Brunswick Rotary makes a difference in South Africa

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BRUNSWICK — People may think Rotary Clubs only help their local communities, but Brunswick Coastal Rotary has been taking its mission more than 8,000 miles away for decades.

Most recently, the club has been working on a Global Grant to help more South African children learn about their culture.

John Dennen, president of Brunswick Coastal Rotary and a native of South Africa, said his group is working on fundraising for a grant that would provide between $35,000 and $50,000 for local children to visit the Phansi Museum in the city of Durban.

The effort began two years ago when his club obtained a smaller grant of about $5,000 for the same purpose.

“(The idea was) to bring children from the townships – in other words, poor children – to the museum to spend a day there to learn how wonderful and important their culture is,” he said. “They’re subjected to everything but their culture – it’s got to be American, or it’s got to be European … but (they are told theirs) has no value.”

The smaller grant made it possible for several hundred children to visit the museum, which Dennen called “spectacular.”

The goal of the upcoming grant is to raise up to 10 times the amount of the first grant. The club already has a $10,000 donation from a couple in Massachusetts, which Dennen said has helped get the momentum going.

In addition to simply bringing the children to the museum, Dennen said the Global Grant will also provide teachers who can show them how to create the kind of crafts and art forms on display.

It is important for them to learn those skills, he said, because selling the crafts is a sustainable way to make a living.

Dennen said a big issue in South Africa is commercial schools “selling the concept” of needing a specific certificate in order to do a certain job. However, after students “spend lots of money” to attend such schools, he said they often come out not being able to read or write.

“Unemployment in South Africa is phenomenally high,” he said. “Whereas if they had a craft they could sell – if they were making baskets, or an art form, or dolls, they would be able to feed their families.”

Dennen’s wife has owned Indrani’s, a store in the Tontine Mall specializing in African arts, jewelry, and beads, for 30 years. He said she imports a lot of her items from South Africa, and that there is “a big market” for such crafts worldwide.

After a trustee of the Phansi Museum visited Massachusetts on a recent fundraising trip, the Dennens sent him to South Africa with a doll and a Zulu basket from their personal collection for the museum.

And, though the Phansi Museum program is Brunswick Coastal Rotary’s current focus, the group has been doing work in South Africa since the late 1990s.

In 1998, Rotarians completed a $230,000 project to help combat the HIV/AIDs crisis in South Africa. Dennen said Brunswick Coastal Rotary developed a community outreach program, training 500 workers and providing them with necessities such as medical bags, shoes, and raincoats.

He called it the “largest project” the group ever did.

He also said the club, which only has 18 members, has worked on “a lot of women’s projects” in the country. One involved buying several sewing machines and training local women to make clothing and “whatever it was they could sell and feed their families.”

Dennen said the group is able to raise money for the grants through a matching program with its Rotary District and The Rotary Foundation.

The Rotary District will match the amount raised by Brunswick Coastal Rotary, and The Rotary Foundation matches the district’s contribution, as well as half of what the local club was able to raise. 

Dennen, a musician, is also working on a project with a South African connection on his own. On Aug. 25, he will be holding a benefit concert at The Theater Project to help Brian Finch, a South African musician suffering from cancer.

He prefers not to be the face of the work his Rotary Club does abroad, though, because he said each project requires all members to be on board.

The connections other members of the group have made in South Africa over the years have also been helpful. Dennen said he thinks working there is “absolutely” a legacy his group will carry on.

“We’re a very small Rotary Club, but we have raised millions of dollars for projects in sub-Saharan Africa,” he said. “None of these projects would happen without all 18 people – it’s a team effort.”

Elizabeth Clemente can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or Follow Elizabeth on Twitter @epclemente.

Brunswick Coastal Rotary President John Dennen and his wife Indrani Dennen with food to be delivered in Africa. The local Rotary Club is now working on a cultural grant to help South African children. 

A doll donated by John and Indrani Dennen to the Phansi Museum in South Africa. Brunswick Coastal Rotary is working on a grant to bring more children to the museum.