New Paltz knows Maria Rice as school district superintendant of schools. But come July 1, she’ll have another role in town, as this year’s president of the Rotary Club of New Paltz. Rice has been a member of Rotary International for more than 20 years, with the past eleven of those in the New Paltz chapter. “It’s a service organization that I believe in,” she says. “We have some wonderful international projects, and also a very local component. And I believe that to make a true impact, what matters is service to both the local and global community.”
New Paltz Rotary supports the worldwide ShelterBox initiative, in which emergency shelter and supplies to aid victims in crisis can be literally dropped into a disaster site. Local efforts include participating in the BackPack Program that provides a weekend supply of nutritious food to children who qualify for free and reduced-price lunches during the school week. New Paltz Rotarians not only raise money to sponsor the backpacks at approximately $170 per child for the school year, but personally pack the supplies once a week. The club recently awarded their annual $9,000 in scholarships to six New Paltz High School students, and their “Loaves and Fishes” program helps local families in need of food and other necessities. “We’ve even paid utility bills for people in great need,” says Rice. “These are things we can give back to the community that matter.”
Rotarians raise funds for their charitable projects throughout the year. The annual “Win a Bundle” auction and raffle held each fall brought in approximately $16,000 last October to support Rotary projects. The Touch-a-Truck event, held this year on June 5 at the Ulster County Fairgrounds, is the newest addition to the Rotary lineup of fundraisers and already one of its most successful. “All of the events are important in that they provide for scholarships and other worthwhile things,” Rice says, “but I think what’s most exciting is not the methods by which we raise the money, but what we do with it.”
Rotary International’s motto is “Service Above Self.” Despite the association with businesspeople that comes to mind when thinking of Rotary, the organization is not about networking, but rather “service for the sake of service,” says Rice, and includes members like herself who represent leadership in local education. She became a Rotarian after evaluating other service organizations. “I did look at some of the others that are available, but I just felt that with what I believe, and my personality, this was the one that I wanted to belong to. Rotary was the one that I felt had a one-to-one correlation with who I am.”
Rice was installed as president of New Paltz Rotary on June 23 at Garvan’s restaurant on Huguenot Street, where the club holds their weekly meetings every Thursday. (Garvan McCloskey is a Rotarian himself, and makes the space available for the meetings.) Other club members installed in office for the July 1-June 30 Rotary year were Dawn Rich as vice president, Jeff Smith as treasurer, Linda Ferrante as secretary, Andre Venables as sergeant-at-arms and Sadia Bihi-Gilmour as president-elect. She will succeed Rice as Rotary president next July 1.
The president of New Paltz Rotary is nominated by a committee and elected by the membership. But Rotary is never about one person, says Rice. “It’s about everybody giving back to the community, whether that’s on the international level or locally. And if any club member has a good idea and it works, we’re all going to be in, and we’re all going to work on it.”
The future of New Paltz Rotary may be in the hands of current members of the New Paltz High School Interact Club, which is basically a Rotary club at the high school level. World languages teacher Rod Castro is their advisor. The club was formed several years ago by students in search of a service club with no agenda other than service, and they now have more members than the adult Rotary Club in town. “They’re an extremely active and dedicated club,” says Rice. “It’s been exciting to see young people who feel the same way that we do as adults about giving back for the purpose of giving back.” The Interact Club is affiliated with the local Rotary and they sometimes work together on projects. The junior group has done numerous fundraisers since they launched the club, with their biggest donations so far made to Family of New Paltz.
Women in Rotary
Rotary International was founded in 1905 by a group of Chicago businessmen. The name of the organization comes from the group’s early practice of “rotating” the place they held meetings among each of the members. The club was for men only for decades. Lobbying to open up Rotary membership to women began in earnest by the 1970s, but the old guard held sway for years, even terminating a California club’s membership in Rotary International in 1978 when they dared to defy the Rotary Constitution and let women join. That club filed a lawsuit and the case ended up going to the U.S. Supreme Court, who ruled in 1987 that Rotary clubs could not exclude members on the basis of gender. The Rotary club in Duarte, California that began the action was reinstated, and was the first to elect a female Rotary president. Membership opened to women worldwide by 1989 and a year later there were more than 20,000 female Rotarians, with more than 200,000 by 2010.
The Rotary Club of New Paltz is part of regional District 7210, encompassing 58 local clubs. There are approximately 350 female Rotarians in the district, which recently held a first-time celebration of women in Rotary. Twenty-four women from local clubs were nominated for awards for various aspects of service, with ten chosen for honors, including New Paltz Rotary’s Toni Hokanson and Highland Rotary’s Christine Giangrasso.
Rotary on the local level
Hokanson was honored for her work in Rotary on the local club level. She has been a Rotarian for eight years and involved in public service since junior high school when she volunteered to help with special education classes. By age 17 she was volunteering with Planned Parenthood, and has donated her time to the Town of New Paltz on the Environmental Conservation Commission for four years, the Planning Board for six years and Town Board for two, after which she ran for town supervisor and served three two-year terms.
Hokanson served as president of New Paltz Rotary for the 2014-15 Rotary year and was on its board of directors two years prior to that and since then. She initiated the Touch-a-Truck event four years ago and has done several leadership trainings through the Rotary district. She serves as youth exchange officer for Rotary’s youth exchange program for foreign students, and has organized food drives for Family and served as co-chair for numerous fundraisers.
Hokanson says she joined Rotary because it felt like a “natural extension” of the kind of service she had always felt compelled to do. “And it’s been very rewarding for me in that all the work we do is very fulfilling. Whether it’s providing warm coats to children in the community that would otherwise be cold, or providing help to kids who don’t have enough to eat for the weekend, or helping the foreign exchange students who come to us. Rotary sees all of that as making the world a smaller, more compassionate place.”
And as a bonus, she says, “I’ve made great friends with the other Rotarians. We have a really close, congenial, supportive group in our New Paltz Rotary Club that I just love. I’ve made friends in Rotary that I would probably never have known if not for Rotary.”
Rotary on the district level
Christine Giangrasso was awarded honors from District 7210 for her work in Rotary with a district focus. She’s been a member of Highland Rotary for nine years and is presently the assistant governor of Region Two, which includes the local clubs in New Paltz, Highland, Southern Ulster, Phoenicia and the two clubs in Kingston. She will serve as governor of District 7210 for the 2018-19 Rotary year. Giangrasso is particularly active in the Rotary Foundation, which is the charitable arm of Rotary that taps into a global network of Rotarians to provide international assistance, eradicate polio and promote peace.
People who know Giangrasso have called her the “Energizer Bunny” for the way she just keeps going, focused on different avenues of service. “It’s really about helping others to make it a better world for them,” she says. “Making a difference in my community and in third world countries. The polio eradication is huge with me. Water will be our next focus internationally. I’m passionate about the Foundation because I believe in it; it does great things all over the United States and the world.”
Giangrasso’s journey to Rotary began after losing her father to cancer. She remembers how even in the face of terminal illness, his caring for others extended to donating his body for medical research in order that others might be helped. “That was certainly service above self,” she says. After participating in his memory in a Relay for Life event supporting cancer research, Giangrasso found herself chairing the committee for the event in the years that followed. A visit to the Highland Rotary Club to speak about Relay for Life eventually led to her membership in Rotary, where she has embraced her work there.
“I just like to help people,” she says. “I’m also in Catholic Daughters, I’m president of American Legion Post 193 Auxiliary… if you want to make the world a better place, you can’t turn your back on people. My father always told me, ‘When you think you’ve got it bad, just open your eyes and look around and listen, and realize, you are okay.'”
Giangrasso walks the talk, saving all her change to donate to Rotary and she’s pledged $10,000 from her life insurance to the Foundation. “When I’m gone, something good is going to come out of my death,” she says. “I can keep on helping children locally and all over the world. That’s my legacy.”