Going virtual with your group amid a lockdown

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Frank Bannister of the Dublin Rotary Club shares the challenges the group experienced during the current lockdown 

The members of the Dublin Rotary club first sat down to lunch together in 1911. Since then, through a rising, a civil war and two world wars (or rather one world war and an emergency) the club has kept going, adapting as it went to changes in Ireland, in its politics, in its people’s work and life-styles and in general to the times that were in it.

However, the arrival of Covid-19 in Ireland in February posed a rather different challenge from those that the club had faced before. Rotary is about two things, service and fellowship, and it was clear from the moment that the lockdown was announced that both were going to be tricky to sustain. Dining together, something we have been doing more or less every Monday for 109 years, was suddenly no longer on the menu.

So, from the very first Monday that we were locked out of our regular eatery, the Grand Canal Hotel in Shelbourne road, the club decamped for cyberspace and held its first ever on-line meeting. Club members range widely in age and number would be members of the what one might call the cocooning classes. Few would describe themselves as digital natives, though most would consider themselves to be so-called digital immigrants. While the club has had a website for nearly 20 years and has long used e-mail for its communications, few members had had much, if any, experience of teleconferencing beyond one-to-one applications such as Skype and FaceTime. Sharing their screens with 20 or 30 others was going to be a whole new adventure.

In getting started, we had a stroke of luck. We discovered that one of our members had a subscription to GoToMeeting, a Zoom type teleconferencing system, but with rather better security. Our first virtual meeting was, as you might expect, a little wobbly. Members wrestled with connecting in as well as with misbehaving cameras and recalcitrant microphones not to mention the subtleties of teleconferencing etiquette. Despite these teething problems, the meeting worked surprisingly well and as the Mondays have ticked by, more and more members have joined in until we now have between 20 and 30 people participating every week.

Most club lunches have a guest speaker and we have been able to continue this tradition with our speaker addressing us on-line from their own computer or smartphone. Our club has always welcomed a lot of visitors, both Rotarians and guests and we have been able to continue this feature of our meetings too. In fact, our on-line meetings are a lot easier to drop in on if you happen to live outside of Dublin city centre and so we have been joined by Rotarians from Rotary clubs elsewhere in Ireland and from overseas including recently from Ohio and Lancashire. The converse is also true of course. A few weeks ago, one of our members gave an on-line talk to members of the Lake Mary Rotary club in Florida.

Our club has a number of interest groups. One of these is our book club which has also gone on-line successfully and the group that edits our weekly newsletter, The Dubliner, now holds a virtual meeting every week to plan future editions.

While there are still some members who have yet to dip their toes in the water, all of the regulars have now become dab hands with the technology. Mostly the latter works well, though our controller, Dermot, occasionally has to go off line and use a good old fashioned telephone in order to sort out somebody’s technical problems – microphones being, by far, the main cause of grief.

On June 29th we held our 12th virtual meeting. If you would like to join us, there are mailing and other contact details at the end of this article. Just let us know and will we will be delighted to send you an invitation.

The second challenge we faced was keeping the services side of the club going. Rotary is not a charity as such (although our parent body, Rotary International, has its own charity called The Rotary Foundation. Foundation has been heavily involved in Polio Plus, the campaign to eliminate polio from the planet – a project which has received great support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation). What individual clubs and members do is try to help people. This is done via specific projects and in diverse ways. For example, in conjunction with St Joseph’s CBS secondary school in Fairview, our club helped to build and continues to support an orphanage school in Kenya. We work with St Andrew’s Resource Centre in Pearse Street helping them organise events. We have a long association with Trust, Alice Leahy’s organisation, collecting good quality second hand clothing for the homeless (Alice is an honorary member of our club).  During the pandemic, club members have been helping each other out by doing the shopping for older members and, in one case, mending a water leak.

As the virtual lunch is a bring-your-own-sandwiches affair, somebody had the bright idea that each week every member should put aside the money he or she would have spent on lunch in the hotel and we could use this to build up a fund that we could put to good use for some charitable purpose. We agreed that, in the circumstances, it would be appropriate to do something to help those affected by Covid-19, either because they were engaged in the fight against the virus, or because they were suffering as a result of its effects.

Our first project was to contribute to Feed the Heroes. We had some connections with the Mater hospital so it was decided to fund the provision of sandwiches for the medical and support staff in the hospital for a week. Our local Rotary District (which covers all of the island of Ireland) offers support grants and we were able to obtain one of these for this project. At the time of writing we are in discussion with Focus Ireland about help people suffering from food insecurity and we are helping our twinned club, Le Rotary Club de Tours in France, to help people in Cambodia.

Our engagement with Cambodia (via our colleagues in Tours) illustrates a feature of Rotary, namely it global reach.  The membership of our own club is today notable for its international composition. Back in 1911, the founding members were Irish to a man (and they were all men). The membership included a number of names that will be familiar to readers who recall even the Dublin of the 50s and 60s, names such as Henry Jury, Willie Findlater and Thomas Hempenstall. Today we have members (of both sexes naturally) from Germany, Italy, Macedonia, Brazil, Croatia, the UK and Palestine. Our president, Mariandy, is from the Philippines and married into an Irish farming family. Our incoming president, Alan, is from Scotland.

As lockdown continues to ease we are looking to reignite our activities in the physical world. Our walking group, the Rotary Rangers, having had to furlough their boots and hiking sticks for two months, has restarted with social distancing rules in force,. Other members have taken advantage of the hot weather to meet in cafes with open outdoor spaces. As one member put it succinctly, we are taking baby steps back to normality. Like everybody else, we look forward to the day when we will be able to get back to something at least approximating the old normal, but for now our aim is to keep the club alive and vibrant – even if we have to do it mostly in cyberspace. Teleconferencing is a quite different experience from reality. It can never be as good as the real thing, but members have adapted to on-line meetings with surprising ease and it is keeping us in touch with one another until the day we can sit down together once again.

Frank Bannister is a member of the Dublin Rotary club.

For Further Information

If you would like to know more about Rotary or the Dublin Rotary club or would like to attend  one of our on-line meeting, you can contact the club by e-mail at:

rotarydublin@gmail.com

More information about the club can also be found at the club’s website or Facebook page:

www.rotarydublin.ie

Facebook.com/DublinRotaryClub

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Senior Times also publishes Senior Times magazine and are organisers of the 50 Plus Expo’s in Dublin, Cork, Galway and Killarney.

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