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Building Professional Skills and Stronger Communities Through Volunteer Service with Rotary

Take action to solve community issues, grow your career expertise, and connect with a strong network of doers.

Presented by Rotary Houston May 12, 2022

It’s no secret that Rotary members take action to solve pressing problems in their communities. They apply their expertise and diverse perspectives to make a difference. But as they turn vacant lots into community parks or introduce at-risk teens to job opportunities, they’re also expanding their professional skills and building stronger networks that deepen their ability to effect change.

Ed Pettitt, who helped transform a donated vacant lot into Houston’s 3rd Ward Chess Park, has a master’s in public health and is working toward a PhD in urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University. He first learned of Rotary while working at a pediatric HIV clinic in Botswana, where local Rotary members volunteered. Their “friendly and caring nature” and enthusiasm for service made an impression. When Pettitt moved to Houston in 2011, he looked to join a Rotary club.

“I was eager to find a new friend group and learn more about the city,” he says.


Ed Pettitt, member of the Rotary Club of Houston Skyline.

In 2013, he became a member of the Rotary Club of Houston Skyline. Through Rotary events and projects, he’s honed his public speaking skills, giving talks as far away as Australia on public health, HIV care, genomics research, urban planning, and environmental issues. He’s gained experience navigating local government and nonprofit resources while assisting Houstonians in the aftermath of hurricanes and winter storms. And he’s gained confidence in his ability to plan, fund and lead large projects such as 3rd Ward Chess Park.

“Rotary has allowed me to use my educational and professional background to build healthier, more resilient communities in Houston and beyond,” Pettitt says, and to make “invaluable” connections and friendships with other members.

Rotary Club of Houston Skyline at Third Ward Chess Park.

At the heart of Rotary are its 1.4 million members who belong to 46,000-plus clubs worldwide. Each club has a unique focus, but all are committed to solving some of the world’s most complex problems, fostering friendships and connections, and offering opportunities to develop professional skills.

Mercedes Harris, a Rotary Club of Houston member, has experienced all of that since first participating in a Rotary exchange program for young professionals nearly 20 years ago. The program matched applicants with professionals in similar vocations in other countries to share insights and foster goodwill. Harris, a systems engineer at the time, spent a month in Argentina, where she learned how to attain “clarity in the midst of uncertainty.”

Rotary club members in the Houston area plan a project.

“In Argentina, I had to speak Spanish, and I don’t speak Spanish,” she says.  “How do you communicate when you don’t have the same language? I learned to relate quickly and find the common denominator. I was not focused on our differences, but what we share in common. Rotary pushed my boundaries and I learned.”

Learning opportunities abound at Rotary through humanitarian projects that promote sustainable change. Members find deep satisfaction in connecting with other change-makers, collaborating with community leaders, and finding new, effective ways to build up communities.

Harris, now in technology sales, is chair of her club’s Burnett Bayland Outreach project, which prepares underserved youths for the workforce by sharpening their interview skills and introducing them to robotics and metaverse technologies. Rotary has given her an opportunity to help build “the pipelines of the future.”

Mercedes Harris (center, in flowered dress), member of the Rotary Club of Houston, at the Success at Work graduation with students from 8 Million Stories, sponsored by Rotary Club of Houston BBRC Committee.

“I use my exposure through Rotary to make sure others are prepared for the future,” Harris says. “We need a pipeline of people to impact our city, our service and our future. We help students see beyond Houston, Texas, and the U.S. What can you do globally because of technology? How do you make yourself marketable? I’m teaching students that you have to continue to learn, because the jobs our students are preparing for haven’t even been created yet.”

Harris says access to diverse perspectives helps when working with disadvantaged students. Her committee comprises members who have retired from “phenomenal careers … and may not be well-versed in what a robot does, but they know to give time to make sure these kids know someone loves them.”

Members of the Rotary Club of Katy.

For Pettitt, being part of a diverse club where members are experienced in areas such as law, medicine, and construction has opened doors to service opportunities as well as professional development. Rotary members with construction skills helped repair damages to neighbors’ homes with burst pipes due to a winter storm and those who are lawyers helped prevent the eviction of Pettitt’s neighbor who lost her job and fell behind in rent after Hurricane Harvey.

“It’s reassuring to know that I have a Rotary family devoted to serving their community who I can rely on for advice and support.”

In Houston and around the world, Rotary provides opportunities for people to take action and give back to their community while building professional and leadership skills through meaningful connections.

Learn more at RotaryinHouston.org.