Rotary in the United Kingdom and Ireland has its own umbrella organisation RGBI which hosts an annual Conference. This year’s event was in Torquay and three of our members decided to get up early and take advantage of day delegate rates to drive down to enjoy Saturday’s extensive programme. It was well worth the trip.

Torquay for the day from Bloxwich isn’t your typical outing, but as we’d not attended a National Conference for some years, and with day-rates available, three of us managed to talk ourselves into thinking leaving the house at 4:30am was a good idea, and that the day’s events would make it all worthwhile.

With coffee and refreshments on hand (thanks Tracey!) on the way, we had a fairly smooth journey down to the Conference venue, the Riviera International Centre in Torquay. The only slight blight on the journey was some fairly heavy rain in the last 30 minutes of so of the journey, but fortunately it had largely stopped by the time we pulled into the venue car-park at around 8am. Pay and Display, and coins only. Fortunately we cobbled together enough pound coins to pay the £8 needed! Where’s pay-by-phone when you need it?

With us having made such good time, we’d arrived as things were being set-up, and so we couldn’t register, and, much to my personal disgust, we couldn’t find anywhere inside the venue to get a cup of coffee. What kind of nightmare is that?!! We wandered about a bit, met a few people we knew, and managed to find a helpful member of Rotary staff who found our packs for us. Inside the Rotary Showcase area a café concession was setting up too, so by just after 8:40 we’d finally got coffee too. And… relax.

That gave us just enough time to take a look at the upcoming programme, drink the much-needed coffee, and make our way into the auditorium for the first of the plenary sessions. The sessions were introduced by Lynne Marshall, one of our own district’s past Governors.

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Our first speaker was Liz Johnson, a paralympic swimmer and gold medal winner. She began swimming in part as therapy to help her manage cerebral palsy, and she told her story to us, through some of difficulties she’d encountered and the highs and lows of a fascinating career. It was a brilliant start to the day, and Liz’s story was well worth hearing.

The next segment was presented by another of our District’s past Governors, John Sayer. He described the Rotary Technology Tournament, one of the Youth Competitions which are organised by Rotary. The technology tournament has two age brackets, and challenges children to team together to build something from a set of provided materials to overcome a set challenge. We’re really hoping to get some local take up of this and other competitions in the next year, so if you think it sounds interesting contact us.

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Rotaract (a Rotary partner organisation for 18-30 year olds) was next up, represented by their national Chair Tom Silverson. Rotaract is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2018, and several of our club members got their introduction to Rotary through joining Rotaract. We currently don’t have a Rotaract Club locally, but again, if there were enough people of the right age group interested, we’d be happy to support one.

Then it was onto another of the Rotary Youth competitions, Young Musician, as we were treated to three harp pieces performed by the winner of the most recent competition Huw Boucher. 

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The final section of the first plenary session was also arguably the highlight of the morning, as BBC personality Ellie Crisell presented the Rotary Young Citizens Awards and the WheelPower Sports Award for 2018. The awards began in 2007, and have been presented each year since.

The six award winners were presented in turn, with a summary of why they’d been nominated and a formal presentation of their award. The stories were both moving and inspiring, and we would heartily recommend visiting the news page of the RGBI site to read much more about this segment of the conference. The first awardee was Joseph Cox from Edinburgh. Aged 11, he started a campaign to help homeless people in his area with a “Socks for the Street” project. Next up was 20 year old Rebekah Hinton, who, aged 16, began a children’s clothes bank in her local town of West Bowling, Bradford. A great idea which we’re sure could be emulated in our local area too. The next award was to Dale Rawlins; he began managing a disability football team at age 14, and two years later started a social enterprise sports shop to help create employment and funds for the enterprise. Roll forward to 2018 and Dale now runs the largest pan-disability football club in the country with 13 adult and 3 children’s sides, and one of only five ladies sides in the country. He was followed by Ryan Montgomery who became interested in first aid aged 12, and went on to set up Corstorphine Emergency Response, a group dedicated to expanding the pool of first aid trained individuals. One of the award winners, Andrew Davies, could not be present, but had recorded a segment for showing in the session. He was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia when 13, and needed a bone marrow transplant. After recovering and finding out the cost of operation was £150k, he set out to raise that amount. So far he is almost at £140,000 and counting. The final Young Citizen award was to Jamala Osman, who after being forced to leave home aged 14 spiraled out of control and suffered with depression. Aged 18 she reconnected with her siblings and became their carer, rebuilding her life and eventually starting a career with Barclays. She is now a great advocate on poverty, gangs and mental health related issues, and a fantastic role model for others. The final award, the Wheelpower Sports Award, was presented to Abbie Breakwell. Abbie has a muscle wasting disease, but has not let that prevent her enjoying sport and is now a prominent player of wheelchair tennis, and a name you may well see winning medals in the future. It was a fantastic 30 minutes of inspiring content, and a great way to bring the first morning session to a close.

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We missed the second plenary session, which featured an ex-Blue Peter producer and worker Alex Leger (though we did get a copy of his book) and a talk about cyber security. This allowed us time to walk around the Rotary Showcase, where we were able to meet with representative from many of the charities and projects supported by Rotary in the UK, and we collected some great ideas for future projects.

The third (and final) plenary session for the day had two key speakers timetabled, but with the visit of HRH Princess Anne, we were getting a little extra today, as she had agreed to speak to the conference at the end of the session.

The first of the afternoon speakers was Paul Harvey, a Rotarian who has taken part in many of India’s National Immunisation Days, or NIDs as they are colloquially known. He talked about that and the organisation involved. It was a genuinely fascinating account. Each National Immunisation Day (NID) involves every child over the whole of India receiving a Polio vaccine on that day. It’s a massive undertaking with the numbers involved truly mind-boggling. We’re edging closer to the final end of this terrible disease, and the efforts of Rotarians like Paul are a key part of that success.

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Angela Rippon, a famous face to many of those present, was next on-stage, talking about Dementia and her involvement with national efforts to improve both the care and understanding of those who are impacted by the condition. It was particularly interesting to hear of efforts now being put in place by major businesses to recognise and understand the condition, and tailor their procedures and train staff to help.

HRH Princess Anne was next, and she spoke eloquently about her involvement with Polio Eradication with Save the Children in the very early days of the vaccine being available. She commended Rotary on the work the organisation has done, and spoke extensively and knowledgeably about us. Princess Anne is an honorary member of the Rotary Club of Elgin, and has visited our conference previously, most recently in Manchester when a large number of our members were present.

After the session, groups of Rotarians had been randomly selected beforehand to meet the Princess, and our member and Secretary Steve was one of those selected. The princess took a walk around the Showcase first before meeting each of the four groups for a few minutes. She spoke briefly to each of the group members individually, and ‘thanks’ to Tracey, there is a photo.

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And with that, we’d done most of what we could have expected in a day. We did manage to briefly (in some cases very) meet several members of our District, including DG Carol and Malcolm, DGE Ashley, and DGN Brian, and we had a good chat with the End Polio team about our upcoming events for Polio too.

The drive back was even better than the one down, and we managed to arrive back in time to share a take-away with Helen & Lisa who’d been looking after the kids while we went to the event. A long day, but a good day, and we’re hoping we can get more of us to attend next year’s Rotary Showcase event in Nottingham!