For the new Rotaract Chair, James Thomas, Rotary saved his life. As a teenager, he suffered the most debilitating epileptic seizures, sometimes several times a day and without warning.
“I was suicidal,” admitted James.
“These seizures were happening so often, they were seriously affecting my mental health. My life no longer had a purpose.”
Suddenly, the seizures stopped when he was 20. But by then James had already reached out to Rotary, joining his local club in Penmaenmawr in North Wales, where his great grandfather, J.D. Thomas, had been a founding member, and his grandfather was a past president.
Listen to this article
“Rotary helped me so much. It gave me that purpose, helped me believe, made me more extroverted and helped me with basic communication skills.
“It’s fair to say Rotary saved my life.”
James, now 25, drops this bomb right at the end of the interview. It is unexpected, coming from a very reassured and confident young man who is now at the helm of Rotaract in Great Britain & Ireland.
A lot of the interview is dominated by one man, James’s grandfather, Richard Hollis, who sadly died this year.
“My grandad was fantastic, he was like a father to me,” added James. “I basically entered Rotary because I wanted to spend more time with him, and I also aspired to be like him.
“He was a fantastic man. My grandad would always put people ahead of himself. He was completely selfless. He would always be the first to put his hand up to volunteer for anything. Even before I knew what Rotary was, the avenues of service and putting service above self, I learned all that from him.
I want to see every Rotary district have at least one Rotaract club, and we have got ‘help squads’ which can work with Rotary clubs and Rotaractors to help start a club.”
“So that is what made Rotary so appealing for me because it reminded me of grandad. He was quiet, family orientated, and quite traditional.
“My grandad was also a chemist in the village, back when chemists were the backbone of communities.
“Everyone would go and talk to a chemist about the problems they had.
They’re almost like a quasi-GP. He was also a Yorkshireman, who said it like it was, but was also a minor celebrity in my mind. He was a great man.”
James joined Llanfairfechan & Penmaenmawr Rotary in 2017, and spent three years there but quickly outgrew the club. So, James set up with Steve Martin the North Wales and North West England Passport Club – a new fluid and mobile way of doing Rotary – and was its club president for the first two years.
The club meets fortnightly and has 33 members. “We were worried that the club was going to be a Covid fad because a lot of our projects were Covid-related.
“We wondered when Covid ends, will the Passport Club survive.
“But we are growing. Since we chartered, we’ve added corporate and associate members. We are a very flexible club.”
While James was president, he also set up a Rotaract club, the E-Club of Great Britain & Ireland. “The reason I became a Rotarian first and not a Rotaractor was because there were no Rotaract clubs in my district.
“We looked at the problem and wondered if there might be more young people like me who don’t have a home in Rotaract, so we thought we would create a national e-club where anyone can join.”
“I was suicidal,” admitted James.”
So as the new Chair of Rotaract in these isles, James straddles the Rotaract and Rotary camps which, he believes, will be an advantage in his new role as the world moves out of Covid.
Currently there are 50 Rotaract clubs in Great Britain & Ireland with around 500 members. The plan is to grow.
“I think the health of Rotaract is pretty positive,” explained James.
“We are looking to rebuild the network. A lot of clubs were historically insular who did not communicate outside of their own district.
“I want people to be talking, sharing ideas and promoting growth. We want to be engaging existing Rotaractors and also starting new clubs by working through Rotary to make that happen.
View this post on Instagram
“I don’t want Rotaract to be an after-thought for Rotary, I want us to be at the forefront of people’s minds.
“I want to see every Rotary district have at least one Rotaract club, and we have got ‘help squads’ which can work with Rotary clubs and Rotaractors to help start a club.
“We want to plant the seeds and see them spread.”
Of course, we live in an age where, for young people especially, there is so much competition for their attention and time. Rotaract will be competing in a busy market.
I don’t want Rotaract to be an after-thought for Rotary, I want us to be at the forefront of people’s minds.”
James reflects on his time in Penmaenmawr and grassroots communities where there will be youngsters looking for a purpose and a sense of belonging.
Rotaract has the capacity for personal development and meeting new people.
James cites a recent trip to Uganda through Rotary where he was involved with managing a feminine hygiene project. These are opportunities which are not easily accessible to young people.
“Not being dramatic, Rotaract is about personal development and it can be a life-changing experience for a young person.
“What happened in Uganda was tangible project management experience. Equally, I can be sitting next to a person who has been in banking for 30 years – when would I get an opportunity like that?
“In the real world outside of Rotary, you don’t get these opportunities which are common and not seen as anything special.
“Rotary saved my life, and I will always be grateful for that.”