Why are we members of the Rotary Club?
Because it enables us to give back to the community in ways we couldn’t do alone.
Because we enjoy the fellowship of new friends we’ll have for the rest of our lives.
Because we can help people in other countries that are seemingly beyond help.
Yes, of course, these and many other excellent reasons.
But as the future unfolds, my personal commitments will change. I’ll move to another community, or I simply won’t have the time to participate as much……..but I will always remain a member.
Here’s a story to tell you why:
What if your world suddenly fell apart? What if your worst nightmare unfolded before your eyes? Here is what happened last week.
It’s noon on Tuesday, March 28th. I’m walking along the water on Point White Drive with Allen Ferris. The sun was out. A ferry sailed past. It was a wonderful spring day. And, as usual, we were retelling each other stories about our ubiquitous past.
My phone rang. I thought, “I really don’t want to answer it,” but I look, and it’s Bob Baranski, one of our Curb leaders at the Auction.
So… me being me… I answered by immediately saying, “Bob, were you able to get Toby to sign up for your team? We can’t let Marina get him for hers.”
His voice, though, sounded agitated. “Vince, no, no, it’s not that. I don’t know, I thought maybe Rotary could help me.”
“OK, Bob, what’s wrong?”
“It’s about my daughter Cory and her new husband Chris (they are both in their twenties and just got married in July, 2021).
We’ve talked in the past about how they live and work on their sailboat, s/v Constellation. They were sailing down the west coast, stopping at places in California, Mexico and Central America. Then they were planning to go through the Panama Canal and into the Caribbean.
To get through the Canal, you need additional line handlers. So two of their former University of Washington classmates, David and Talia, came down to join them.
Last night, they were anchored, waiting for passage, at one of the Las Perlas islands near Panama City, Panama.
Soon after sunset, they heard the purr of a panga.
Suddenly, the panga violently rammed their boat. Four men with guns and machetes stormed onboard.
Chris and David tried to secure the hatches and confront the pirates. Talia locked herself in the guest head.
Cory locked herself in the aft head with the VHF radio to activate the distress signal… unsuccessfully. The attackers broke down the door quickly with their machetes and cut the cables to the radios and autopilot display.
Chris was hit several times with the butt of a pistol. Cory was choked and forced into a closet with a machete at her throat. David was pushed into the forward head with Talia.
Chris was then forced to lay face down in the salon at gunpoint… while the pirates ransacked the
boat …for an hour and a half.
They took all their cash, wallets, computers, phones, and passports. Jewelry, foul weather gear, lifejackets, clothing, alcohol, and gasoline fuel jugs were all stolen. They even ripped out as much of the electronic gear as they could. And after all that, they took Stella, their 6-month old puppy.”
As you can imagine, I can’t believe what I’m hearing.
Bob went on, “Vince, they have nothing, but were able to contact the local police, get some emergency medical help…Chris is OK (he’s a 6’4” former rower for UW)… and get access to a phone to call me. I got them lodging at a nearby marina, but they are really shaken up. I’m looking for someone local, with connections we can trust, and with whom Cory, Chris and crew can feel safe. I thought of what we do here as Rotarians. Can you find me a Rotary contact in Panama?”
All I could say was, “What a frightening story. Thank God they’re all physically OK. I’m not sure what I can do, but I’ll try and let you know.”
I’m thinking, “A small island in Panama, right? I don’t know what I can do.”
I returned to my car at Allen’s house and headed home. An hour or so had now passed. When I got home, I tried to contact someone on our World Community Service team, but without any luck.
Then I logged on to the Rotary International website. I couldn’t pull up any info on clubs in Panama…….most likely my user error.
I went to Facebook and found a Rotary Club located somewhat west of Panama City. There was a phone number listed. I called, but no answer….. and no ability to leave a message.
Now it’s after 2 PM my time, but still before 5 PM in Chicago. I placed a call to Rotary International. I was routed to a woman, Joanna Martinez, and began blurting out the story. She said, “Vince, hold on, calm down; I can help.”
Everything now unfolded at lightning speed. It was kind of a fantastic blur.
She returned with the name, phone number and email of the President of the Panama Este Rotary Club, a small Club outside of Panama City.
“But don’t go anywhere”, she said, “let me connect you to Nick Taylor, Supervisor of Club and District Support for the Americas.”
No answer on Nick’s line. I left a message for him and immediately called Bob with the contact information given to me for Marco Austin, current President of the Panama Este Club.
Just after I finished giving the information to Bob, Nick Taylor called. He said he was setting up a team. I wasn’t sure what that meant, but while I was on the line with Nick, Bob called. He had been able to get in touch with Marco.
Marco quickly reached Javier Juarez, a Club member on Balboa, an island less than two miles from the Naos Marina where Cory and Chris’s boat was anchored.
Javier got there right away! Besides much- needed support and comfort, Javier took them to get staples and basics since, as you know, they had little or no belongings.
Thankfully, they were physically in good shape, considering the ordeal, and staying in a hotel where their now unsecured boat was moored at the marina.
Javier contacted more friends in the marine supply business and set up a work group for the next day to assess and coordinate some repairs on the boat. A chilling example; the replacement of their companionway hatch that was shattered with machetes.
I was blown away. How long did this take from my initial call – maybe 3 hours?
The story doesn’t end there.
Javier visited them daily, providing people and resources for labor and boat repair, transportation to stores to buy clothing (both Talia and David’s duffel bags were taken), pharmacy, and restaurants for takeout (they couldn’t cook on the boat yet).
Alan Sellers, Rotary International District Coordinator of Zone 25a ….part of Nick’s “team”….also stepped in and contacted Bob to help. In a big way. The attitude of all the local authorities immediately changed.
In Bob’s words, “The Rotary connection sent ripples (more like waves) through other agencies.”
Alan set up connections with:
Aeronaval (the Panamanian Coast Guard), who checked on them daily and reported progress on their search for the pirates and their puppy.
The Canal Authority, who brought them a prepaid phone when they heard they needed more communication tools.
The Panamanian Minister of Tourism, who worked with the marina owner that Cory and Chris needed to transit their boat for much needed repairs and the resupplying of safety equipment damaged or stolen…enough to make it safely to the nearest U.S. port, 1300 nautical miles away – Miami.
Alan and the Canal Authority made sure to transit s/v Constellation through the canal with no delays. They were accompanied by a Panama Canal agent, escorted by the Coast Guard and other boats in the area who had heard about the incident.
If I could vote in Panama, Alan would definitely be my choice for President.
But this Rotary story continues.
A few days after the incident, Bob called and said that David was having difficulty with the U.S. Embassy obtaining an emergency replacement passport.
So, Bob called me again and asked if I could help contact another Rotarian, our U.S. Congressman, Derek Kilmer (D- WA 6th District). As many of you know, Derek has a small framed copy of the 4 Way Test on his desk in D.C.
I made a call, and within 30 minutes, his office was in contact with David, the U.S. State Department, and the U.S. Embassy in Panama. The issues were quickly resolved.
As of today, and because of Bob’s fantastic idea to activate his Rotary Club network, Cory, Chris, Talia, and David are through the Canal and will soon be en route to Miami, via the Cayman Islands to get further repairs…..having received unbelievable boots-on- the-ground support.
Here are Bob’s words to sum up the tale:
“First off, the impact of Rotary in situations of need is immeasurable. It isn’t just what we do as Rotarians, it’s who we know and the influence we have. The impact of influence and connections markedly improved the experience of my daughter and son-in- law in Panama.
People have been asking how they can help. For Rotarians who ask, my response is, “Just keep being Rotarians.”
A thought indelibly imprinted on my mind stems from when I tried to thank Alan Sellers for his help, and he replied, “No, no need to thank us, this is what we do.”
One last thing.
Even though they haven’t yet caught the attackers, their dog Stella was found on a small, uninhabited island near the incident and returned to Cory and Chris.
After telling the story to Vicki Browning she said, “You know Vince, if something like that happed on our Island, we’d do the same thing.”
Yes, we would. That’s why I’ll always be a Rotarian.
The Rotary Team
Javier Juarez and the members of the Rotary Club of Panama Este
Marco Austin, President, Rotary Club of Panama Este
Nick Taylor, Supervisor, Club and District Support, Americas
Alan Sellers, District Coordinator of Zone 25a
Gregory Franks, Club and District Support, Americas
Joanna Martinez, Rotary International Receptionist for Support
I’ll let Bob buy me a beer!