By Jon Gresley, member of Rotary Club of Truckee, California, USA
Since 2000, I have attended 20 project fairs, 16 in Central American and four in Colombia. Attendance at project fairs provides Rotary members with opportunities for international travel and engagement in service with fellow members.
The first ever project fair was a gathering of Rotary members invited from throughout the seven Central American countries (Districts 4240 and 4250) to exhibit and seek support for their service projects from Rotary members from the United States and Canada. The group gathered near Retalhuleu, in western Guatemala in 1993. The two individuals recognized as the founders of the fair, known as Uniendo America (“Uniting America”) were Karl Stucki (Rotary Club of Oakland, USA) and Juan Forster (Rotary Club of Guatemala City, Guatemala). Each year since, a fair has been held the last weekend of January in Central America. Most recently, the 28th Uniendo America fair was held in Antigua, Guatemala, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Unfortunately, both Karl and Juan have passed away, but they have left a legacy that now reaches around the world.
More than 12 years ago, project fairs were first held in West Africa and Ecuador. Now, project fairs are hosted each year in Central America, Ecuador, Colombia, West Africa, and East Africa. There have also been project fairs in Europe, Egypt, Brazil, Peru and Mexico. While there are variations between fairs, they all provide opportunities for members from around the world to meet in fellowship, learn about other cultures, and form partnerships to support projects in the host country(s). They typically run for 2 to 3 days. Often, there are opportunities for Rotary members to visit existing or potential service projects and to visit near-by points of interest such as archeological sites, national parks and other areas of natural wonder.
My first project fair was in Tegucigalpa, Honduras in 2000. My wife, Rotarian Gudrun Dybdal, and I were among a small group of international visitors from the Rotary Club of Oakland. We not only met Rotarians from various parts of Central America, we also found ourselves among a group of Rotarians from our home District, 5170. The friendships we made from our home district have lasted for more than twenty years.
Before there were global grants, we were partnering on matching grants nearly every year as a result of our participation in Uniendo America. When District 5170 became a part of the pilot for global grants, Gudrun took on fundraising for Oakland’s first global grant: construction of a block of toilets for an elementary school in a remote community in Belize. A group of fellow Oakland Rotarians and I visited the school while attending a project fair in Belize City.
Most recently, when I attended Uniendo America in San Jose, Costa Rica in January 2018, I met Dr. Gustavo Morales of the Rotary Club of Mazatenango, Guatemala and Mark Rohweder of the Rotary Club of Kalispell, Montana. Their booth promoted a project to build a water system for the community of La Vega, a few hours drive from Mazatenango. La Vega is a village of about 300 families that relocated to this sugar growing area during the war of the 1980s and 1990s. They were assured they would have access to local services including adequate water. Unfortunately, the water system has not been adequate. After seeing a smaller, but similar water system built nearby through a global grant, advocates for the community reached out to the Mazatenango Rotary Club to seek their assistance. The partnership between the Mazatenango Club and a consortium of Montana Rotary Clubs was activated to swing into action.
Gustavo and Mark were in San Jose to begin the long process of raising over $300,000 through a global grant. The Oakland Rotary Club has had a long-standing relationship partnering on a number of matching grants with the Mazatenango Club, and I had previously visited the club a number of times. I offered my support and eventually was successful in obtaining cash and District Designated Funds (DDF) to support the project from my club.
By January of 2020, the team had begun to close-in on the total needed budget of $315,000. Mark was at the fair in Antigua, Guatemala, as were representatives of the Mazatenango Club to promote the clean water project. As I began to go around to all the booths of projects seeking support, I quickly learned that many Rotary clubs with whom we had previously partnered on other global grants were already signed onto this project. All of us continued networking with the goal of raising the remainder of the required funds.
By March of this year, the gap in funding had shrunk to $11,000. At this point, I learned that there were clubs in District 5170 that were looking for international service projects worthy of support. As there were a couple of Rotary members in these clubs that had attended Uniendo America project fairs over the years, I reached out to them and sought their support. By the end of April, the gap was filled.
As I survey the list of clubs and districts contributing to this global grant, I find many familiar names, members from Rotary clubs in Montreal and other parts of Canada; Portland, Oregon; Louisville, Kentucky, Iowa, and of course several in Montana and California. A number of these members and clubs have partnered with the Oakland Rotary Club on numerous global grants in Central America and Colombia in recent years. All these familiar names are people I have come to know from my participation in project fairs in Central America and Colombia. Had so many of us not participated over the years, we wouldn’t have had the relationships and connections to help build the pool of funding to make this project possible.
Consider attending a project fair in a part of the world where you have an interest and where you would like to make a difference. Attendance at project fairs will give you the opportunity to take action to create lasting change — across the globe, in your communities, and in yourselves.
Due to the current state of the world due to the pandemic, many of the fairs this year will be virtual events, you can stay up-to-date by checking this map for updates on My Rotary. If you are interested in finding out more about project fairs or supporting a global grant, please feel free to write me at firstname.lastname@example.org.