“It humbles you,” says Sadia Bihi-Gilmour in describing what it’s like to participate in the good works done by the Rotary Club of New Paltz. A member of the service organization since 2009, she was recently installed as president of the club for a term that began July 1 and runs through June of 2018. “To give back to the community, and to help out, is just an amazing feeling. Anybody who does this — who gives back — knows that there is just nothing like it.”
Bihi-Gilmour has been a realtor for Coldwell Banker Village Green Realty on Main Street for 17 years. Originally from Somalia, East Africa, she first came to the area in 1982 to attend SUNY New Paltz, where she earned a degree in business. She met her husband, Douglas Gilmour, a school social worker in Dutchess County, while working her way through school as a waitress at Mohonk Mountain House. Today, as longtime New Paltz residents, the couple have three children: Aden Gilmour, 23, a senior at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania; Kenadeed, known as “Kenna,” 20, a student at Hamilton College in Clinton, NY, and daughter Anisa Gilmour, a junior at New Paltz High School.
It was her children that actually led Bihi-Gilmour to become a Rotarian. Back in 2009, “I was minding my own business,” she says with a smile, “when my younger son was looking at a blog by my niece from Minnesota, who was posting photographs as a requirement for an exchange program she was doing with Rotary in Minneapolis.”
As it turned out, the blog posts made the biggest impression on Bihi-Gilmour’s oldest son, then 15. Inspired by the experiences his cousin was having, Aden — unbeknownst to his parents — applied to the New Paltz Rotary Club’s exchange program. “We went to the interview with him, and they said, ‘He’s perfect for the program, and where would you like to go?’”
Aden went off to Brazil, and not long afterward, Bihi-Gilmour and her husband hosted an exchange student in their home. “We hosted a kid from Spain,” she says, “and I’ve been hooked ever since.”
When asked to join the New Paltz Rotarians, Bihi-Gilmour didn’t need any convincing. “I was already sold,” she says. “If there are people who do not even speak the same language, who don’t know me and want nothing from me but are willing to take my child into their home and treat him like their own? I want to belong to those people! And I’ve been a member of Rotary since.”
She became the chair of the New Paltz Rotary Club’s Youth Exchange Program, which remains her favorite aspect today of what the group does. Every year, the club sponsors a student from New Paltz High School to go live with a family in another part of the world for the entire school year, and a student from elsewhere comes to New Paltz for ten months, dividing the time between three different host families in the district, getting a taste of three different American lifestyles.
“These kids have an amazing time,” says Bihi-Gilmour, “and they have more than 20 of us [the Rotary Club] looking out for them. Rotarians take them all over; skiing, to the city, to a concert… they don’t want to leave when it’s over! It is so much fun, and it’s good for us: it makes us feel like parents together, as a group, taking care of this child.”
New Paltz Rotary has initiated a new summer exchange program this year, as well. The Summer Experience Exchange pairs up a foreign student with a New Paltz student. The two spend three weeks here before going together to the foreign student’s country of origin and spending another three weeks together there.
Also new for the New Paltz club this year is their sponsorship of a Rotaract club. Like the high school Interact Club, which functions as a junior Rotary, Rotaract groups are made up of college-age students who are not yet employed full-time but wish to participate in the type of service work done by Rotary.
The club is also expanding upon the scholarships they already award to high school students who write an essay about the Rotary motto, “Service Above Self.” Members have committed to sponsoring a student in SUNY Ulster’s President’s Challenge Scholarship Program, which mentors first generation college-bound students in the county whose parents didn’t attend college. The Rotary Club has found that their scholarship recipients are usually students who have been high achievers all along, says Bihi-Gilmour, with access to all the tools they need to succeed, but this is a way to reach out and empower the students who don’t fit the usual profile. In the program, a motivated eighth-grader is mentored for four years, and if they succeed, they get a full two-year scholarship to attend college.
Rotary Club of New Paltz members are among 1.2 million Rotarians worldwide. Rotary International was founded in 1905 by a group of businessmen in Chicago for purposes of fellowship and networking, but it wasn’t long before the emphasis was placed on community service. (The name of the organization came from the group’s early practice of rotating the place they held meetings among each of the members.) The Rotary organization currently has more than 35,000 individual service clubs.
New Paltz Rotary was chartered in 1965. Membership is by invitation only. The New Paltz group meets over lunch at Garvan’s every Thursday. The meetings are structured, with an agenda, and group business is conducted that requires preparation in advance of the lunch.
Taking on a leadership role within the club is the first step toward nomination for becoming vice-president and then president-elect. By the time the president-elect takes over as president the following year, they have received specialized training and are aware of what their responsibilities will be as president. The newly-installed president-elect who will succeed Bihi-Gilmour as president next July is Dawn Rich.
Every year, Rotary International selects a theme for the individual service clubs to focus on. This year’s emphasis is on climate issues. The New Paltz club will be planting trees and helping people learn how to save energy, among other initiatives.
Among its many projects, New Paltz Rotary continues to support the BackPack Program that provides a weekend supply of food to children who qualify for free and reduced-price lunches. Rotarians raise funds for their projects through events like the annual “Win a Bundle” auction and raffle held each fall. This year’s event will be held on Friday, November 3 at Novella’s. The $100 per couple cost of admission includes an open bar, appetizers and the opportunity to win $10,000 or lots of other prizes donated by local businesses. The event sells out every year and serves as a major fundraiser for the club.
For more information about the Rotary Club of New Paltz, visit www.newpaltzrotary.org.