If you saw Wendy Marcus, a tall, attractive, impeccably-dressed Texasborn interior designer who moved to Benefit Street about five years ago from Charleston, South Carolina, you’d assume she’d was just another card-carrying member of the local arts and museum scene. You’d be partially correct, in that Ms. Marcus is one of the cochairs of the RISD Museum’s It’s in the Bag fundraising gala, which is scheduled for May 5. But what might surprise you is that just a few weeks ago, this same stylish East Sider was sitting atop a yak, leading four fellow Rhode Island professionals into the Himalayan region of northwest India as part of a rigorous five-week international Rotary Group Study Exchange (GSE) program.
“It was a challenging trip,” admits Marcus, thanks to a grueling travel schedule that had them visiting far-flung Rotary clubs in 17 cities in 30 days, often times involving long bus rides along narrow, winding roads. It was a journey made even more difficult by limited water supplies, frequent power outages, adaptation to an all-vegetarian diet and even a broken arm that briefly felled one of the team members. “It was more difficult than I expected,” says Yulia Yelle, a second Benefit Street resident and one of the participants in the trip. “But,” adds the Russian-born nurse who works at Morton Hospital in Massachusetts, “I wouldn’t haven’t missed it for the world.” “And I almost forgot,” adds Marcus, “we even experienced two minor earthquakes while we were there.”
So how did this normally reserved East Side designer get involved in a trip of such international derring-do? Currently a board member of the Providence Rotary club, Marcus explained that she had always been attracted to the “Service Above Self” motto of the organization. Rotary now has over 1.2 million members spread among some 34,000 clubs worldwide, who raise millions of dollars annually for both local and international projects. They, along with the Gates Foundation, have raised over a billion dollars toward the eradication of polio. “We’re down to just a few hundred cases of polio worldwide, limited to just four countries,” Marcus points out with pride.
“One of the special incentives for me to lead this trip was the chance to visit India, one of the four remaining countries, but one that has been polio-free for the last 12 months. We even got to visit a polio camp, where up to 50,000 children a day are given drops of polio vaccine, the most critical aspect of the eradication program. It’s quite a sight.”
Two years ago, Marcus went on her first Rotary trip abroad, a four-day trip to the Dominican Republic with five other Rotarians, to deliver a new water purification system into rural areas near Santo Domingo. Joined by the Rotary Club of Woonsocket, the team also partnered with members of the Dominican community here in Providence who helped initiate the program. Plans are already underway for an expanded project next year.
There was another major reason Marcus volunteered for India. “Some 30 plus years ago, in 1974, a girlfriend and I traveled by ourselves from Istanbul, Turkey overland, all the way to India. I was curious to see how the country had changed. Parts of it have, parts haven’t. What hadn’t changed, though, was the warmth of the people in the countryside. That and their unbelievable commitment to their tea. Everywhere we went we had to have a cup of tea. I can’t even begin to calculate how many gallons we must have gone through.”
The study exchange team and its leader were selected by Rotary District 7950, which includes all the clubs in Rhode Island, southeastern Massachusetts, Cape Cod and Boston. Providence is the largest of the 67 clubs that make up the district. The leader must be a Rotarian, but the four team members can’t be. The only requirement to qualify as a team member is that you are a professional between the ages of 25 and 40. All expenses of the trip are picked up by Rotary International.
In addition to Yulia, the other three team members were Joy Fox, a former journalist and senatorial aide who now works as an assistant treasurer in Gina Raimondo’s office and her brother P.J. Fox who is the assistant director of the Institute of Non-Violence. “Given that India was the home of Gandhi, it was a wonderful opportunity for me to learn more about the practical aspects of nonviolence," says Fox. The fourth member of the group was Anna Haas, also an East Sider, who is the new director of development for Shoulder to Shoulder, a non-profit organization that matches American high school students to ongoing development efforts in Honduras.
The purpose of the Rotary Foundation’s Group Study Exchange program is to improve