Fifty years of Rotary in Whitehorse

The Rotary Club of Whitehorse has been serving the city for 50 years and it is time to celebrate and acknowledge its history and accomplishments. As a service organization, Rotary is well-known in Whitehorse, what with the annual Rotary Music and Dance Festival and Rotary Peace Park. It may be helpful, though, to understand the Rotary Club of Whitehorse in a broader context.

Rotary International is a global network of 1.2 million members in 34,000 clubs across 216 countries. Members are dedicated to providing humanitarian aid, building community goodwill and bringing peace to the world.

In February 1969, then-Yukon Commissioner Jim Smith invited members of the Rotary Club of Prince Rupert to visit Whitehorse to meet with members of the public and private sectors. The Prince Rupert club agreed to sponsor a new Rotary club in Whitehorse and the charter for the new club was issued on April 19 of that year. Formal weekly meetings commenced in May and the charter dinner was held on June 7.

Tim Koepke and Elaine Smart have been in the Rotary Club of Whitehorse since the 1980s. Koepke had been in the Kiwanis Club in Whitehorse in the early 1970s, but took a break when his children were young. He missed the community service involvement and was encouraged by friends to later join Rotary. Smart and her husband were good friends with a couple, one half of which was a stalwart Rotarian.

“(Bill) talked endlessly about the club when the couples got together every Friday evening. This was at a time when women were not allowed in Rotary and so I would ‘rag him’ about him going on about the bloody old men’s club,” said Smart.

Rotary International changed the rules to allow women to join in 1988 and Smart was the second woman (tied with Pam Buckway) to join the club after Bill had told her to ‘put up or shut up.’ It wasn’t an entirely warm welcome for Smart when she first joined. Ten years later though, she was the club’s second female president. She has seen many female members and female Presidents since.

Smart indicated that the project she is most proud of is a recent one.

“I’m most proud of Little Footprints, Big Steps (LFBS). I think Morgan would have found it much harder to get off the ground without that initial input from us. She would have made it because she has that kind of determination, but it wouldn’t have been so quick without Rotary.”

LFBS is a non-profit organization started by Morgan Wienberg of Whitehorse, which focuses on child protection in Haiti. When Weinberg was 18 years old, she lived in an orphanage in Haiti for five months. She decided to stay longer to address the terrible conditions many children were facing there.

Koepke pointed to the Rotary Music and Dance Festival, which exceeded 1,500 participants this year. 
“With 700 to 1,200 participants for many years and having celebrated its 50th anniversary last year, the number of people impacted by the festival is amazing. I also take pride in the focus on youth and the club’s response to community needs, such as projects at Mount Sima, the warm-up shack and the Yukon Wildlife Preserve.”

Smart, who is currently the club’s membership chair, explained how Rotary has become more relaxed in terms of attendance at meetings, being able to participate in a number of ways (including service time in attendance requirements) and having different types of membership.

Koepke said the club has suffered from membership loss and that there is a lack of appeal to younger people, who are so busy, but that this is common for service organizations across North America.

During the time that Smart was President, the club had 61 members (it now has 26 full members and eight honorary members), but that number decreased when the Rotary Club of Whitehorse Rendezvous was formed in order to give members and potential members an option in terms of meeting times. The Rendezvous club meets at 7 a.m. on Tuesdays at the Yukon Inn.

When asked if Rotary had changed them, both Koepke and Smart emphasized the benefits of being a Rotarian and being able to go to Rotary meetings and events with other clubs. Both have enjoyed the warm welcome of many clubs around the world, witnessed amazing fundraising and local development projects responding to local needs, and both are honorary members of clubs in other countries.

When the conversation drifted to how many ducks each had in their homes, I found out that the rubber ducks used in the Rotary Canada Day duck race were replaced six to seven years ago and the old “fleet” was sent to a Rotary club in North Vancouver. Nice to have a fresh fleet of ducks!If you would like to check it out, the Rotary Club of Whitehorse meets on Fridays at noon at the Westmark Hotel.

Duck drop for Yukon River Rubber Duck Race

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