From the November 2015 issue of The Rotarian
When Camilla McGill planned her first visit to India about 10 years ago, she couldn’t have known how quickly – nor how painfully – she’d learn one of the trip’s most important lessons.
“I was alone in a hotel, and I had a nightmare,” she says. “I jumped out of bed, caught my foot in the sheet, fell to the floor, and hit my head.” In the morning, she found herself dizzy and disoriented, with a blossoming black eye, but she was determined to keep her first appointment: assisting with a National Immunization Day event with Rotarians at a nearby hospital.
“I didn’t find the hospital I was looking for,” she says, “but I came across a group of nuns who care for tuberculosis patients. They took me in, cleaned me up, and put me back together.” She soon resumed her work, grateful that the strangers’ kindness had sidetracked her.
“As Westerners, we’re often taught to take initiative: ‘Be the leader! Stick to the plan!’” McGill says. “Most of the Indians I’ve met don’t work that way; they work with people. It’s about relationships.”
A decade after that first trip, the relationships McGill has built with Indian, Canadian, and U.S. Rotarians have helped hundreds of India’s poorest citizens in a variety of projects.
Her journey began about 9,300 miles away from India, in the town of Pearland, Texas. When she and her husband moved there from Canada for his job, McGill returned to school to study inter-cultural communication – and joined the local Rotary club. “I went to the 2005 Rotary International Convention in Chicago my first year as a member,” she recalls. “I saw the full international component of Rotary on display. I was amazed to learn that there were grants available to do all kinds of things.”
Through Indian friends back in Canada, McGill had developed an interest in India, and she sensed an opportunity. She took to the Web, browsing posts from Rotary clubs working in the country. Volunteers were needed for many projects, including schools, a maternity hospital, and an eye hospital, with the Rotary Club of Anakapalle, a small town in east-central India. “I contacted them, and I went,” she says.
The hotel mishap aside, that first journey was a success. A $1,000 donation from the Rotary Club of Pearland furnished Anakapalle schools with desks and benches, and later, larger grants from The Rotary Foundation supported projects benefiting the town’s maternity and eye hospitals.
McGill and her husband relocated again after Texas – first to Wilmington, Del., and then, after retirement, to Sarnia, Ont. – but the moves didn’t slow her volunteer efforts. She joined a Rotary club in Delaware and kept working on grant projects. In Sarnia, she joined the Rotary Club of Sarnia-Bluewaterland, which co-sponsored a Rotary Foundation Global Grant project with the Anakapalle club last year at the eye hospital.
“Cataracts are much more common in India than they are here,” McGill explains. “The sunlight there causes some cases, and diet – particularly insufficient food – can play a role. When the eye hospital opened in 2000, the goal was to provide 40 free cataract surgeries per month and dispense eye medications to the poor.” The grant last year provided cataract surgeries for 760 people, medical treatment for about 2,500 patients with other eye conditions, and medical seminars on best practices for improving eye health.
Through annual visits, McGill has witnessed Rotary’s impact on the hospital. “One year we paid for painting and new tiles, and we’ve purchased a new autoclave,” she says. “Many other Rotary clubs from the West have donated ophthalmologic microscopes. Now the hospital could use a phacoemulsifier” – an expensive piece of equipment that uses vibration to pulverize and extract the cataract. It will help improve outcomes for patients with limited access to health care – which McGill describes as the most rewarding part of this work.
Her visits to Anakapalle have allowed her to see how vital the hospital’s services are to the community too. “One day I was visiting the eye hospital, and the staff was smiling and happy and laughing, and I asked why,” she says. “It turned out that a man was coming in who’d had a damaged eye removed at an early age. He had only one eye left, and a completely white cataract was covering that entire retina. The hospital was going to remove the cataract, and the staff knew he would be able to see again. That was exhilarating to see happen.”
She hopes other Western Rotarians pursuing global grant projects will visit potential partner clubs and project sites, she says. “Once that’s done, the grant becomes more than a piece of paper. We can feel what the need is, in addition to knowing what the need is.”