We had a wonderful meeting the other evening – via Zoom – when our members were joined by members of fellow “Pentangular” Rotary clubs from around Europe. It was a first for our club and showed the benefits of technology!
Our Club has long had links with other Rotary clubs in Europe going back to just after the second world war in 1947 (see here for more details) – this relationship eventually built into a formal relationship between four, then five clubs (ourselves, Leiden, Leuven, Lüdenscheid and St Quentin), now simply known as “Pentangular”.
Each year our clubs gather together for a bit of friendship and fun as well as to promote international understanding and cooperation, hosted by each of the five clubs in turn. We also work on a Joint Pentangular Project (JPP) – usually an international project that helps disadvantaged groups. The five clubs also run a student exchange programme to promote international understanding and cooperation: the Mini Group Study Exchange (MGSE). As well as helping others, our joint Pentangular activity has led to lots of camaraderie and the development of some very good friendships.
In 2020, because of Covid, our usual Pentangular gatherings weren’t possible. We were supposed to have a Pentangular meeting in Leuven in 2020 and in Lüdenscheid in 2021, but all our plans have been cancelled. So, it’s been a long time since we’ve collected together. With this in mind, the President of our club, Alan Mepstead, proposed we have a five-way Zoom meeting to catch up with each other. Well over 70 members joined the meeting in total – the largest online meeting our own club has hosted!
The meeting started with a hearty welcome by Alan, who then gave a short presentation about our club. He outlined how we have been affected by the Covid crisis and highlighted the activities that we have (and have not) been able to carry out over the last year. Our key activities have included supporting a number of local charities thanks to many of our members handing over their normal dining funds to these causes. We have also helped the development of a Covid testing lab at a cancer hospital in Bangladesh and have supported Covid- and super cyclone-relief efforts out there, via the Rotary Club of Dhaka. We have supported a school in Juba (also one of the Pentangular Projects). Through Zoom we have welcomed a variety of speakers, including speakers from Pakistan, Mauritius and Australia; we have had a taste of Bollywood dancing and have even had an online Christmas party and pantomime. We’ve run competitions for youngsters – including a popup competition in place of our normal innovation competition and our Christmas story writing competition. A group of Rotarians helped plant crocuses to raise awareness about polio and we lit St Dunstan’s church “purple4polio”. Sadly, we were unable to hold our usual Duck Race, but held a charity auction fundraiser instead. Next year is our Centenary year and we hope to be marking this with a gift of an elegant carved stone column – housing a water bottle filling station – to the City of Canterbury. We hope this will be a great way of reducing plastic waste in Canterbury and attracting visitors to our wonderful city. Excitingly, we will also hope to be hosting Pentangular in its 50th year here in Canterbury.
Alan then passed the presentation baton to President Peter Gaillard from Leiden (in the Netherlands), who showed us lots of lovely pictures to illustrate the Club’s activities. Like us in the UK, they have had to contend with Covid up and downs and have turned to Zoom to hold meetings. The Club’s theme for the year has been “Diversity”, which they have been happy to incorporate into their activities. A key activity has been to support their national food bank – and there were lots of pictures to illustrate this. The club supports an educational project in Ethiopia by printing books and of course supports JPP5 in Surinam. Their main 2020 fundraising activity, “Santa’s Run”, couldn’t take place as usual; however, a generous local donor heard about this and donated 20,000 Euros for the food bank. The Leuven club has continued to have interesting speakers over the year – and it seems that some of their members have given some interesting “talks” too. One member, a clinical pharmacologist and doctor, has been on TV being interviewed about Covid. In terms of friendship, we learnt how they print special cards to mark birthdays to show appreciation for members. We also learnt how members also stay in touch through two Whatsapp groups – a formal one and an informal one. The Club also gifts a special Rotary puzzle to speakers and to the owner of the lovely, accommodating venue where they usually meet!
Next up, we heard from President Paul Thysens from Leuven (in Belgium). Paul told us how they have also faced a “stop and go” situation. Their first Covid lockdown was in March 2020. At first family “bubbles” could meet, but soon after they were restricted to staying at home. Like our club, they started to use Zoom. They have since gone through a second lockdown and now, thanks to the “English” variant, they are facing a third lockdown. Although vaccinations are taking place, things are moving relatively slowly. The Leuven club has 53 members who have only been able to meet “in person” three times in the last year. “Zoom has become our way of working,” said Paul. Nevertheless, this has meant good speakers. And despite not being able to carry out some of their planned fundraising activities as usual (a concert, selling champagne, and an end-of-year advent calendar/lottery), the club has been able to raise around 15,000 Euros to carry out a number of activities. One is a small business project – for which they hosted a Zoom meeting of 226 participants. Another is scholarships for youngsters. And a major third project has been to help develop a children’s playground in a local special needs school. The club has also been able to provide around 100 laptops to disadvantaged families, to be used by children while studying at home due to lockdown. A survey showed these had scored a “bullseye” by filling a gap in educational needs. Finally, we heard about the club’s “Meal from Someone” project that helps fund meals but also helps fund psychological help to youngsters struggling with the pandemic.
Markus Hoffmeister, President of the Rotary Club of Lüdenscheid (in Germany) spoke next. “We had a very strange year,” he stated matter-of-factly. Nevertheless, the club’s 62 members remain motivated and the club has a very active executive board overseeing 20 projects. We also learnt of a virtual blue book, listing every active and former member (from no. 1 in 1956 to no. 158, the member who joined this year) to keep a record of the club. Last year, the club was able to meet at first – at a distance and outdoors. During this changeable time, the members managed to go on hikes etc., and lived up to the club’s motto for 2021: “We Together”. However, since then it’s been harder to carry out normal activities. But the club has still managed to do so – although a number of its plans were cancelled. One project the club is supporting is “SOS Children’s Village”. This project supports vulnerable youngsters in Lüdenscheid and has been backed by the club for a number years. The club would normally organize local guides/scouts to help teach language skills to immigrant children in its “Language Connects” project, but this was all shifted online. The club continues to meet online – every 14 days – and, like us, members have enjoyed a mix of members/invited speakers giving talks. At Christmas there was an exchange of cookies and marmalade in place of a party for members, and since then smaller groups have been able to meet at home.
St Quentin’s (France) activities were presented to us by their President François Marquis. Currently, France is seeing its third wave of Covid and the club’s members are facing many Covid-related restrictions in their daily lives. For instance, they cannot travel more than 10 km from home. The club has 33 members who have been meeting by “Jitsi” rather than Zoom. Attendance, however, is around 50% due to connectivity issues. Unfortunately, 8 members had Covid and, sadly, one member passed away. Lately, the club has started to hold small face-to-face meetings (max. 6) and expects to have two new members join in the next Rotary year. As far as their activities are concerned, they have supported University students struggling with the situation with vouchers and they have continued their “Les guides soleil” project which helps youths aged 7 to 17 years. A bread donation scheme, “The Waiting Baguette”, helps to provide bread to needy families. It has provided an average of 250 baguettes per week. The club also supports a girls’ basketball team for youngsters from poor neighbourhoods and gives scholarships to ambitious young graduates. We learnt about their fundraising through the sale of smoked salmon (over 1,300 kg last Christmas!) They, too, support JPP4 (to help deaf children in Moldova - one of the poorest parts of Europe). François ended his talk with the message “take care of yourselves and hope to see you all again soon.”
The final speaker was our own President Elect Stephen Thompson, who will have both our Centenary and Pentangular’s 50th Anniversary to celebrate in his Presidential year. And on the theme of meeting again, Stephen outlined plans for Pentangular 2022, which will be three days (13th-15th May) for all our members to rekindle their friendship, relish some cultural exchange, and visit some local attractions*.
In summary, we can certainly say that our fellow Rotarians are in good spirits despite testing times; they have all been busy with lots of activities both in their local communities and internationally. Markus had echoed our thoughts earlier during his talk when he said “we miss you all. We miss our Pentangular friends…and we look forward to meeting in 2022”.
Picture: a screen grab of some of the Zoom attendees. Picture credit: Rotary Club of Canterbury.
*the programme will be circulated to the other Pentangular clubs.