On August 26, the New Paltz Rotary chapter ceremonially presented a donation to Garvan’s Gastropub that could save some patron’s life: an automated external defibrillator, or AED. It’s an electronic gadget used to reestablish an effective heart rhythm in a person experiencing sudden cardiac arrest. “Anyone can use it,” enthuses Lauren Rooney, who is spearheading the Rotary campaign to get AEDs into more local businesses.
Garvan’s was the obvious first choice, since the owner is a Rotary member and the restaurant serves as host for the group’s weekly meetings; but Rooney hopes that this is the beginning of a trend. Securing the AED was, in fact, “one of the first things we did” since she took over as president of the New Paltz Rotary in July.
“I’m not sure how I got to be president,” she jokes. “Each year we elect a new president and vice president…They’re always turned over each year. We find it brings new energy, new blood, new ideas.”
Each incoming Rotary chapter president is asked to come up with a “theme” for their year in office. For Rooney, who has been a professional massage therapist for 26 years and has owned Jenkinstown Day Spa for 17 years, that decision was a no-brainer. “My theme is ‘Health, wellness and fun for our members, the club, the community and the world.’ My background is in health and wellness, and I like to have fun.”
Although she has only been involved in Rotary for about three years, Rooney is no stranger to the concept of community volunteerism; she was an EMT with the New Paltz Rescue Squad for more than 22 years. A friend invited her to attend one of the Rotary’s Thursday luncheons at Garvan’s, and she “immediately fell in love,” she says. “The members of Rotary are so kind and welcoming. And the message of ‘Service above self’ really resonated with me.”
Rooney speaks admiringly of the New Paltz Rotary as a “well-oiled machine” that was already doing great work long before she stepped into the president’s role. One ongoing project is the Backpack Program, a collaboration with the New Paltz Central School District. Using a budget established via a variety of fundraising projects, the Rotary fills dozens of backpacks with food purchased from the Food Bank of the Hudson Valley and sends them home on a weekly basis with students identified by the District as being in need. That project took on even greater importance during the pandemic, when students weren’t physically present in school and could not take advantage of the free lunch program, and was extended through the summer. Normally the containers are literal backpacks, but, says Rooney, “With COVID we had to go to tote bags.”
The Rotary chapter gives several scholarships each year through BOCES and New Paltz High School. One scholarship is set aside so that a child identified at the eighth-grade level as financially unable to attend college will have their tuition at SUNY Ulster covered. In years when international travel is possible, Rotary also sponsors an exchange student at the high school. The chapter contributes funds annually for the maintenance of a school in Burkina Faso, and sends “shelter boxes” to countries affected by natural disasters – most recently, Haiti, which experienced a devastating magnitude 7.2 earthquake on August 14.
In addition to choosing the next recipient for donation of an AED, Rooney’s “health, wellness and fun” campaign for this year includes a new program called “Walking around the World.” She actually initiated it in April, before she assumed the presidency, because “I wanted it started on Earth Day.” The premise is that members will commit to increase and track their walking activity, reporting their progress on a regular basis. Rooney then translates their cumulative mileage to a virtual walk across the globe. “I ask them, ‘Send me how many miles we’ve gone,’ and at the weekly meeting I announce where we are in the world.” Sometimes the chapter will arrange a virtual joint meeting with the Rotary Club in the country where their “journey” has brought them – most recently Scotland.
Some things on Rooney’s drawing board are intended just for fun, rather than health per se. The next shipping container bound for the school in Burkina Faso will be loaded with art supplies, she says. And in October, the Rotary will be resuming sponsorship of the New Paltz Halloween Parade, since the local Lions Club, which hosted the event for decades, has sadly “dissolved because of not enough volunteers,” she reports.
Surprisingly, while many other not-for-profit organizations were hard-hit by COVID, and some will not be able to recover financially, the New Paltz Rotary actually increased its membership during the plague year. “We increased our fundraising. We just came up with different ideas of how to do it,” Rooney says. “We adopted new uses of technology. We still now meet every other week via Zoom.” Remote meetings mean that more people can participate, despite having busy lives – although everyone would still rather meet over lunch at Garvan’s, she admits.
Another new technical adaptation that is helping is the addition of Venmo, PayPal and GoFundMe links to the local group’s website. New Paltz Rotary’s biggest annual fundraiser, called Win a Bundle, went entirely virtual in 2020 and was still a success; so, the 2021 version will also happen online, coming up on October 23. It’s essentially a classic 50/50 raffle, with only 300 tickets sold at $100 apiece and the drawing livestreamed on YouTube. The top prize is $10,000. “It was fun, so we decided to do it that way again, since you still can’t have 300 people in a room.”
Other traditional Rotary fundraising events that require people to congregate – an annual golf tournament, a Touch-a-Truck event for kids, a fishing derby, photos with Santa – have been on hold for the past couple of years. By the time they’re safe to revive, the New Paltz chapter will likely have anointed a new president. But Lauren Rooney is confident that the group will continue to grow and come up with fresh ideas. “I’m amazed at this group of people. They’re so selfless,” she says. “They’re all in it to do good for the community.”
To learn more, and to purchase Win a Bundle tickets, visit www.newpaltzrotary.org.