CHERRY HILL The president of Rotary International issued a direct challenge to local members over the weekend: Recruit new people or risk extinction.
"I believe in tradition, but sometimes you need change," said Ron Burton, whose group is one of the world's largest humanitarian service organizations. "We've got to take a look at who we are and ask if we want to be relevant or even in existence in the years to come."
Burton spoke at the Rotary Leadership Institute of North America held in Cherry Hill over the weekend. The institute trains and graduates new leaders of the club in two of 34 zones, which cover parts of the Northeastern United States, Bermuda, Russia, Canada, and some French islands.
The convention was buzzing with displays celebrating the success of current Rotary projects, from Sandy relief efforts to international aid for Syrian refugees, but Burton's message Saturday was engagement and membership.
Rotary has a global network of 1.2 million people in more than 200 countries but has undergone a decline in North American membership, Burton said.
"You've got to find those people and invite them in," he told about 300 people at the lunchtime address. "Mentor them and find a reason to keep them, to get them excited and involved.
Burton, a lawyer from Norman, Okla., and a Rotarian since 1979, is a retired president of the University of Oklahoma Foundation. In his one-year term leading the club, he says, his main focus is membership, which includes youth involvement through programs in elementary schools, high schools, and colleges.
For the first time this year, Rotary International will hold conferences for children and young adults around the world. The first will be in India in October.
Since it began in 1905, the club has addressed issues of hunger, poverty, disease, and illiteracy around the world. Rotary has long championed the need to eradicate polio. This year's institute involved various quilt projects organized by Carol Toomey, a Rotarian from Concord, Mass., to raise money to send vaccines to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria.
"We've eliminated the disease from all but three countries. Last year, we crossed India off the list," Toomey said, adding that cause was close to her heart because her father had polio.
In addition to international initiatives, many local clubs have worked extensively in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, funding building projects and sending cleaning supplies to the Shore and the hard-hit, sometimes overlooked Delaware Bay area, Rotarian Carol Ann Jeronimo of Swedesboro said.
Last week, 17 members in town for the institute volunteered at the Cathedral Kitchen in Camden, where they served 400 meals to families.
South Jersey and the Philadelphia area have more than 100 Rotary clubs and about 1,120 members, said Joan Batory, a former local district governor. Philadelphia has the 19th-oldest Rotary club in the world, Batory said, and Camden's is the oldest in South Jersey.
Batory said tradition and commitment to the world's most critical needs will continue to drive members.
As Burton put it in an interview before his address, "We all have an obligation to pay rent for the space we occupy on this earth."