The Cullman Rotary is a part of a world-wide organization, Rotary International, a service club organization founded in 1905 in Chicago by an attorney, Paul P. Harris. Over 32,000 Rotary clubs exist, in more than 200 countries. The Rotary motto is “Service Above Self,” which relates to service in the community, workplace and the world. Rotary clubs are comprised of business and professional leaders who serve the community in which the club is located.

The Cullman Rotary club is comprised of 60 members who meet weekly. Rotary club members benefit from networking, leadership and service opportunities. One of the long-term interests of Rotary International include efforts to eradicate polio. Other concerns of Rotary include the welfare of children, improving illiteracy, protecting the environment and reducing world hunger.

According to Rotarian Billy Jackson, over the course of the past 33 years, the Cullman Rotary Club has raised approximately $1.5 million dollars for use in community projects.

It is a point of honor for the Cullman Rotary that they have been recognized as a 100 percent Paul Harris Club, meaning that everyone in the club has given more than one thousand dollars to the Harris Foundation. The money for some of the projects mentioned below comes from that Foundation. Cullman is the first club in the district to be recognized as such, and have held the position for the past nine years.

Childhaven director, Dr. James Wright, joined Rotary because of the club’s focus and efforts to give back to the community and the world. “We are constantly looking for worthwhile projects and receive numerous requests from various organizations — many of which we are able to participate in,” he said. “Rotary is a global organization and the largest civic organization of its kind. I am honored to be part of such an organization, and particularly to be associated with the men and women of this club.”

All Rotarians agree that club associations help to build deeper friendships with the community leaders. “I have been a member for over nineteen years, and Rotary is so much more than I thought, not only locally, but world wide,” said Wright.  

“Rotary has supported Childhaven for nearly twenty years, not only financially, but also through assisting in the provision of Christmas gifts to our children,” Wright continued. “Over these years, they have provided gifts to over 800 children. They’ve also done service projects from time to time. The club's generosity is amazing.”

Dr. Wright also chairs the scholarship committee, which provides several scholarships each year. Some are Rotary Youth Leadership scholarships, involving youth in the Rotary Leadership Development Program, but most are academic scholarships. Tens of thousands of dollars have been awarded over the years.

The Cullman Tree Project

One of the Rotary’s largest on-going projects to date is Trees for Cullman. Their mission is to replace the trees lost in the April 27, 2011, tornado.

Rotarian Lisa Eckenrod was instrumental in securing two grants which made this possible. Eckenrod threw out the grant forms when the questionnaires didn’t allow her to tell the real story. Instead she drafted a 13-page letter that came straight from her heart. The grants were approved and the process of selecting trees began.  

Excerpts from Eckenrod’s letter follow:  

Cullman’s streets were designed to be wide enough to drive four teams of horses abreast along their course. Today, our citizens have good reasons to appreciate this foresight. Our streets have never been widened, and our city was “green” with amazing trees. Huge trees that provided shade, homes for birds, while also doing their part to keep our air clean. Cullman even had the designation of being a “Tree City USA”.

The tornadoes of April 27, 2011, destroyed more than homes and businesses. It destroyed thousands of mature trees planted over a century ago. One tree in particular that had been totally uprooted measured over 13 feet in diameter. It actually looked very similar to a whale laying on a house.

Eckenrod went on to describe the lost trees as being much better than monuments of stone. “These trees were living landmarks,” she wrote. “They witnessed the historic events and people whose lives shaped Cullman’s history. Without our trees, some have said that Cullman feels like a ghost town. On city property alone there were over 600 trees lost.”

Eckenrod made sure to note that the loss of these mature trees could change a historic landscape forever. “Replacing majestic trees is a lengthy process as it takes generations for them to grow. However, Cullman Rotary Club wanted to help start the process and in doing so applied for two Rotary grants,” she explained. “The first was the Alabama Tornado Disaster Donor Advised Fund Grant which was funded from Rotarians all over the United States who sent money to the Decatur chapter following the tornadoes. This fund totaled over $75,000 of which we were awarded $3,250. Secondly, we applied for a Rotary District Grant and were awarded $3,000 — for a total of $6,250.”

“We met with Mayor Max Townson as well as with Darrell Johns, Cullman’s City Arborist,” Eckenrod continued. “The funds were given to the city and deposited into a special account exclusively for Rotary trees.”

The club minutes reflect that the first Rotary tree was planted March 14, 2012. It was one of 24 Pin Oak trees planted that day. Then there were six Wildfire Black Gums as well as one Bosque Elm tree, two River Birches, 13 Willow Oaks, and 15 October Glory Maples included in those first tree plantings. “These trees were chosen to replace some of the species that were lost, while others were chosen for the colors they would have in the fall. All of them were chosen because of their hardiness,” Eckenrod explained.  

These trees were all over 15 feet in height. “With the exception of the Elm all have been planted on city right of way,” Eckenrod pointed out. The Bosque Elm tree is 26 feet tall and is planted at Depot Park. “We honored a very special Rotarian’s memory with it,” said Eckenrod proudly. “Bill Buettner had been a Rotarian in Cullman for 50 years with his last 40 having perfect attendance. We lost him in November 2011, and miss him terribly.”

That $6,250 bought 61 trees. “The Cullman Rotary achieved our original goal of planting one tree for each Rotarian; however, we realized that much more work needed to be done — another 539 trees. Those trees along with the first 61 would replace the 600 lost on the city’s right-of-way,” Eckenrod said.  

When the Rotary Club of Altadena, California, heard of Cullman’s loss, they raised over $500 to help in the effort. The Altadena Club is an example of Rotarians reaching out across the nation to help another community in a time of crisis — truly an example of “Service Above Self.”

In October 2012, Cullman Rotary donated $25,460 to the city for more trees. To date, the city has used a portion of those funds to purchase and plant 30 Kousa Dogwoods, 30 Fringe trees, as well as 40 Oak trees (Willow and Shumard) along First Avenue East, near East Elementary School. Six Black Gum trees have been planted around St. John’s Evangelical Protestant Church. Twelve Maraschino Cherry and another dozen Flowering Crabapple trees were purchased and will be placed along Second Street near St. John’s Evangelical Protestant Church to replace some trees that died in that area at a later date. Also purchased was pine straw and top soil — leaving a balance of around $19,000 still to be spent.

In 2013, our city reached a very special milestone. “We were able to celebrate our Silver Anniversary, which is 25 years in a row, as a Tree City,” said Eckenrod.

Mayor Townson was quoted in the Rotary minutes as saying, “This is a very special honor. Since the tornado, we’ve planted many new trees to replace those that were lost. We’ve received money from our local Rotary Club and the Rotary Club in California as well as from local businesses and individuals. These donations help us purchase, plant, and care for new trees so that we continue the tradition of being a Tree City USA.”

To date there have been 191 trees replaced of the 600. Cullman Rotary has committed yet another $25,000 for trees to do their part to restore Cullman. “Not for the present generation but for our children and our children’s children — our future,” said Eckenrod. “The City of Cullman, Mayor Max Townson, Arborist Darrell Johns, as well as his staff, are to be commended for their efforts in this project.”

Other Endeavors

The Rotary holds its only fundraiser as an auction. Over the past three years, the Cullman Rotary has raised around $143,000, says auction coordinator, Mike Fuller.

“Our Rotary auction has been ongoing on an annual basis for many years,” Fuller explained. “It is used to support all of our charitable efforts in Cullman County.”

 Projects supported from the funds raised are the Good Samaritan Health Clinic, Childhaven, Cullman Area Workforce Solutions, books for area school libraries, scholarships for local high school seniors, as well as the Tree Project.

The auction is always held on the first Friday of March at the civic center. “Monetary donations are always welcome as well as donations of items that can be used to auction,” Fuller pointed out. “Interestingly enough, our club participation rate has been approximately 100 per cent during my three years as auction chair.”

The auction is comprised with two different events. There is a silent auction where many items, priced under $100, are placed for silent auction on multi-colored tables. The current silent action manager, Charlie NeSmith, directs the silent auction in choosing a colored table that will be held open for five minutes for bids to be placed on those items. When five minutes has elapsed, the table is closed.

The live auction is always fun, with many bargains to be found, and sometimes a fierce bidding war to liven things up. According to Dale Greer, both auctions raised $50,000 this year for community projects. “That kind of results shows how much respect the merchants, businessmen and individuals of this area have for the Rotary,” said Greer.

Professional auctioneers and Rotary members, Joe Hagan, and his son, T.J. Hagan, conduct the auction with the assistance of auctioneer, Ray DeMonia.

“Our auction is on the backs of our Rotarians to get the word out and advertise,” Fuller continued. “We were lucky to have Pepsi donate several banners this year for advertisement, as well as Frances Cooper advertising in her publication and donating those services to us. The Cullman Times also offered a drastic discount in advertising for our auction,” Fuller said. “Over my past three years as chair, the main goal and focus of our auction results have been to support the initiative begun by Lisa Eckenrod to replant the downed trees from the April 2011 tornado.”

The entire membership of the Cullman Rotary Club appreciates the public support of the annual auction. “We are always glad to see the many folks in our community that come to our auction in hopes of making that winning bid,” Fuller smiled. “The community should be well satisfied that any dollars spent at our auction will be used for community benefits for future projects.”

Other Family-Oriented Events

While the Rotarians always include families in their efforts, some are geared more toward children than others. “My favorite event each year is ‘Fair Night’,” said Vice President of Investments at Wells Fargo Advisors Guy Caffey. “That is the one evening during the Fair when we accompany the disabled from the Margaret Jean Jones Center.”

“They look forward to it every year,” said Rotarian, Terry McGill, of the CCCDD.

The Rotary Club also took part in building a new Habitat house in Cullman County, as well as being responsible for paving the walkways at the Cullman County Fair so that they were more easily navigable for people with handicaps and in wheelchairs.

Another community outreach for the Rotary is the annual “commUNITY Fiesta”. Mark your calendars for May 24, for this event which brings together leaders of the Hispanic community with other city and county leaders, in an effort to extend the hand of friendship, and to help incorporate and welcome Hispanic leaders into the community. According to Rotarian Joe Holmes, this event drew 8,000 people the very first year. He hopes to see that number increase to 10,000 this year.

Rotarian Mike Krassick heads the annual litter pickup project on Earth Day which helps to keep our city looking its best. The PALS committee also rebuilt the dock at Sportsman's Lake Park, added some new pathways and benches for people to sit and look out over the beautiful lake, as well as the convenient benches for shoppers in the hallway adjacent to the Chamber of Commerce. This committee was also responsible for adding a walking trail at Heritage Park.

The Rotarians contributed $25,000 to CRMC's Golden Window project, $25,000 to Heritage Park, additional monies to the Field of Miracles and many other worthwhile projects.

According to the financial report contributed by Dr. Francene Van Sambeek, the Rotary Club’s primary focus is on children, community, and the international rotary. “Roughly $62,000 has been donated to scholarship programs directly, with other supporting donations, to educational opportunities. A weekly donation of library books go to all of the Cullman City and County schools on behalf of our weekly guest speaker, along with continued support through donated books and money to the “Rotary Teacher Credit Account” at Deb’s Bookstore.

The Cullman Rotary has also contributed to the eradication of polio throughout the world. “Our club has contributed $180,000 over the past 15 years in support of this, as well as other Rotary Foundation projects,” said Van Sambeek.

The Rotarians exemplify the phrase a “good community partner.” People who love helping their community grow and prosper, while at the same time caring for those of our neighbors who cannot fend for themselves, make for a better community for all of us. 

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