For George Solomon of Mattituck, 24 years as a member of Rotary International has given him countless memories from his work in over 20 countries. But it was on his first trip to Haiti in 2007 that he experienced what he calls a “life-changing moment.”
“We went to a well dedication and I was walking along listening to them describe the components of the well when I felt this little hand grab my hand. I looked down into the face of a six-year-old girl. She had the biggest eyes I’d ever seen and was smiling from ear to ear.”
After spending time playing with the little girl and a few other children Solomon noticed that many of them had an orange tint to their hair. He asked his friend and fellow Rotarian George Gaffga if the children dyed their hair for any particular reason.
“Oh, that’s not dye,” replied Gaffga. “That’s caused by malnutrition.”
And that was the moment that changed Solomon’s life.
From that day forward Solomon has dedicated himself to helping fulfill the mission of the 110-year-old organization to promote peace, fight disease, provide clean water and sanitation, save mothers and children, support education and grow economies all over the world. He takes several trips a year, most of the time paying his own way. He works often with Gift of Life International, a Rotarian-based organization that provides lifesaving heart surgery to children all over the world. In Haiti alone 116 children have received treatment since 2011. Gift of Life brings complete teams of pediatric cardiac surgeons and ICU nurses, builds ICUs in hospitals and is now training the first pediatric cardiologists ever to be in Haiti.
Solomon has just arrived home from a trip to Cambodia — his first — where he and 60 other Rotarians visited nearly a dozen villages to follow up on work being done on water and sanitation, agriculture, literacy and education and human trafficking.
“Unfortunately there’s a large amount of human trafficking going on in that part of the world,” says Solomon. “The more you can educate and bring the standard up of the people there, the less likely they are to sell their kids to the slavers. It’s a project that really touches my heart.”
The work in Cambodia is done in partnership with Sustainable Cambodia, a non-governmental organization that works in rural Cambodian villages teaching them sustainability and self-sufficiency. The policies of Sustainable Cambodia and the Rotary are to teach people to take care of themselves, not to just supply them with money or food. They provide the supplies to build schools, but the local people do the work. They provide the animals, but the people care for them. They show them how to maximize agricultural output and teach them how to cooperate with each other for the benefit of the entire village.
“It’s like that old saying ‘If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. If you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime’,” says Solomon.
Once the villages have clean water, sanitation and sufficient food, the changes begin to show in their health. “You can see it in the faces of the children,” said Solomon. “The difference in the appearance of the kids in villages we’ve helped compared to those we haven’t is striking.”
Many of the simple solutions for these villages cost very little. The cost for a latrine, a cement pod that collects rainwater and a sand filter totals only $360 and gives a family clean water, storage and sanitation. But the people are so poor they can’t afford even these simple things, says Solomon. Their average annual income is around $100 and without help they would continue to suffer.
After spending a few days in Phnom Penh to familiarize themselves with the culture and the people of Cambodia, Solomon and his team headed out to Pursat, a poor farming region in the countryside, to check on the progress of projects they’d funded and to assess needs for the future. They were greeted with open arms by the villagers and at the Sustainable Cambodia school Solomon got to meet Dnye Pom, a young boy he and his wife Eileen had been sponsoring for two years.
“It was so wonderful to meet him; he gave me the biggest hug and was all smiles,” says Solomon.
The group visited about three villages a day for four days inspecting schools, dormitories, well sites and farm fields, talking with the people in villages that have been helped and those that have yet to be helped. At every school and library Solomon photographed signs written in English and Khmer – signs with encouraging and empowering words to keep the people’s spirits up.
Solomon’s next mission is in April, when he make his 35th trip to Haiti, traveling with a team of volunteer dentists, dental students and a podiatrist.
“We go every year,” says Solomon. “I do the logistics, write the grants, raise the money. We work for a week, seeing over 400 patients and providing free dental work.”
A financial advisor by profession, Solomon speaks highly of Rotary’s ability to raise and manage money. The organization has raised over $7 billion dollars since it began; funding comes from money raised by Rotary clubs all over the world, from donations and grants. By partnering with other organizations, Rotary has been able to increase their reach enormously. An impressive example is Rotary’s partnership with the World Health Organization and the Gates Foundation to eradicate polio from all but three countries in the world.
Solomon points out that Rotary International’s good work also impacts many people in our area. The Rotary supports Maureen’s Haven, local food pantries, hospitals, veterans programs and gives scholarship to local graduating seniors.
“Working with Rotary is the best thing I’ve ever done in my entire life,” says Solomon. “It’s changed me and made a huge difference in how I look at life.”
Solomon is a past district governor, past Rotary Foundation chair, board member for Gift of Life International, recipient of Rotary International’s Service Above Self award, and an Association of Haitian Physicians Abroad Humanitarian of the Year award recipient. He is a member of the Rocky Point Rotary.
Correction: Due to an editing error, this story was initially published under an incorrect byline.