By Laura McAlister
Some may be lawyers or bankers and others web designers or photographers, but all are young and ready to make a difference in the Birmingham area.
They’re members of the Rotaract Club of Birmingham, a junior form of the Rotary Club formed in 2004. Since then, the organization has grown into one of the largest — if not the largest – of its sort in the world. To date, the club has about 250 members, all under age 35 and from varied backgrounds and careers.
Rotaract’s goal is to provide young professionals with opportunities to learn, socialize and serve, and it offers members a variety of ways to do all three. But this club isn’t for just anyone. Not only do you have to be 35 years old or younger, you also have to have proven leadership skills and a determination to move the city forward.
“That’s one of the things that does make us different. We do have an application process,” said Andrew Case, Rotaract president and a manager of Harbert Management Corporation’s real estate investment team. “When looking through the applications, we’re looking for leadership abilities and past experiences. We want to know what you would like to see change about Birmingham. It’s very competitive.”
While the application process can be rigorous, the results are worth it, said Laura Lavender, Rotaract communications chairman.
The club has ended up with a large group of highly-motivated young professionals who live in the Birmingham area but are from all over the country. Members are committed to making a difference in the area. In the eight years since the club formed, they have.
Service projects include serving meals to the homeless, helping clean up after the April 2011 tornadoes and collecting classroom supplies for area students.
The club’s biggest service project is Ready 2 Read.
The signature project of Rotaract Birmingham, Ready 2 Read is a partnership with Better Basics, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing literacy that endows a library in each Birmingham City Schools second grade classroom. Better Basics helps maintain the more than 110 libraries in the city schools daily, while Rotaract helps ensure the libraries and materials are up to date for years to come.
Rotaract members also serve as “reading buddies,” who come and read with the second graders twice a month.
Wesley Carpenter, Rotaract service director and a wealth management advisor with Merrill Lynch, said in its first five years Ready 2 Read is already making a great impact.
“The literacy numbers from second to third grade have improved pretty significantly,” he said. “I’ve been a reading buddy for three years, and I can tell you it’s very, very rewarding. You not only become a reader to them but also an idol.
“A lot of these kids don’t have father figures, and reading buddies are someone they can look up to.”
While Ready 2 Read targets the area’s future, Rotaract isn’t forgetting the area’s past, either.
Another of Rotaract’s major service projects that also incorporates the club’s social aspect are its monthly game nights with St. Martin’s in the Pines, a comprehensive retirement community.
“St. Martin’s is one of our standing service projects, and it really is a blast,” said Laura, a Mountain Brook High graduate. “I was a little nervous the first time I went because I wasn’t sure what to expect.
“It’s just like hanging out with your grandparents or co-workers. We just get to talk and they offer advice.
“It’s fun knowing we brightened their day. I really like going there.”
There are more than enough opportunities for Rotaract members to serve within the club, but this group of young people doesn’t stop there. Wesley said he serves on four other nonprofit boards, and Laura is an active volunteer for Hand in Paw.
Baines Fleming, an attorney with Norman, Wood, Kendrick and Turner and chairman of the club’s foundation, said it can be difficult to balance a career and service work. But Rotaract members make time for both.
“It’s definitely a balancing act, but you just kind of make it work,” he said. “I think our membership as a whole are in leadership roles, and they really have a heart and passion for what we do as a club through service initiatives. People in our club find room for service and camaraderie.”
The Rotaract Club is just as much about camaraderie as it is service. They go hand in hand, said Baines, a Homewood resident. Whether it’s the upcoming Masquerade Ball, the club’s major fundraiser for its service projects, or monthly lunch meetings or socials, they all bring the young professionals together.
The Masquerade Ball, set for 6 p.m. March 24 at the Alys Stephens Center, includes cocktails, dancing and live and silent auctions. The event raises money for the club’s foundation.
The foundation was formed to endow and support the club’s service projects. The funds are totally separate from the club’s operating budget, paid mainly by club dues, that funds monthly luncheons and socials for members.
“That’s another thing about our club,” Wesley said. “We are an all-volunteer club. We don’t have a staff. Everything we do, we do ourselves.
“The foundation supports our service initiatives. A portion of our dues do go to the foundation, but the Masquerade Ball is our major fundraiser, and we have sponsorships to help us raise funds.”
The Rotaract Club also has monthly socials where members meet for drinks at various Birmingham hot spots.
When it comes to learning opportunities, members meet twice a month at the Harbert Center for lunch, where there is a featured speaker.
While the club has a plethora of activities for its members, finding volunteers doesn’t ever seem to be a problem, Laura said. The club doesn’t set any meeting or service requirements.
“It’s just not necessary,” she said. “Everybody wants to help and do something.”
Although the club is limited only to those young movers and shakers under the age of 35, it’s doubtful many of these young professionals will drop out of service and leadership roles once they outgrow the Rotaract Club.
“The average age of our club now is 27, and we have some now who are just starting to age out,” Andrew said. “We’re connecting them and letting them know their options.”
Of course it’s likely most of the young professionals in Rotaract already are volunteering with several service organizations. Wesley said club members – whether they are from Birmingham or relocated to the area – already have a vested interest in the area’s future.
“We are very diverse in our ethnicity, jobs, lives,” he said. “We come from different places, and that’s what’s made us successful.
“We want to make a difference and be successful. We’re interested in service above self.”