wines. We then held a virtual wine tasting on 12 July where our members tasted delicious fruity Serbian wines while their club sampled the best of sunny Texas Hill Country wines. We became better friends, and the time difference and language barriers didn’t hinder us from having a good time. Our experience leads us to strongly recommend other clubs to do something similar.
In October 2022, the lab was nearly completed, and our club’s global services chair, Cindy Brummer, and I went to Serbia to help inaugurate the lab, review the installation of the equipment, check on testing procedures, and meet the lab’s staff. I was overwhelmed by Serbian hospitality and gratitude for our work. In addition to COVID-19 testing, now this region in Serbia would have a way to also test for water and environmental pathogens, birth defects, and a huge array of diseases. The impressive new lab, the additional staff added by the regional health authority, and the extensive communication efforts all were unexpected when we first began the initiative. The “Hearts of Europe” program in partnership with USAID and the Rotary Foundation is a success and has a tangible impact.
While in Serbia, Cindy and I went with our Čačak hosts on a hike above the city for a magnificent view of the meandering river and gorge below, dotted with dozens of monasteries founded in the 1300’s. On our way down from the mountain, a local vineyard owner prepared a luncheon for us with local fruit wine. He gifted us with a bottle, which prompted the second wine-tasting of the Rotary Club of Austin and the Rotary Club of Čačak. Cindy and I prepared a presentation of our trip to our club upon our return and we enjoyed a final tasting of Serbian wine with our members.
This project was the most rewarding and enjoyable collaboration of my career. The support from Sam Kendall and Raquel Juncal, our RI technical advisor, and the contributions of USAID made the grant project possible and thus allowed these connections to happen. The generosity of the Rotary Club of Čačak made it successful, and our wine tasting and travel made it great fun! We look forward to continuing to work and connect with our new Rotary friends in Serbia.
Learn more about ways to collaborate through Hearts of Europe global grants
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