By Christy Berg, Rotary Club of the Caldwells
When Eugene Hartnett and 20 local businessmen founded the Caldwell Rotary Club in 1951, they had no idea that it would grow into such a dynamic organization, making a difference locally, nationally and internationally. “When we began, it was really a social club having interesting lunch meetings, “ recalled Warren Goodman, Charter Member. “Nothing was planned for community work. I continually prevailed upon the membership to get active as a service club and I’ve proudly watched them slowly become a true service organization.”
“This is not the Rotary of our fathers and grandfathers - a social club that does some good,” said Jon Wohlgemuth, President-elect and second generation Rotarian. “Our mission is to provide support to make our community and the world a better place through hard work and commitment. We make some great friends along the way.”
“Our club has changed for the better in terms of talent and commitment,” said President Tom Cocchiola. “When I joined 23 years ago, the club seemed to be an ‘old boy’s network’. Today, women and men across all age groups are well represented, major contributors, and integral to our success. Our club is vibrant and alive. Our members dream and plan big things and then they make them happen.”
Club members in the mid-1950s and 1960s were creative in their efforts to raise money to support local projects. Some, like the Becker’s Farm Train Ride, ‘From Here to Eternity’ Theater Party, and ’63 World’s Fair Trip succeeded beyond expectations. Others, like the 1955 broom, whisk broom and light bulb sale were less successful and left members with a seemingly lifetime supply of bulbs of all sizes. Nonetheless, the early Rotarians raised enough money to sponsor a number of initiatives each year.
‘Operation Trash Can’ began in 1954 and continued for years as the club purchased and maintained litter bins in Caldwell and West Caldwell. ‘Clean up days’ were organized to coincide with the beginning of the school year and corresponding increase in litter. Rotary funded and built two bus stops along Bloomfield Avenue, one of which club members refurbished in 2010 as part of Caldwell Beautification Day.
Rotary’s commitment to local youth was demonstrated through the creation of a scholarship fund, sponsorship of a Girl Scout Troop in Caldwell, and contributions to the West Essex Camp Fund, Caldwell Recreation Youth Center, Student Council, Music Department, Midget Baseball, and Camp Wyanoke. The club funded the Police Department’s distribution 3000 safety pamphlets to children of the area.
The club expanded its support of military personnel and veterans in the 1960s. Gifts were sent through The American Legion to soldiers in Vietnam and donations were made to veterans hospitals and disabled veterans. This commitment has continued throughout the years, with supply boxes sent to soldiers in times of war, gifts to veterans provided to The American Legion, and support given to those who have been injured in service.
The Organization Evolves
The 1970’s saw a transformation of the club into a true local service organization that was responsive to the needs of the community. With fundraising efforts improving, financial support was expanded to include Family Service, Senior Citizens, Caldwell Welfare Department, and other charitable organizations. Rotary played an active role in the Bicentennial Committee and various youth programs.
Rotary was now able to support local emergency services. The club funded training in family crisis intervention for the North Caldwell Police Department and purchased bulletproof vests for officers in Caldwell, West Caldwell, North Caldwell and Essex Fells. And, in 1987, the club responded to an attempted child abduction at Lincoln School with the donation of two-way radios to police officials for use by crossing guards in Caldwell, West Caldwell and Essex Fells. “When the attempt was made, I realized that school crossing guards have no way to communicate with the police or fire department or anyone who could help in an emergency,” said Sam Kent who led the initiative with Victor Steinhart.
In 1976, Kent led the creation of a Rotary ‘Service Above Self’ Award. For 35 years, the award has been given to citizens in the West Essex who distinguish themselves through their volunteer work in the community. “This was a way that the club could say thank you from the whole community to some very special people,” said Kent.
Women Join Rotary
A U.S. Supreme Court decision in May, 1987 opened a door, allowing women to join Rotary for the first time since 1905. That year, June VanZandt was the first woman in The Caldwells to walk through that door. While there were mixed feelings among the membership, VanZandt quickly dispelled any concerns. She was named Rotarian of the Year in 1990 and was elected the club’s first female President in 1991.
“Accepting women in the club added a very special dimension,” said VanZandt. “Women are givers at heart, have a can-do attitude and are adept at organizing to get things done to enhance the lives of others. We have many talented women in our club today and I’d encourage others considering Rotary. In addition to the reward of service, membership gives professionals a higher profile in the business community.”
The Rotary-Kiwanis Caldwell Street Fair
One of VanZandt’s most significant accomplishments was the establishment of the Caldwell Street Fair in 1991. In its 20th year, the street fair has become a celebrated community event for over 35,000 people on the first Sunday of each October. It is also a major fundraiser for both the Rotary and Kiwanis clubs. Proceeds are invested back into the community and into the work of volunteers on national and international humanitarian projects.
“Our collaboration demonstrated the value of both Rotary and Kiwanis and that we could work together toward the betterment of our community,” explained VanZandt. Today, a joint Rotary-Kiwanis Street Fair Committee begins work each November to plan the following October’s event.
Willing Hearts Touches Lives
Twenty years ago, Pat Kiernan and a group of women committed to helping others opened a small consignment shop in Caldwell. Through their hard work and the support of The Rotary Club of the Caldwells, that shop has grown to accommodate over 3200 consignors and is managed by a staff of 45 regular volunteers and hundreds of interim volunteers.
Kiernan was honored with a ‘Service Above Self’ award in 1997 for her initiative, her work with Family Service, and her commitment to the community. She became a Rotarian that same year. “My father was very active in the Montclair Rotary, so all my life I heard about the meaningful work they did, but women were not in Rotary then,” said Kiernan. “When I was approached, I was encouraged by memories to join.”
While Willing Hearts is the Rotary club’s largest fundraiser, it has become much more. It is a place of community, where people come not only to consign or shop, but also to visit with their favorite volunteers. Local residents can depend on Willing Hearts for immediate help in times of need. Over the years, Willing Hearts has quietly helped many individuals and families faced with personal trauma through financial assistance or donations of furniture, clothing or household goods. Faithful high school Interact volunteers are rewarded with “stewardships” and other young people who are committed to service are supported. The volunteers also manage outreach projects, such as their current collection of prom gowns to be distributed by a local nurse to high school girls in Haiti. Last year’s prom gown drive for Essex Valley Regional was so successful that Willing Hearts brought in a tailor to teach the students how to alter gowns for resale.
It is through these personal touches that Willing Hearts volunteers make the greatest difference in peoples lives. Rotary members cherish these volunteers and are extremely proud of all that they do.
2011 also marks the 40th Anniversary of the Rotary Club of the Caldwells Golf Outing. This significant annual fundraiser was conceived by Alan MacWright and Sam Kent and continues to help the club deliver on its mission of service and support of charitable causes.
This year’s golf outing will be held on June 16 at Cedar Hill Country Club in Livingston. Proceeds will be donated to the Caldwell College Center for Autism and Applied Behavioral Analysis.
The Rotary Club of The Caldwells Today
While fundraising is hard work, the consistency of proceeds from Willing Hearts, The Street Fair and The Golf Outing give the Rotary Club a strong financial base from which to work. “Our financial stature helps us tackle projects that are beyond the reach of most clubs,” explained Cocchiola. “We’re better prepared and better able to make a huge difference.” Wohlgemuth concurred, “We have ventured out of our comfort zone and have taken on much bigger and more far reaching projects.”
The club’s focus has been on community projects, local assistance to organizations, families and individuals, emergency response to local, national or international disasters, and international humanitarian projects.
Strong organizational capability also enables the club to support individual members in causes they embrace that are aligned with the Rotary mission. “We have the talent, and the financial strength, to accomplish incredible things and enable new members to conceive virtually any type of project and achieve success,” said Cocchiola. The club has rallied to support Gerry Valk in his work with the students of The Essex Valley School and Mike Kambourakis in his humanitarian missions to the Dominican Republic.
It is often the simple and unpublicized acts of kindness or financial support to local families or individuals in need of assistance that Rotary members site as most rewarding. Over the years, members have consistently helped those faced with illness, trauma, or personal hardship. The club also regularly partners with the Caldwell Welfare Department, Willow Tree, and other organizations that directly improve the situations of others.
The Rotary Club of the Caldwells has always provided support to local emergency services agencies. Recent donations include funding for an emergency vehicle and life support gear for the West Essex First Aid Squad, a Confined Spaces module for rescue services in North Caldwell, and speed signs to calm traffic in West Caldwell.
Civic initiatives have also spanned the history of the club. Rotary recently funded the lighting of Grover Cleveland’s Birthplace. The scoreboard at Mountain Field in North Caldwell, the Community Events Board in West Caldwell, and the flag poles in front of civic building in each of the Caldwells, as well as in Crane Park, were all Rotary donations. A project is currently underway to renovate the field house and restrooms at a sports field in North Caldwell.
Support of local youth has continued since the club’s inception. Each year, Rotary awards several scholarships. The club also sponsors youth exchange students, ambassadorial scholars for study abroad, and personal service projects such as those led by Eagle Scouts. The Dictionary Project provides all elementary school children in the area with a dictionary to use throughout their school years. For the past two years, dictionaries have been distributed by Interact, Rotary’s service club for high school students.
Local seniors have also been important to the club, whether donating equipment for their center or helping to serve meals on holidays.
Since 1974, the club has been actively involved in Camp Merry Heart, a camp in Hacketstown for children with special needs. Rotary supports the club financially and through volunteer service. In recent years, Caldwell Rotarians built camp amenities, constructed buildings, and donated athletic gear. Each year, members do spring clean up and help host a day of festivities for the campers.
Rotarians in Caldwell have a history of reacting quickly to emergency situations around the world. In recent years, the club has made donations to help victims of the earthquake in Italy, the Indian Ocean tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, and earthquake in Haiti. Individual members have purchased ‘ShelterBoxes’ that supply an extended family of up to 10 people with a tent and essential equipment to use while they are displaced or homeless.
The club’s most significant response effort, the Haiti Relief Project, continues today under the leadership of Kevin Hersh who was recognized in 2010 with a ‘Service Above Self’ award. Through the efforts of Caldwell Rotarian Mike Kambourakis and the Dominican Republic Rotary, the capability for shipping, storing and distributing supplies on the island was already well established when the earthquake hit. Locally donated food, water, medicine and supplies were distributed to remote, devastated areas of Haiti and the Dominican Republic within 48 hours. Recognizing the club’s unique capability to reach those in need while many were still scrambling to respond, Hersh went on a major campaign for donations. Through continued outreach efforts and a tremendous response from the community, relief shipments continue weekly to Haiti and the Dominican Republic and have helped thousands of people. Mike Kambouraukis regularly travels to the area to ensure that supplies reach the hands of those who need them most.
Gift of Life
The Rotary Club of the Caldwells embraced the international Gift of Life program several years ago, realizing their ability to raise money to save children’s lives. Since it’s inception in 1974, the Gift of Life program has been credited with saving the lives of over 11,000 children. Funded through the efforts of Rotarians around the world, Gift of Life saves children with life threatening heart defects by providing necessary surgeries and state-of-the-art cardiac procedures. These procedures are often unavailable in developing countries or, where limited availability does exist, are often out of reach for many families due to their high cost.
In 2007, the club sponsored its first pediatric surgical mission to the Dominican Republic. Jerry Smith recalled his experience, “Sitting in the waiting room, you could look into the eyes of the parents and feel their pain and anxiety, not knowing if their child would make it through. We did some really tough surgeries. While all of the children we helped survived, there were some on the list that we just didn’t get there in time for.”
The club has also sponsored children coming to the US for surgery. Gary Goodman said, “My proudest moment was when we picked up a 5 year old boy from Kennedy Airport and arranged for him to have the open heart surgery that saved his life.”
The experience has moved club members to act again. The Rotary and Interact Clubs of the Caldwells will be hosting a Gift of Life Talent Showcase on May 7 to raise money to sponsor another pediatric surgical mission in 2011. Auditions will be held February 28 and March 2 at JCHS.
Help The Children Hear
Another way the Rotary Club of the Caldwells helps children worldwide is through a program initiated by Dr. David Gurian. Since 2000, Help the Children Hear has been collecting old hearing aids and using the parts to build working aids. They are fitted for and distributed to children who are hearing impaired, but unable to afford a hearing aid. In some poor countries, children with hearing impairments are unable to attend school. Enabling their hearing begins their path toward education, employment and the ability to lift themselves from poverty.
“I am proud to be helping children with hearing loss in places I never heard of before Rotary,” said Gurian. “It’s gratifying being part of a worldwide organization that allows me to help change the lives of people I will never meet.”
Rotary International – Foundation
Rotary International is the world's first service club organization, with more than 1.2 million members in 33,000 clubs in 200 countries. Rotary club members are volunteers who work locally, regionally, and internationally under the motto ‘Service Above Self’. Rotary is non-political and non-religious. Regardless of nationality, culture or belief system, members of Rotary are involved for the benefit of others.
Since it’s inception in 1951, The Rotary Club of The Caldwells has supported Rotary International (RI) through the financial contributions of its members to the RI Foundation. RI has bestowed the honor of ‘Paul Harris Fellow’ on dozens of Caldwell members over the years. Paul Harris Fellows, those recognized for significant contributions, are the backbone of The Rotary Foundation. Their contributions account for 80% of the over $80 million raised annually to support work to eradicate Polio, provide clean water, fight hunger, reduce child mortality, improve basic education and literacy, and promote peace and conflict resolution.
For more information about The Rotary Club of the Caldwells, contact Tom Cocchiola at 973-226-2344 or visit http://www.caldwellrotary.org. For more information about Rotary International, visit www.rotary.org.