Monroe Rotarian helps save lives, two drops at a time

MONROE — Neil Watkins needed to know more last summer when he heard about a trip to Ethiopia with other Rotarians.

“For whatever reason it just hit me square between the eyes,” he said.

Watkins applied to be part of a group that would administer the polio vaccine to children in Ethiopia. The group included people from Rotary District 5050, which includes 56 clubs from Mukilteo to Vancouver, B.C. Last October, Watkins was one of 55 Rotarians who traveled to Ethiopia for three weeks to work to eradicate polio, a disease that can cause paralysis and death.

The experience left Watkins, 62, with a strong desire to return to Ethiopia later this year and in the meantime, to tell others about the work Rotary International is doing to put an end to polio around the world.

He organized a slide show of the people and places he encountered during his time in the country and uses it to help tell the story to others.

The slides slip by, faces of young children in polio wards and with cases of noma, an infection that destroys tissue in the face.

Some are smiling and others are caught unaware of his camera. There’s a funeral procession for a two-year-old.

A mud hut is a “nice house,” he explains. School children in another photo show off their break-dancing skills and sing for the visitors. After receiving the vaccine, groups of kids pose in white T-shirts with the blue and yellow Rotary logo and the words “Kick polio out of Ethiopia.”

The executive director of the Monroe Chamber of Commerce, Watkins was the only member of the Monroe Rotary Club to go to Ethiopia last fall. He showed his slides to other club members following his return home in November.

“It was incredible to see through a camera lens what he was able to see,” said Sally Petty, president of the Monroe Rotary Club. “It was photos of the children more so than scenery. It was photos of children and their families and the way they live.”

His photos help tell the story of his trip to Ethiopia, Watkins said, but it isn’t about him.

“This is about what Rotary is doing in the world,” he said. “Rotary is an amazing organization, and I finally got it.”

Watkins spent time in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. While there, he and other Rotarians including Larry Jubie, the governor of Rotary District 5050, visited rehabilitation centers for children with polio. Watkins also visited AHOPE, an orphanage for children who are HIV positive.

In Dire Dawa, a city near the Somalia border, Watkins and others were accompanied by members of the local Rotary club. Together they spent days administering two drops of the polio vaccine in the mouths of as many children as they possibly could.

“We went from house to house in these little villages,” he said. “The mothers and fathers know you’re protecting their child and that means so much to these people because they can’t do it themselves.”

Watkins has been a member of Rotary for the past seven years but has become more involved during the past three years, he said. The trip to Ethiopia was his first trip with Rotary.

“We never think about polio here because its been eradicated, but that’s not the way it is worldwide,” he said. “There’s still some countries that have some heavy-duty polio, but by and large we’re getting our arms around it.”

Rotarians have worked to eradicate polio worldwide for more than 20 years, Jubie said. The trip to Ethiopia has become an annual event and is organized by Rotarians in Seattle.

Watkins said he’s motivated to return to Ethiopia this October to help the children. In the future, he is interested in being a representative for the country’s adoption agencies.

“It just changed my life. There’s no other way to say it,” he said.

Amy Daybert: 425-339-3491,

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