Club Information
Welcome to the Rotary Club of Homer-Kachemak Bay!  Celebrating Over 39 Years Serving Homer and the World
Homer-Kachemak Bay

Four Way Test: True, Fair, Goodwill & Beneficial to All

We meet In Person
Thursdays at 12:00 p.m.
Best Western Bidarka Inn
575 Sterling Hwy
PO Box 377
Homer, AK 99603
United States of America
Currently meetings are being held both "in person" and by Zoom.

By 

Gethen is in the midst of an ice age. It’s a bitterly cold planet where even the warmest summer day is frigid. This is where Florence Maher spent her childhood. Figuratively speaking, of course. Gethen exists only in the tales of Ursula K. Le Guin, predominantly in her 1969 novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, one of many speculative works of fiction that Maher grew up reading.

“A lot of science fiction looks at social issues, but in a different context,” Maher says. “It allows you to ask big questions about how the world would be different if things had evolved in a different way. I’m very interested in those sorts of structural issues and how they look in practice.”

As an adult, Maher continues to ask those big questions as she looks for ways to maximize her knowledge and skills by pairing them with global institutions. Today, this Rotary Peace Fellow works as a social scientist for the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, gathering data and forming policy recommendations to achieve more diversity in the nuclear energy sector on a global scale.

“The identity of being a peace fellow tells the world that you are aligning yourself with certain values,” says Florence Maher.

Image credit: Thomas Cytrynowicz

Growing up, rural Oregon (on planet Earth) was home base for Maher, but her father’s work took the family all over the Pacific Northwest, including Alaska. However, one move took them to Berlin for two years soon after the reunification of Germany in the 1990s. “That was the moment I realized there’s a bigger world out there,” she says. “That experience started me down an international career path.”

Maher spent two years at Earlham College in Indiana (where the undergraduate student population totaled about 1,100) before taking time off to backpack around India and work as an au pair in Germany. “By the time I had finished scratching that itch, I realized I was not going back to Indiana,” she says. “I wanted to do something different.”

Although she was interested in the world, she didn’t know a lot about her own country. She wanted to put herself in situations where she could grow, she said, and she completed her last two years of studies at Howard University, a historically Black college in Washington, D.C., to learn more about diversity in the United States. Being a white student at Howard, she tried to be respectful of the history and traditions in that welcoming environment, to learn without being the “center of attention,” she says. “As a white person, this is not my space. I’m here to shut up and listen.”

Maher graduated from Howard in 2009 and, following a lengthy, intimidating, and competitive hiring process, eventually landed a job as a foreign service officer with the U.S. Department of State. “At the time, it was definitely my dream job to live around the world and represent our government overseas,” she says.

Maher was assigned to consular duties in Mexico, where she conducted visa interviews. The work drained Maher emotionally as, contrary to her own impulses, she often had to deny people entry into the United States under the law. “You may feel different personally, but you’re not there to give your personal opinion about how the world works,” she says. “You’re there to interpret U.S. immigration law.”

In 2018, Florence Maher addresses an audience that includes her classmates at International Christian University in Tokyo. A year later, she takes a break during an applied field experience in France.
Courtesy of Florence Maher


Maher was then sent to Italy as an economic officer and vice consul before relocating to Washington, D.C., in 2018. That’s when she realized that this may have been the dream job of her 20s, but not of her life. She applied for and received a Rotary Peace Fellowship at International Christian University in Tokyo. “I needed time to explore and find myself,” she says. “I wanted two years to take classes, have professional experiences, and perform field research. ICU has a very strong emphasis on doing a research-based thesis, and I was able to do field interviews and really develop my research skills to complement my practitioner skills.”

Florence Maher

  • Bachelor’s in economics and political science, Howard University, 2009
  • Rotary Peace Fellowship, International Christian University, 2018-20
  • Board member, Rotary Peace Fellow Alumni Association, 2023–25

Specifically, Maher examined an attempt to develop a national action plan on business and human rights in Mexico. The endeavor, conducted between 2015 and 2018 by representatives from the government, business, and civil society, was ultimately unsuccessful in building a coalition. Nonetheless, in her 50,000-word thesis, Maher researched how Mexico’s attempt to create the plan offered a framework through which long-standing structural grievances might be better understood and more equitable social structures erected in their place.

Maher graduated from ICU with her master’s in peace studies in 2020. Now, at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, she believes she has found that sweet spot where academic theory can find practical application — and where her individual aspirations, paired with her well-honed skills, can have their greatest impact. “In June,” she says, “our member countries passed an international policy instrument to improve representation of women in our nuclear sectors. There’s a well-established body of research showing that diverse teams perform better in innovation and performance,” which could offer significant benefits to combating climate change. More women in the nuclear sector, Maher adds, could also help garner trust in and support for nuclear technology, closing the gap between how it’s perceived and its real potential.

Some of the research supporting these conclusions was provided by Maher. “I don’t know if I would have been successful with the data collection if I hadn’t been a peace fellow,” she says. “Having done a robust, research-based thesis, I had the confidence to gather the data and write the report.”

Last year, Maher was elected to the board of the Rotary Peace Fellow Alumni Association. “The identity of being a peace fellow has been very powerful,” she says. “It tells the world that you are aligning yourself with certain values — of trying to work on structural change, of trying to make the world a better place.”

This story originally appeared in the February 2024 issue of Rotary magazine.

Rotary Peace Centers have trained more than 1,700 fellows who now work in over 140 countries.

    LEARN MORE  

From Rotary Down Under 

Since 2018, the Rotary Club of Port Moresby (RCPM) has been running a campaign titled #SayNO2familyviolence, a campaign aimed at reducing incidents of family violence and developing Port Moresby and Central Province into a thriving, safe and healthy place to live and work.

At a practical level, the #SayNO2familyviolence campaign means equipping the community with skills to understand and meet the challenges of violence, and to encourage victims and perpetrators to seek help, with a longer-term goal of transforming attitudes and behaviours toward offending, condoning, tolerating, and ignoring family violence.

The PNG #SayNO2familyviolence campaign was modelled on the Rotary Club of Maryborough’s campaign in Victoria.

PICTURED: The official opening of Kwikila Office and Transit Centre, which includes dedicated offices and interview rooms, kitchen, bedrooms and bathrooms.

RCPM formed a partnership with the Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary Family Sexual Violence Unit (RPNGC FSVU) and The Papua New Guinea – Australian Policing Partnership (PNG – APP otherwise known as the AFP), who identified the lack of office space for victims to meet with police to make reports of FSV as an urgent priority.

RCPM’s first project was to deliver a dedicated office space at Downtown (Port Moresby) Police Station, providing victims a safe and private space to meet with the FSVU officers. This project included funding the purchase of a 40-foot shipping container and having it refurbished into an office. RCPM also constructed a hauswin (pergola). The total cost of this project completed in 2018 was K150,000.

RCPM has since provided a further four independent RPNGC FSVU offices in Port Moresby and Central Province, including a purpose-built office and transit centre at Kwikila, which is about two hours outside Port Moresby.

The Kwikila Office and Transit Centre project commenced in 2020, however, work stalled due to the pandemic. The centre was officially opened in late 2022. RCPM contributed K100,000 towards the total cost for the project, which was K250,000. The remaining funds were provided by the Papua New Guinea Australia Policing Partnership, Parkinson Pacific Foundation, Ela Motors, and the Rotary Club of Blackwood, SA.

RCPM also secured playground equipment through Rotary Overseas Relocated Playgrounds (RORP), with equipment installed at the FSVU offices, to occupy waiting children.

RCPM’s campaign has also included educational awareness through schools, villages and settlements in Port Moresby and Central Province, and is currently taking steps to ensure it remains a viable project. This may include further consultation with the Rotary Club of Maryborough, with RCPM members keen for them to visit PNG and see the project firsthand.

By 

To find out how to start protecting local waterways, write to cafw@rotary.org.

A new collaboration with the United Nations Environment Programme empowers Rotary members to clean up, protect, and monitor their local waterways. The strategic partnership aligns with both the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and Rotary’s environment area of focus.

The partnership “brings together Rotary’s community-based solutions and UNEP’s technical expertise,” RI President-elect Stephanie Urchick said when announcing the partnership on 10 January. She spoke at Rotary’s International Assembly, the organization’s gathering of incoming district governors.

At the center of the partnership is a program enabling Rotary and Rotaract clubs to make commitments to the health of their own nearby waterways. Called Community Action for Fresh Water, the program will encourage clubs to organize river cleanup days, raise awareness in their communities about the importance of healthy waterways, conduct basic water quality tests, and report their findings.

These locally based activities are crucial to protecting the environment on a global scale, says Rafael Peralta, regional director and representative for the UNEP’s office for North America.

“The protection, management, and restoration of freshwater ecosystems is fundamental to combating the triple planetary crises: the crisis of climate change, the crisis of biodiversity loss, and the crisis of pollution and waste,” Peralta said at the announcement ceremony. “As populations develop and economies expand, so too does the demand for fresh water. This puts freshwater ecosystems under increasing pressure.”

This partnership builds on a pilot program, Adopt a River for Sustainable Development, begun in 2020 by UNEP and Rotary District 9212 (Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, and South Sudan). In addition, Rotary and Rotaract clubs around the world have often worked independently to clean up freshwater ecosystems.

“Healthy watersheds help biodiversity, forests, wetlands, and lakes. They help agriculture, help the economy, recharge the aquifers, and provide water to millions of people around the world,” said Salvador Rico, a member of The Rotary Foundation Cadre of Technical Advisers. “A contaminated river and a damaged watershed make the area prone to fires, cause droughts, cause diseases, affect the economy of nearby communities, and contribute to climate change.”

The Rotary Foundation is funding program costs over the course of three years, with the potential for continued support. Clubs can use district funds or apply for global grants to pay for their activities. 

To participate, Rotary and Rotaract clubs can identify a local body of water (river, lake, wetland, or natural reservoir) and commit to protecting and restoring it. They can then engage with the local community and other relevant groups to identify any major threats to the body of water and ultimately develop a plan of action in coordination with nongovernmental organizations, private enterprises, or government agencies.

Related stories

Lesson learned: Make sure government stays involved

Learn more about Rotary’s commitment to the environment

Why so many people are still dying of cervical cancer, and what Rotary is doing about it

Women diagnosed with cervical cancer are almost twice as likely to die than those diagnosed with breast cancer. Yet cervical cancer is a disease that is preventable and treatable. What’s going on?

About 90 percent of the women killed by cervical cancer — more than 340,000 in 2020 — live in low- and middle-income countries, where access to prevention, screening, and treatment is severely limited. And reproductive care remains a taboo topic, even when it means people are dying as a result.

  • 116

    Global grants awarded to fund cervical cancer projects since 2014

  • 91%

    Share of cervical cancer deaths in low- and middle-income countries, where access to prevention, screening, and treatment is severely limited

  • 604,127

    Number of people diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2020

The Rotary Foundation has awarded more than $10.3 million in global grant funding for cervical cancer projects since 2014, and other Rotary projects, such as an initiative in Alabama, have tackled this issue outside of global grant funding. In addition, $2 million was awarded to United to End Cervical Cancer in Egypt as part of the third annual Programs of Scale competition. The Foundation awards these grants to evidence-based programs that align with at least one of Rotary’s causes and are ready for expansion to create larger-scale change.

The four-year program in and around Cairo will vaccinate more than 30,000 girls ages 9 to 15 to prevent infection with the human papillomavirus, which causes the disease. It will provide cancer screenings for 10,000 women — allowing for early detection and treatment — and launch a public awareness campaign to reach 4 million people, helping address cultural misconceptions that may deter people from seeking care.

For Cervical Cancer Awareness Month in January, we examined the state of the disease around the world, and what Rotary members are doing about it.

Your Foundation money at work

Countries and geographical areas where global grants have funded cervical cancer projects in the past 10 years.

How HPV infection can lead to cervical cancer

Cervical cancer is primarily caused by the human papillomavirus, a group of more than 200 related viruses, some of which are sexually transmitted. Nearly all sexually active people will be infected with HPV at some point in their lives; most of these infections are harmless, but some high-risk HPV viruses can progress to cancer. HPV vaccinations before a young person becomes sexually active can prevent infection, and therefore cervical cancer. The cancer develops slowly, with five to 20 years between the first cellular changes to the actual development of cancer. Screening for abnormal cells and treatment when necessary can stop the disease from progressing and save lives.

  1. Normal cervical cells -- Vaccination opportunity: 11–12 years old

  2. HPV Infection (Most infections do not turn into precancers) -- Screening opportunity 21–65 years old

  3. Precancers (May still go back to normal)

  4. Cervical Cancer

This story originally appeared in the January 2024 issue of Rotary magazine.

With suicides rising in the U.S., Rotary members who’ve lost loved ones are determined to prevent more deaths. Their first step — talking.

By Photography by 

The six Mardi Gras-style beaded necklaces that Lori Crider is wearing tell you something about her struggles and her hopes, if you learn the strands’ color code.

Purple honors a friend or relative who died by suicide. Crider wears four, including one for her nephew, Jesse Cedillo.

“I’ve lost three relatives, unfortunately,” she says at a fall 2022 suicide prevention walk that starts at a former MLB stadium outside Dallas with rain clouds framing the roller coasters nearby at Six Flags Over Texas. “I had an aunt in the ’90s, then my cousin in West Virginia after Jesse. I wear a purple for each of them and for a friend who took his life in 2005.”

Blue is for suicide prevention, an issue that has become a calling for Crider and fellow members of a Rotary club created in 2021 to take action on that cause, as well as for many people at the walk whose friends or family members died by suicide.

Crider’s nephew, whom she describes as a soft-spoken young man who dreamed of becoming a police officer, died at 20 years old in 2015 using a gun he got from a relative’s house next to his home in rural Alabama. Family members say they always had guns available for protection and for shooting sports through 4-H.

Lori Crider took up the cause of suicide prevention to cope with her grief after the death of her nephew. “I hope I can help someone else from losing their Jesse,” she says.

Nearly 50,000 people die by suicide each year in the U.S., and over half of them use a gun. The total number of annual suicide deaths is equivalent to filling the seats of the one-time MLB stadium where the Dallas-area walk took place. In 2022, preliminary figures indicate that the rate of suicide in the U.S. was the highest in the five decades since the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began recording that data. The negative effects of the COVID-19 pandemic may have contributed to the increase, according to a CDC report. Globally, more than 700,000 people die by suicide each year, according to the World Health Organization.

While there is no simple solution to preventing suicide, a proven precaution is limiting access to items or places that people in crisis could use to harm themselves. “Putting time and space between a person and a lethal method of suicide can save lives,” says Marian Betz, an emergency room doctor and University of Colorado professor who researches suicide and firearm death prevention.

This is the idea behind blister packages for medicines and barriers added to bridges. With firearms, having access to a gun triples the risk of suicide, in part because guns are so much more deadly than other ways people try to die, Betz notes in a video message that she recorded as part of her work with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Nearly 90 percent of firearm suicide attempts in the U.S. result in death, while only 2 percent of intentional drug overdoses do. And some studies indicate that many people who try to end their lives act rashly with little planning.

Guns rob many people of a second chance to live, Betz says. “When we’re talking about suicide prevention and firearm suicide prevention, we’re not talking about gun confiscation. We’re talking about ways to lock it up more securely during a time of risk,” she says.

After her nephew’s death, Crider, a Rotary member since 2010, threw herself into helping others and worked with Shirley Weddle, also a loss survivor and mental health advocate, to establish the Rotary E-Club of Suicide Prevention and Brain Health. Its members encourage others to talk and think about how every person can contribute to reducing suicides in the U.S. and around the world by making mental wellness a routine part of day-to-day life. Club members regularly participate in events that promote awareness, eliminate stigma, and support survivors, including the Out of the Darkness Walks like the one outside Dallas, which the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention organizes.

The focus of the e-club, which started with about 50 members — most new to Rotary — is an example of how Rotary is at the forefront of encouraging people to tend to their own mental health and check on the feelings of those they encounter — openly and warmly. No stigma. Rotary President Gordon McInally is encouraging members worldwide to up their mental health efforts because of his personal commitment to the issue after his brother died by suicide.

Though programs to address suicide can vary from culture to culture, Rotary clubs around the world are supporting the work of mental health providers in their areas and taking other actions. The Rotaract clubs of Sahel Metn in Lebanon and Amsterdam Nachtwacht International raised money to support the only suicide hotline in Lebanon. Rotarians in Nepal led a session for teachers on suicide prevention and mental health management in schools, including ways to reduce stigma and discrimination.

A club outside Manila in the Philippines organized free counseling for seniors. And clubs in the U.S. have held education sessions about suicide prevention and ideas to reduce access to potentially dangerous items and locations when people are at greater risk of self-harm.

Shirley Weddle, a loss survivor and mental health advocate, helped found the Rotary E-Club of Suicide Prevention and Brain Health to promote awareness, eliminate stigma, and support survivors.

 

What should you do if you suspect someone is contemplating suicide?

The National Institute of Mental Health offers five action steps for helping someone in emotional pain:

  1. Ask them directly, “Are you thinking about suicide?”
  2. Keep them safe by reducing their access to potentially lethal items or places.
  3. Be there. Listen to their feelings and acknowledge what they are saying.
  4. Help them connect to a suicide crisis line or to someone they trust.
  5. Stay connected, follow up, and keep in touch after a crisis.

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline in the U.S. by calling or texting 988 or going to 988lifeline.org. If you are outside the U.S., visit findahelpline.com to get connected with a service in your country.

When e-club members collaborate with organizations and talk to Rotary clubs or community groups about ways to prevent suicide and improve mental health, their presentations cover topics including risk factors, warning signs, intervention, and ways to separate lethal objects and people thinking about suicide.

Betz advises doctors to educate their patients who are around guns about their options when they or someone they’re close to is at risk of harming themselves. Public health experts suggest that people store guns unloaded and away from the ammunition with a cable lock or in a safe. Or move them out of the home when someone is in crisis; some gun stores and law enforcement agencies will store them temporarily. And other people choose not to own one when there is a suicide risk, Betz notes.

Crider echoes the idea that the safer the environment is made for a suicidal person by temporarily reducing access to lethal items, the better the person’s chances are of coming through a crisis period. “We give them time for the intense suicidal impulse to diminish and time for someone to intervene with mental health support,” she says in a presentation called Talk Saves Lives that she gives to Rotary clubs. She and Weddle, the e-club’s charter president, along with member Terri Hartman, became presenters of the talk developed by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, starting with clubs in their district with a goal to spread awareness and wellness ideas across the world. The three connected in a grief support group and now lead support groups for survivors of suicide loss.

A hopeful takeaway from the presentations, fundraising events, and awareness campaigns is that mental wellness advocates and public health experts have some ideas to try to help. They want everyone to hear them — whether a person thinks about dying themselves, knows someone who struggles with suicidal thoughts, or just wants to do their part to make the world more supportive of people who need help for depression, traumatic stress, loneliness, substance use, and other strains in life.

To start, mental health experts want people to throw out any hesitation they feel about talking with a friend, parent, sibling, or child who they suspect might be thinking about dying or harming themselves. The National Alliance on Mental Illness notes that many studies show that discussing the issue doesn’t increase the chance of suicide.

And experts emphasize you don’t need to have all the answers. Often people in distress aren’t looking for concrete advice, and just making small talk and showing empathy can save lives, according to the International Association for Suicide Prevention. The group advises to watch for warning signs, including hopelessness, rage, and reckless activity, and to be knowledgeable about available resources.

Crider suggests that people in the U.S. make the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline a contact in their phones. “You might need it for yourself or for somebody else,” she urges. “Reaching out is not a sign of weakness; it’s a strength.” And counselors and doctors recommend that people with suicidal or self-harm thoughts create written safety plans that spell out in detail what they’ll do, whom they’ll contact, and even what they’ll tell themselves when those thoughts start or when they feel out of control. One step in those plans is to secure or get rid of any items that the person could use to harm themselves.

The value of connection cannot be overstated. “Let them know they are not alone” is one piece of advice Crider shares. “Our family decided our thing was to talk about it, because nobody saw it coming,” she says.

At the walk outside Dallas, a steady stream of people moves out into the rainy morning, a long, snaking line on the sidewalk knotted with groups of friends and relatives, some holding large photo montages of loved ones who died or wearing matching tribute T-shirts: “Team Jake” and “#ForJames” and “#TeamJulian,” honoring an 11-year-old. Many of their stories echo a recurrent theme: the presence of a gun turning a passing impulse into a permanent loss.

Crider hopes the march will open the gates for families to speak about suicide and how to stop it — families like Kathy and Tony Thompson, who attended the walk. They lost their 18-year-old son, Luke, to suicide in 2018. Kathy Thompson could barely speak at her son’s memorial. But now she and her husband talk about it to others, one-on-one, and have seen results.

Several months after Luke’s death, Tony Thompson felt compelled to share his family’s story with a coworker, who talked to his own family about it. “His daughter went to school the next day and told a counselor, ‘I haven’t been sleeping the past two days. I have this plan ...’ There was a huge intervention,” Thompson recalls.

“Her mother called me and said, ‘I think you guys saved my daughter’s life,’” Kathy Thompson says. They learned that the daughter had been planning to take her life and hadn’t shared her feelings with her parents because she didn’t want to worry them. The Thompsons became close with the couple, who told them that hearing their story had enabled their daughter to open up. “Later, she was crying at her high school graduation party, saying, ‘I wouldn’t have been here,’” Tony Thompson says.

After Kathy and Tony Thompson experienced a loss, he shared their story with someone whose daughter was struggling.

 

Other walkers wearing beaded necklaces in red for the loss of a spouse or partner, gold for a parent, greet each other and take literature and snacks from information tables at the stadium. The e-club is one of the sponsors of this walk, which is aimed at educating the public and allowing those with a connection to the cause to come together. The event raises money to support research, advocacy, and education.

Crider also has a necklace in teal in support of someone who attempted suicide. She took up the cause of suicide prevention as a way to cope with the grief she felt after her nephew’s death and try to prevent further deaths. “I hope I can help someone else from losing their Jesse,” she says.

In the stadium, Weddle sets up a table for the e-club with bowls of awareness wristbands and red-and-white mints, plus handouts describing the services and training offered by club members and mental health organizations they represent. She wears white beads in remembrance of a child. She lost her only child, Matthew, to suicide when he was a 22-year-old student at the University of Texas at Dallas. The e-club has recently sponsored suicide prevention awareness walks at the college.

To Weddle, an important aspect of the walks is to publicly demonstrate that suicide is not a taboo topic. “You not only can talk about suicide, you must,” she says. People’s perceptions begin to change and stigma decreases when they approach mental health as physical health and understand how sleep, diet, exercise, and stress affect the body’s chemistry and people’s actions and reactions, including thoughts of suicide, Weddle says.

The e-club’s display is among a variety of tables from groups at the walk. One table is for Soldiers’ Angels, an organization that provides support and resources to military service members, veterans, and their families.

About 17 U.S. military veterans die by suicide every day, a rate nearly 60 percent higher than that of other U.S. adults, even after adjusting for age and sex differences. Risk factors for veterans include physical and mental conditions stemming from their service, difficulties transitioning to civilian life, and access to firearms at home.

At a table promoting gun storage ideas from the Be Smart advocacy group, volunteer Donna Schmidt says the organization uses the word “smart” as an acronym to remind people about five steps they can take: secure all guns in your home and vehicles, model responsible behavior, ask if there are unsecured firearms at other homes, recognize the role of guns in suicide, and tell others about these tips. Its volunteers have spoken at Rotary club meetings around the country. Schmidt says their message is: “If you have one, then please be safe.” Free cable locks are available at the event.

The walk is brief, a little over a mile, but long enough to raise $227,532. Its nonmonetary value is obvious to the participants: gather, walk, talk, hug, cry.

Those who tend to the needs of people at risk or who live with the aftermath of a suicide also learn to look out for their own health and mental well-being. E-club members share self-care ideas at their meetings. For Crider, part of her self-care is to always keep moving. She looks up at the sky and counts even the rain on the Out of the Darkness Walk as a blessing.

“It’s such a big issue, it really needs more attention,” she says. “We need to talk about these things, to bring knowledge to more people. We’ve got to bring it out of the darkness and talk about where people can get help.”

Neil Steinberg is a news columnist on staff at the Chicago Sun-Times. His book, Every Goddamn Day: A Highly Selective, Definitely Opinionated, and Alternatingly Humorous and Heartbreaking Historical Tour of Chicago, was published in 2022 by the University of Chicago Press.

This story originally appeared in the November 2023 issue of Rotary magazine

Connect with the Rotary E-Club of Suicide Prevention and Brain Health at suicidepreventionbrainhealthrotary.org.

By 

I was out for my evening run, but as so often happens lately, I was not alone. The monsters, all in my mind, were gaining on me, ready to pounce. I had to sprint, a full-out panic dash, to avoid capture at sundown, that moment when Alzheimer’s bears down.

It had begun as a hazy spring afternoon gave way to dusk on the waterfront in pastoral Brewster on Cape Cod: a numbing fog that slowly crept in, first in misty sprays that tingle, then in thick blankets that penetrate the mind and disorient the senses. It had the smell of a chill wind from a raging North Atlantic storm, the kind of nor’easter that takes the breath away.

Faster and faster, beneath the thick canopy of oaks and red maples, the demons were chasing, their screeching howls emerging from the dense, choking groundcover of honeysuckle and myrtle. My heart was pounding, the sweat pouring. Alone, I was enveloped in fear and full paranoia — and the fire in my brain was scorching.

At full gait, I dashed past Brewster’s community garden with its impenetrable stalks of corn, past a forest of moss-covered locust trees bent in grim, twisted forms, past the ancient cemetery of sea captains, dead now for two centuries and more. A blazing red sun dipped into Cape Cod Bay to be doused like a candle. The demons kept coming on, but, with every ounce of my will, I beat them home. No doubt they will return with a vengeance.

As they have. Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia play tricks on the mind. My life, once a long-distance run, is now a race for survival. So I press on against the odds.

My family tree is a guidepost in this struggle. Alzheimer’s took my maternal grandfather, my mother, and my paternal uncle, and before my father’s death, he too was diagnosed with dementia. The disease has now come for me. I’m a member of a club I never wanted to join.

There are more than 6 million Americans living with Alzheimer’s, and an estimated 55 million people with dementia worldwide, numbers expected to increase exponentially in years to come with the growing population of older people. Changes in the brain — the buildup of amyloid plaques and tau tangles that destroy neurons and lead to Alzheimer’s — can start in one’s 40s without noticeable symptoms. And this is a journey that can take 20 to 25 years to run its serpentine course.

I was diagnosed several years ago with early-onset Alzheimer’s after numerous sports concussions and a traumatic head injury — a severe bike accident without a helmet — that doctors said unleashed a monster in the making. I also carry the strongest genetic risk factor for Alzheimer’s, the gene variant ApoE4, which appears to be on both sides of my family. Today, 60 percent of my short-term memory can be gone in seconds. I often don’t recognize people I’ve known most of my life. I deal with rage, loss of place, loss of self, loss of smell. I sometimes see things that aren’t there. I misplace things regularly and seek to withdraw from social activities more and more. Not long ago, preparing to brush my teeth, my brain told me to reach for my razor rather than my toothbrush.

My heart said, “No … bad dog!”

And at times, privately, I cry the tears of a little boy because at 73, I feel the end looms.On the plus side, I’ve been blessed with a good IQ and what dementia experts call cognitive or synaptic reserve. In essence, that’s the brain’s ability to improvise and find alternate ways, other synapses, when the lights start to dim, says Rudy Tanzi, the Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital Alzheimer’s expert on the accumulation of beta-amyloid plaques, neurofibrillary tangles, and inflammation of the brain.

But, despite years of exercising body and brain, the reserve is draining. Doctors suggest that my writing, the essence of my physical self, will likely be the last to go. I hope they are correct. A career journalist, I diligently write everything down on my laptop — my portable brain — so I don’t forget when, where, and why I’m supposed to be. I also regularly email and text myself as a backup to remember. It’s hard to maneuver through Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia without strategies.

At times, I feel like an ailing centipede: lots of legs, but they’re slowly falling off. In addition to Alzheimer’s, I’ve been diagnosed with prostate cancer and deep depression and anxiety. And two years ago, at New England Baptist Hospital in Boston, I underwent 10 hours of spine reconstruction surgery as doctors cut through bone, muscle, and nerves and inserted steel rods, plates, and screws, all to prevent me from becoming paralyzed.

I’m sustained by faith, hope, and Irish humor. My late mother, Virginia, the hero of my life — I’m one of her 10 children — taught me through her heroic battle with Alzheimer’s how to survive while experts race for a cure. A pity party, she insisted, is just a party of one.

My mother also taught me, in her own words, to fix on Service Above Self, the Rotary maxim, which drives me today. I was the family caregiver on Cape Cod for both my parents, and thus know all sides of this disease. (Last year in the U.S., unpaid caregivers — physically and emotionally at risk from the stress of looking after loved ones — provided people with dementia an estimated 18 billion hours of care valued at $339.5 billion.) I was at my parents’ bedside when they passed away, first my dad, then, four months later, my mom. I saw the torch then passed to me.

Fortunately, I have my own incredible support system — and I take full advantage of the resources available at key Alzheimer’s websites, which are critical for all of us who are fighting dementia. Accurate information is the coin of life. I’ve already mentioned Tanzi, who, in addition to his academic duties, is the chair of the research group at the Cure Alzheimer’s Fund. And then there’s Lisa Genova, who has a PhD in neuroscience from Harvard and is the author of five best-selling novels, including Still Alice, which, when made into a movie, won Julianne Moore a best actress Academy Award for her performance as an accomplished professor with early-onset Alzheimer’s.

“Your brain is amazing,” writes Genova in the introduction to her nonfiction book, Remember: The Science of Memory and the Art of Forgetting. “Every day, it performs miracles — it sees, hears, tastes, smells, and senses touch. It also feels pain, pleasure, temperature, stress, and a wide range of emotions. … Memory allows you to have a sense of who you are and who you’ve been. If you’ve witnessed someone stripped bare of his or her personal history by Alzheimer’s disease, you know firsthand how essential memory is to the experience of being human.”

And, as Genova acknowledges, “while memory is king, it’s also a bit of a dunce.” That is why there is a distinct difference between forgetting where you put your car keys and not knowing what the keys are for — between forgetting where you parked your car and not knowing you have a car. I know that difference full well.

One day, several years ago when I was still driving, I took our trash to the landfill (a polite word for the town dump). After discarding the trash, I was confused about how to get home. I thought in the moment that I could call my wife, Mary Catherine, or one of my kids for a ride. I slowly worked myself into a panic. My bright yellow four-door Jeep was directly in front of me, but in the moment, my brain wouldn’t tell me that it was my car. I was rescued by the timely arrival of a friend who discerned my anxiety and pointed me toward my yellow Jeep.

The demons kept coming on, but, with every ounce of my will, I beat them home. No doubt they will return with a vengeance.

Thankfully, there is optimism on the horizon with ongoing research to slow the pace of this disease in people with mild cognitive impairment and early stages of Alzheimer’s. There is also promise in key clinical trials and in brain health. In July, the Food and Drug Administration approved the use of Leqembi, created by the pharmaceutical company Biogen and Eisai; the approval marks the first time the FDA has sanctioned a drug shown to slow the progression of Alzheimer’s in early stages. The drug works to help clear the amyloid plaque buildups in the brain that are associated with Alzheimer’s disease and the destruction of neurons.

The approval is “a ray of hope for millions of patients who are doing everything they can to enhance and extend their lives and reduce their families’ burdens,” said George Vradenburg, the chair and co-founder of UsAgainstAlzheimer’s. “People with early-stage disease now have a weapon to fight Alzheimer’s. Finally we have a drug that can slow the encroachment of Alzheimer’s into our families’ lives and livelihoods.” (Vradenburg is another one of my trusted, go-to resources; for information about brain health and Alzheimer’s resources, check out his organization’s Brain Guide.)

In addition to early diagnosis and clinical tests, brain health is key to holding Alzheimer’s symptoms at bay. Tanzi has developed a useful acronym: SHIELD. Get plenty of sleep, at least seven hours a night. Learn how to handle stress, which can lead to the creation of more harmful amyloid plaques. Interact with friends; socialization is the key to fighting the urge to withdraw. Make time for daily exercise, which promotes the creation of new brain cells — and to create new synapses between brain cells, learn new things. Finally, eat a healthy plant-based diet rich in vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, and seeds.

From the start, in his groundbreaking research, Tanzi focused on amyloid plaques and tau tangles, the prime markers for Alzheimer’s. He draws the analogy of a raging fire in the brain (though for some of us, that experience is more than mere analogy). “We need to put out the fire,” he says, “then save as many trees (neurons) as possible.”

Which is why, Tanzi insists, early detection is key. “This is the elephant in the room,” he says. “Alzheimer’s is not generally diagnosed until the equivalent of congestive heart failure and needed bypass.” This is wrong, he says, noting that by then the “fire” in the brain is out of control.

Over the years, I’ve lost several friends to the all-consuming conflagration that is Alzheimer’s. It pains me and motivates me. Time is fleeting, and we need to find ways to generate more funding for care and a cure.

Meanwhile, I’ve tried to come to terms with my own race for survival. No surprise, I suppose, that, given my background, I’ve found solace in the words of two great American writers. It was the poet Robert Frost who wrote: “In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life. It goes on.”

Ernest Hemingway put an exclamation point on this: “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”

Be strong in the broken places.

A journalist, editor, and publisher, Greg O’Brien is the author of On Pluto: Inside the Mind of Alzheimer’s, and he and his family are the subject of the 2021 documentary Have You Heard About Greg?

This story originally appeared in the November 2023 issue of Rotary magazine.

Rotary’s Alzheimer’s/Dementia action group supports and promotes Alzheimer’s and dementia-related projects of all sizes.

Rotary and Habitat bring rooftop solar to low-income homeowners

By 

The Habitat for Humanity home that Amber Cox moved into in 2020 not only provided a new, comfortable living situation for her and her son — it also helped keep the family's energy bills low.

That's because their duplex in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley came with a perk: rooftop solar panels, installed shortly after she moved in. The technology produces enough energy to greatly reduce her electric bill and create wiggle room in her budget. "It pretty much covers what would be my electric bill about three quarters of the year," Cox says.

Even in the wintertime, when the heat is running and sunlight is less abundant, she saves about $40 a month. This, in turn, makes it easier for her to spend on activities for her 9-year-old son, like registration fees for the swim team or a weekend trip to the zoo. Among residents of affordable housing, she's one of the fortunate few with solar power.

While the cost of solar panels has plummeted, the technology has not reached everyone equally. Low-income families, which stand to benefit the most from the savings, are among those with the least access to renewable energy. Barriers include high upfront costs, difficulty accessing loans, and disqualification for tax credits.

Workers install solar panels on the roof of a Habitat for Humanity home in Hillsborough, North Carolina.

Courtesy of Southern Energy Management

By the numbers

  1. $25,000+

    Potential savings over the life of a solar system

  2. 3,000

    Tree plantings needed to equal the benefits of one solar rooftop

  3. $110,000

    Median household income of solar adopters in the U.S.

Environmental justice advocates in the U.S. have pointed to the disparity as an example of how people of color, who often endure more pollution in their neighborhoods, higher rates of asthma, and some of the greatest impacts of climate change, are also shut off from climate solutions. The civil rights group NAACP is among those pressing for greater access to solar power in communities with large percentages of Black or Hispanic residents.

Through their service partnership, Rotary International and Habitat for Humanity International are trying to shrink that solar equity gap, an effort that can have a lasting impact on families and communities. Habitat is a global nonprofit that improves living conditions in more than 70 countries, including by removing hurdles to affordable, adequate housing for families.

"There's such a thing as energy poverty," explains Liz Henke, of the Rotary Club of East Chapel Hill, North Carolina. "The energy bill is such a high percentage of disposable income for low-income people. If you can help decrease that power bill, you can help interrupt that cycle of poverty. It means families can afford shoes, buy better quality food, and all that goes back into the economy."

Since 2020, Henke's club has helped the local Habitat affiliate raise more than $330,000 for solar panels. She recruited a student intern who helped solicit the donation of 100 solar panels from Strata Clean Energy in Durham, North Carolina.

As a member of the Environmental Sustainability Rotary Action Group's Renewable Energy Task Force, Henke also helped produce a guidebook, with support from Habitat and Rotary, to advise other clubs in the U.S. how to make solar a reality for low-income homeowners in their locations. The ESRAG guide educates readers on the basics: Rooftop solar uses photovoltaic panels to convert sun rays to electricity, cutting the expense of drawing power from a utility. And power companies pay homeowners for energy that isn't used and is fed back into the grid, which can further offset monthly electric bills. The installation of a 5.4-kilowatt solar system can save a homeowner $50 to $150 a month in electricity costs. The guidebook also covers practical topics including tax credits and rebates, grants, fundraising, and donations of equipment, labor, and expertise.

Homes built by Habitat for Humanity with rooftop solar panels in Orange County, North Carolina.

Toby Savage

Because of the high upfront investment, Habitat affiliates have had to navigate a patchwork of funding sources, which tend to shift and fluctuate over time, says Beth Wade, director of land acquisition and project development for Habitat of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. The partnership with Rotary could help, she says. "This [partnership] has the potential to stabilize funding because it may provide a new group and a new pool that we can go to when there aren't state funds," Wade says. "We live right in liberal Massachusetts, progressive Massachusetts. And even here, the funding ebbs and flows."

Already, there are Rotary/Habitat solar projects being pursued in places including upstate New York, Delaware, Minnesota, Virginia, Massachusetts, Georgia, North Carolina, Ontario, and Côte d'Ivoire, Henke says.

"It used to be, if you're going to put solar on a house, you really needed to be a tree-hugger, you needed to be willing to actually pay a premium for energy that was zero carbon," says John E.P. Morrison, executive director of NC Clean Future, an initiative that promotes clean energy, air, and water and land preservation in North Carolina. Today, once the system is in place, maintenance costs are minimal and the electricity is almost free — as long as you can pay for the system upfront, he adds.

The full cost of residential rooftop solar, including installation, dropped 64 percent between 2010 and 2022, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, part of the Department of Energy. But many tax breaks helping bring down costs favor higher earners. Homeowners with lower incomes often don't pay enough in taxes to benefit from the rebates.

But a law approved last year allows non-taxpaying entities to get the same 30 percent rebate on solar installations as taxpayers, Henke says, so organizations like Habitat can direct the savings to the homeowners. It's a way to begin to bring equity to solar energy.

"We're significantly reducing the energy burden of these families. We're contributing to the generational wealth of these families," says Jeff Heie, director of GiveSolar, a nonprofit organization that helps other nonprofits and homeowners with lower incomes gain access to solar energy. Homeowners can save an estimated $25,000 over the life of a solar system, he says.

Heie and others hope that putting solar on Habitat homes could have a ripple effect on the homebuilding industry, with more developers equipping homes with the technology. The Habitat project shows that if it can be done for low-income homeowners, anyone can do it, he says.

Volunteers lift a solar panel during installation at a Habitat home in Harrisonburg, Virginia.

Courtesy of GiveSolar

To reap the full benefits of solar power, it's best to plan for an installation when the home is built. Homes need to be oriented for direct sunlight, and in the Northern Hemisphere the roof plane should face southward for maximum exposure. Building the homes with the proper electrical infrastructure is also helpful. "Most houses don't have electrical wires running up to the roof," Morrison says. "It's much easier to put that wiring in when the house is being built, as opposed to try to retrofit it later."

An expansion of rooftop solar is also an important path to meeting climate goals. The impact of one 5.4-kilowatt rooftop solar system is the equivalent of planting 3,000 trees or not driving about 300,000 miles, according to the ESRAG guidebook. "Rotary members, for the environment, like to plant trees. If we plant 50 trees on a Saturday morning, we've worked really hard," Henke says. "If you put up solar panels, that's the equivalent of planting thousands of trees that do not need to be tended, watered, or mulched."

Amber Cox is encouraged that more people are getting access to solar energy. "Once upon a time, the only people that could afford solar maybe didn't have the same amount of need that we do," Cox says. "We've come so far with solar. It does make for a hopeful future."

This story originally appeared in the September 2023 issue of Rotary magazine.

  The Solar for Habitat Guidebook can show your club how to make rooftop solar available to new Habitat homeowners.  

Speakers
Dan Kort
Feb 29, 2024
New Public Works Director
TBA
Feb 29, 2024 12:00 PM
TBA
Owen Meyer
Mar 07, 2024 12:00 PM
Club Assembly
Mako Haggerty, Alison O'Hara, Dave Brann
Mar 14, 2024 12:00 PM
Kids Across the Bay
RSS
Rotary honors six members as People of Action Champions of Impact

Members promoted mental health, protected mangrove forests, and helped Indigenous young people increase their economic opportunities

Rotary in Ukraine stronger two years after war began

District 2232 is working to identify needs, connect with Rotary clubs worldwide, and support those affected by the war

For the love of dogs

Members of a Korean Rotary Club help at a dog shelter

More than US$2 million collected for Turkey, Syria after earthquake

Rotary members continue to provide relief a year later to those affected

Rotary partners with Bahcesehir University to establish Peace Center in Turkey

Rotary partners with Bahçeşehir University to establish Peace Center in TurkeyNew center will train regional peacebuilders through a one-year Rotary Peace