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'Through Rotary we ship old bicycles restored by prisoners to Africa and help our local community... as a result of our biggest programme we are now close to eradicating polio'

The humanitarian organisation is on the verge of succeeding in its drive to wipe out the disease. The Larne-born district governor of its Ireland branch tells Linda Stewart that the crippling condition exists in only three countries now - and reveals how he took up his post after years selling insurance

William Cross with his wife Teodora
William Cross with his wife Teodora

By Linda Stewart

Billionaire Bill Gates approached Rotary International a few years ago and asked what their most important programme was. There was absolutely no hesitation - eradicating polio from the world was the number one priority.

The upshot of that conversation was that he is now matching every dollar raised by Rotary International to eradicate polio with two dollars, and the aim of eradicating a second devastating global disease (after smallpox) is now tantalisingly close.

Rotary's new district governor in Ireland, Larne-born William Cross, tells me the story as he proudly reveals how the organisation is now on the home straight of its drive to wipe out polio worldwide since launching the initiative in 1985.

"It's a very easy virus to catch, it's found in the dirt, yet it's very easy to control with a vaccine," he says. "If a country has had no polio cases for three years it is declared polio-free, and we are now down to three countries that still have polio. One, Nigeria, has had no outbreaks in three years, and in Pakistan and Afghanistan we're seeing around 30 cases a year.

"The end is in sight and we're going to achieve our goal of eradicating polio from the world."

In short, eradicating polio is one of the main ways that the 1.2 million unsung heroes of Rotary International are changing the world for the better, and William admits the 114-year-old organisation doesn't always blow its own trumpet enough about the huge amount of charitable work it does.

In Ireland there are now 2,000 members across 72 clubs driving that "service before self" ethos - helping others, but also enjoying friendships, community involvement and adventure.

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In his new role at the helm of Rotary Ireland William (62) is looking to make big changes, attracting more young people into the ranks of the global organisation, and aiming to grow the membership by 25% by 2022.

"It's a great organisation worldwide and it offers great opportunities," he says. "Rotary has given me the opportunity to travel and make friends from all over the world, including England, Scotland, Wales, Belgium and Poland. We have eight friends in New Zealand and we organise an exchange visit, so they come and stay in our home, and the next year we go out there and reciprocate.

"Most towns you go to have Rotary clubs and members are welcome in clubs all over the world, in Bulgaria, Canada, New Zealand... so you go along and it's as if they had been your friends forever. It's a way to tap into somewhere and you'll never be lonely."

Indeed, that's why Rotary was originally set up, William explains, as a networking organisation for businessmen travelling around the US, allowing them to make new friends and contacts when they arrived in a new town. Once settled in, he says, they would see things that needed to be done and that's how the charitable aspect evolved.

"The very first thing that they funded was a public toilet in Chicago. Now they're not funding public toilets, they're funding much higher-profile projects, such as the polio programme," he says.

All his work for Rotary is in his spare time. William spent years selling insurance for the NFU Mutual in his home town of Larne before taking retirement and then going into loss assessment.

Billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates is a big backer of Rotary
Billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates is a big backer of Rotary

"I always wanted to be an airline pilot, but my parents never had the money to send me to the training school. So I went to college and graduated as a mechanical engineer," he explains.

"But I didn't like the idea of spending the rest of my life inside a factory and I got the opportunity to go into insurance sales. I loved meeting people, giving them advice and selling them products that met their needs."

Married to Teodora, who runs an Airbnb in Larne, William has two children, son Toshko (21), who was born in Bulgaria, and daughter Margaret Diana (12).

He and Teodora met when he was holidaying in Sunny Beach in Bulgaria. "She was the manager of the hotel and we exchanged phone numbers. Many months later she came to live in Larne," he says.

Despite having no English when he arrived, Toshko picked it up within months and is now studying chemistry in New York. "The people of Bulgaria are very similar to Irish people in many ways, they're sociable people and they know how to enjoy life," William says.

He says he never knew much about Rotary until one day he was approached by a businessman who invited him along to a meeting.

"I knew they did a few things in the town, but I wasn't really aware of them. But I went along for a few meetings and I thought it was an opportunity to give something back to the community, not necessarily money, but also my time," he says.

"Obviously, we're giving money to charity as well, but it's more focused than that, Rotary do lots of work in the community.

"I'd always thought of them as businessmen in suits meeting for lunch. And yes, they certainly were businessmen and they were having lunch, but they started to discuss the business side of what they were doing and the programmes they were doing in the town. At that stage they were doing collections to give Christmas parcels to elderly and needy people, and they were giving out 300 parcels a year. They also did a youth leadership programme, but the big thing was the eradication of polio, raising the money to support the programme, and there were opportunities to go out and help administer the vaccine to the children who needed it."

William Cross delivering a speech at the lectern
William Cross delivering a speech at the lectern

After his first year William was given the job of looking after the work of Rotary Foundation, which oversees the charitable donations to these programmes, and later became club president, before being invited to become one of eight assistant governors in Ireland, and finally was elected as district governor.

Over the years the organisation has changed in many ways, first opening its doors to women in 1987.

"Not long after that we had our first lady member and now about 25% of our members would be ladies," William says.

This year, he says, Rotary in Ireland is focusing on three main charitable projects, the most successful of which is Bikes for Africa, which he ruefully describes as "a victim of its own success".

"We collect old bikes from people who have them lying around garages and increasingly from council recycling depots, we take these bikes to an open prison called Loughan House, near Blacklion, and the inmates restore the bikes," William explains.

"We supply them with the tools and parts and it's giving a double-whammy - they're learning skills to better prepare them for when they leave prison and then we ship the bikes off to Africa and donate them to children and young people. A lot of these children are walking for two hours to get to school and for two hours to get home, and often don't go to school as a result. With a bike, it takes them 15 or 20 minutes.

"We're raising money to pay for the parts, but the cost of shipping is the big thing. We have plenty of bikes now, but we spent £35,000 this year on shipping. We're looking for sponsors who would offer to bring a container full of bikes to Africa; in the past we have packed in books and clothing to fill the containers out."

Rotary in Ireland is also supporting the Mark Pollock Trust's Run in the Dark project, which raises money to cure paralysis and is mustering members to marshal the 5k and 10k runs.

And the organisation is supporting Sightsavers, which provides cataract operations for people in Africa.

"Just €35 will do a cataract operation and Sightsavers give sight and renewed earning potential for people who would otherwise be on the scrapheap," William says.

Locally, there are initiatives like the Tree of Remembrance put up around towns at Christmastime, so that people can attach ribbons with the names of their loved ones.

"There have been some very moving and emotional stories about how people have lost their loved ones," William says.

And another key project is the Rotary Youth Leadership Development programme that brings a small band of young people from Ireland for a week each year to visit Stormont, the Dail and finally take part in Euroscola, a day of debating at the European Parliament in Strasbourg.

"They come back and the parents say: 'I can't believe the difference in my child'. It's a great opportunity for those young people and quite a lot have gone on to become leaders. For example, Simon Harris went through the programme and has gone on to become the youngest minister in the Dail."

Rotary in Ireland also runs the Just One Life programme, which works with young drivers along with emergency services to raise awareness of how their driving can change lives forever.

William admits some of the clubs haven't been as proactive as they could have been about recruiting new blood and can be seen as an "old man's lunch club" - and he's determined to do something about that as part of his drive for new members.

"What we're doing now is looking at starting new clubs, perhaps satellite clubs to established clubs, or parents clubs designed for parents who are busy through the week and are taking their kids to football or rugby on Saturday morning," he says.

William adds he would like nothing more than for new young people to come along, enjoy the fun and fellowship within Rotary and take on leadership roles.

"My ambition is to encourage young people to come along and experience what I've had," he says.

"Rotary is giving 2,000 Northern Ireland men, women and young people adventure, friendship and fresh challenges - and it wants you."

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