The charitable work of the Lisbon Rotary Club.jpg

The charitable work of the Lisbon Rotary Club

LISBON ROTARY Club (LRC) was the first rotary club ever to be established in Portugal, and this year it celebrates its 60th anniversary. In 2005, the Rotary clubs in Portugal also celebrated the centenary of the founding of the international organisation in Chicago, US, in 1905. The Resident’s Chris Graeme takes a look at this often-misunderstood organisation.

Ask most people on the street what a Rotary club is and does, and they probably won’t be able to give you a straight answer. From asking a handful of people, I heard various answers: “a secret society”, “a business group”, “masons”, “a quasi political party”, “a mystical spiritualist group”, “a sports club” and “a golf organisation”!

It’s not surprising really, when you consider that Rotary clubs do not often appear on television, hardly ever give interviews and rarely trumpet their own achievements. Yet, every year, they raise hundreds of thousands of euros to help the vulnerable in society, both at local, national and international levels. The clubs help the poor and homeless, provide wheelchairs for the disabled, fund shelters for women at risk, maintain hospices, buy guide dogs for the blind, finance children’s hospitals and old people’s homes. However, there is rarely a mention in the Portuguese press about any of the Rotary clubs’ worthy causes.

The idea that Rotary clubs are somehow secretive and Masonic still gains currency in Portugal, largely because, as an organisation, it has never been particularly interested in marketing itself, and prefers to quietly go about its charitable business, “without making a lot of noise”, as LRC head of international services, Richard Goldschmidt, puts it. “The problem is that until a year or two ago, the Rotary organisation wanted us to do as much as possible, without any kind of propaganda, keeping as low a profile as possible. However, it came to the conclusion this was pointless in the media-driven world we live in today, since there were other groups, like the Lions, that projected a visible profile, which helped their cause,” Goldschmidt said. However, things are changing, as outgoing LRC president, Maria de Fátima Guerreiro, has already appeared on television five times in the past year, to talk about the club and its charitable activities.

Their blurred social image has also not been helped by the fact that women were only allowed to become active members in the 1980s, and, even today, they freely admit there are some clubs that still do not accept women as Rotarians.

The Rotary club is not like a conventional society that you join. You do have to have a certain kind of business or professional status in the community, then you might be invited to attend meetings, get sounded out and, if you are considered an honest and upright citizen, with an honest business record and some flair, are prepared to offer your services to the common good, you might be sponsored by a ‘godfather’.

All of the Rotary club members address one another as companheiro (fellow), which seems a little strange at first; the only place outside the Rotary where the term is used is in Cuba, where Fidel Castro and his comrades refer to one another in this fashion. “We use this form because it means ‘with someone’ and, as a group, we work together in whatever community we are in, not in isolation,” explains Maria de Fátima Guerreiro. “The idea is that we should be honest, truthful and transparent in both our business dealings and with the community.”

Another misconception that needs clearing up is that Rotary clubs are not political, racist or evangelical; they simply require that a citizen is honest, upstanding and willing to serve the community.  

The Lisbon Rotary Club has a peculiar feature; it is the ‘godfather’ and affiliate of the first organisation in Madrid. During the Franco era, professional and business organisations of this type were banned in Spain, although Salazar grudgingly permitted Rotary clubs to continue. Franco’s brother, who had been the Spanish Ambassador to Portugal, attended Lisbon Rotary meetings, and persuaded the Spanish dictator that Rotary clubs were not some kind of Masonic, semi-mystic, secret society.

Even so, the organisation in Portugal existed under a political regime, where freedom of expression and public meetings were not readily tolerated. However, despite its meetings being heavily censured, it never ceased offering its services to the community.

During World War Two, when Portugal took a neutral position, the Rotary Club took in many Jewish children, particularly Austrians, who had fled from the conflict. It was in 1955 that Rotarians became involved in their first large project by founding a centre for the blind, which later became known as the Helen Keller Infant Centre, whose educational plan was officially recognised in 1962.

From there on, its charitable services and projects proliferated all over the country, with Portuguese Rotarians helping out various social institutions, including Misericórdias, fire services, old people and children’s homes, and centres for the disabled.

Lisbon Rotary Club itself has around 80 members, which doesn’t seem a great deal, although they point out there are 12 independent clubs in the Lisbon area, two districts nationwide (north district with 1,970 members and south, from Batalha to as far as the Algarve, with 1,960 members), including the Azores and Madeira, with nearly 4,000 members in the country as a whole. Above the presidents of each group, there are two governors for Portugal, one for the south and one for the north, who are the representatives of Rotary Club International.

There are many activities worldwide that the local Portuguese Rotary clubs contribute towards, such as the recent partnership with Fort Lauderdale in Florida, where a joint project provided 260 wheelchairs for various hospitals, old people’s homes and institutions for the disabled. Another project involving Lisbon Rotary Club with other clubs worldwide provided fresh drinking water to outlying areas in Argentina.

If you wish to find out more about becoming a Rotarian, consult website www.rotary.pt