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Rotary Brings the World to Los Angeles

Service organization's annual convention highlights polio eradication, seeks Guinness record for world's largest book drive.

If Hollywood were to produce a new movie about the United Nations, it might want to shoot on-location this week in downtown Los Angeles, where about 20,000 visitors from more than 140 countries are attending Rotary International‘s annual convention.

Often described as a “mini-United Nations” because of its international and cultural diversity, the always colorful Rotary convention is expected to inject at least $16.5 million into the local economy during its weeklong run at the Los Angeles Convention Center. Pre-meeting activities began Thursday, followed by the main convention program, which runs through Wednesday. The annual convention gives members of the 103-year-old volunteer service group the opportunity to share success stories, exchange ideas and renew acquaintances. Members of the 380 Rotary clubs in Southern California and southern Nevada, led by Gerry Turner of Long Beach, did much of the planning and are serving as hosts. Rotarians from Carpinteria, Goleta, Montecito and Santa Barbara are well-represented at the conference, too.

The 2008 Rotary convention launches an organization-wide drive to raise $100 million over three years to match a $100 million challenge grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The entire $200 million is earmarked for polio eradication, Rotary’s top priority for 20 years.

The launch included a rare joint appearance Tuesday by the top leaders of the international health agencies that -— in partnership with Rotary — direct the Global Polio Eradication Initiative: Dr. Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organization; Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; and Ann Veneman, executive director of UNICEF. Their host was Dr. Robert Scott, chairman of the Rotary Foundation and head of Rotary’s PolioPlus program.

In special recognition of Rotary’s commitment to literacy, many attendees brought children’s books representing their homelands for the Wide World of Books project, which aims to be the largest international book drive ever. The books will go to deserving schoolchildren throughout Southern California. A representative from Guinness World Records will be on hand to certify the results during Wednesday’s closing session.

Other highlights of the 2008 Rotary convention included:

» The color and pageantry of the opening ceremony, which presented the flags of the nearly 200 countries and geographical regions where Rotary clubs are chartered.

» Dr. Tadataka Yamada, president of the Gates Foundation’s Global Health Program, who discussed why the foundation chose Rotary for the $100 million polio eradication challenge grant.

» Stephen Lewis, co-director of AIDS-Free World and former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations, who described how service organizations such as Rotary can help address the serious health needs of many African nations; and Dalton McGuinty, premier of Ottawa province, who discussed approaches to improve the world’s literacy rates.

» A projects fair in the aptly named House of Friendship, where scores of successful humanitarian initiatives were displayed.

The Los Angeles convention is led by Rotary International president Wilfrid J. Wilkinson of Ontario, Canada, who took office last yeer and during his term encouraged Rotary clubs to partner with each other and other groups on projects to improve literacy, provide clean water, prevent disease and promote health. He will be succeeded July 1 by Dong-Kurn Lee, of Seoul, whose emphasis will be on programs to reduce childhood mortality rates.

Los Angeles has twice before hosted the Rotary convention, the first time in 1922 and the second in 1962. The Rotary Club of Los Angeles is the fifth Rotary club established, founded in 1909 just four years after the first club was formed in Chicago by attorney Paul Harris. Rotary now supports nearly 33,000 clubs in more than 200 countries and geographical areas, with a total membership of over 1.2 million men and women who are leaders in their businesses, professions and communities.

Wayne Hearn is with Rotary International.

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