Women Taking the Helm: Commitment to Serve with Rochester Rotary Clubs

Let’s just say times are a-changin’ for the Rochester Rotary clubs. It was only in 1987 when women were admitted into Rotary, based on a Supreme Court ruling, and since then, they’ve all but taken over local leadership and membership.

Each of Rochester’s three Rotary clubs has or will soon have a female president. In addition, membership in Rotary’s largest local club is 38 percent women, says Stacey Vanden Heuvel, the current and seventh female president of Rochester’s largest Rotary club, named The Rotary Club of Rochester, which meets Thursdays at noon. The Rotary Club of Rochester will have had three female presidents in a row, starting with Vanden Heuvel. The other two Rotary clubs operating locally are Greater Rochester Rotary, which meets Wednesdays at noon, and the Rotary Risers Club, which meets Tuesdays at 7 a.m. Combined, they have 275 members.

“The real impact of Rotary comes from our local clubs,” Vanden Heuvel says, “and collectively we make a difference. In teaming up with other clubs, we are able to leverage support for big projects from Rotary International globally. We do a lot locally, and we do a great deal globally.”


Vanden Heuvel notes the impact women have had since their inclusion in 1987. Within her club, the coming succession of female leaders “is significant,” she remarks. “It definitely says something about the growth and strength of our organization over time—both to maintain traditions and to change. As a member service organization, we have to adapt. Times change; people’s lives change.”

And so, Rotary strives to offer “something for everyone,” as The Rotary Club of Rochester president likes to say. This way, anyone who wants to participate can find an inroad. Some folks can’t attend every weekly meeting, but they do intend to pay dues and volunteer. Others are diehard meeting attendees, and still others chair a committee or host a Rotary International exchange student. Everyone’s contributions are noted, welcomed and encouraged, Vanden Heuvel says.

“It really serves my need to serve,” says The Rotary Club of Rochester’s president-elect Janice Domke, who has been in Rotary since 2004. “And the people who are in Rotary are awesome, and so over the years, the more I’m involved and the longer I’m in it, the prouder I am to be a Rotarian.”


Rotary provides and serves regular meals for those in need at the Salvation Army of Rochester. Members volunteer at Channel One Food Bank and Food Shelf and serve meals at the Ronald McDonald House. They clean up White Oaks Park and host the Rotary U.S. Bank Holiday Classic, an annual basketball tournament put on jointly by all three local Rotary clubs. The Holiday Classic event raises grant money for local charities and, since its inception, has raised $840,000. Rotary clubs promote literacy locally, and their members volunteer in droves during Quarry Hill Nature Center’s annual fall fundraiser, among many other pursuits.

“Rotary does amazing things all over the world and locally,” adds Domke. “We help with a bunch of different local programs. We help seniors who are struggling to graduate from high school. We have been awarded the volunteer organization with the most number of hours ringing bells with the Salvation Army for many years. We do amazing things.”

Rotary is also moving forward with establishing an Ethics Program within the public high schools, as well as Lourdes, based on the Rotary Four-Way Test. The Four-Way Test is Rotary’s moral compass that members recite at each weekly meeting and which they use to guide their personal and business decisions.

The school Ethics Program will be launched on November 29, piloted this year, and, if successful, Rotary will consider expanding it into other local schools, including charter and private schools. They’re beginning with 60 students divided into groups of six, with Rotarians, as well as local business leaders and executives, leading case studies with each group.

“We’re pretty excited about it. I think there’s a neat connection we can make with our future community leaders,” Vanden Heuvel says. “If you’re making important decisions and you use the Four-Way Test to guide you, you’re probably going to make a good decision.”


Beyond Rochester, the Rotary clubs also support important worldwide work that improves life for people in developing countries. They’ve helped build orphanages and schools, funded computer placements in schools and built wells. They are also currently working with Rotary International to eradicate polio worldwide in conjunction with the World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

“We’ve seen great efforts in polio eradication,” Vanden Heuvel says. “There are just a couple corners of the world that still have polio. Our goal is to immunize as many people as possible to make that dreadful disease go away.”

Vanden Heuvel’s only Rotary regret is that more people aren’t involved. “Sometimes I feel like Rotary is a well-kept secret, and we’d certainly like to share more about our mission with others,” she says. “There are so many ways to get involved with Rotary, regardless of how much time you have available. There’s something for everyone if you have a commitment to serve.”

For Domke, getting the word out about Rotary is vital. “We’re kind of the quiet club that does a lot of good things that nobody knows about,” she says. “I wish more people knew about Rotary.”

McKinsey Goodenberger, president-elect, secretary and literacy chair for the Rotary Risers Club, describes Rotarians as, “engaged citizens. These people are professionals and business owners who truly care about others and strive to serve the community and the world in many different ways.”


For Stephanie Fisher, current president of the Greater Rochester Rotary Club, something else stands out when it comes to expanding membership. She’d like to see more young members involved. At 30 years old, she is one of the youngest members, but she considers Rotary a prime avenue to gain professional connections, expand her involvement in the community and do good.

“The most important thing right now for Rotary, and especially for women, is that Rotary really is evolving and changing with the times to meet demands of Millennials,” Fisher says. “With our changing workforce, we are growing and adapting. That, to me, is the most important thing Rotary is trying to get out there. What used to be seen as a good ol’ boys service club is really making strides to continue to have new membership and continue to take on new initiatives.”

Fisher echoes the others’ remarks about Rotary truly being for everyone who is service minded. “You can have a career and have a family and still be involved,” she says. “You can make change, which sometimes gets lost in my generation of people. We’re so concerned with instant gratification, so it’s hard to see long-term, but Rotary provides both, which I like.”

Best of all, she says, you get to make real, lasting change as part of a larger group. “You see things which on your own you’d never be able to do. We all want to leave a better world than what we were given. That’s what Rotary gives you.”

Renee Berg is a Rochester freelance writer.