By Jessica Militello
For over 50 years, The Harlem Rotary Club has been a source of service and empowerment for the Harlem community. Founded during the height of the civil rights movement in 1967, the club has sought to provide assistance and resources to all members of the community, with a focus on literacy, education, health and homelessness.
The Harlem Rotary is a chapter of the Rotary International, originally started in 1905. The organization has over 25,000 clubs in 200 countries around the globe. The primary motto of the organization is “service above self.” All members are encouraged to be a prime example of this motto as part of their everyday lives.
Dwayne Norris is the president of the Harlem Rotary Club. He is certainly no exception to the club’s living motto. Norris works full time as a financial investor along with volunteering as an instructor at his martial arts school, where he has trained for over 10 years.
He makes volunteering and community service a priority along with his work obligations. Norris was nominated by group consensus to the role of president after two and a half years of dedicated service and initiating his own projects often focused on helping the homeless.
JM: What kind of work were you doing to become club president?
DN: I’m very self-initiated so I was doing projects before I joined the club, but I wanted to be part of something more structured, that focused on an underserved community. I was doing a lot for the homeless, but I also started a project where I got libraries and schools to donate books. I also reached out to some of my clients at work to ask if they know of any places where I would be able to get books. Some of them made their own book donations. After getting over 2000 books, I reached out to schools in need. Since then that project became bigger. This year we went to four different schools with over 1000 books. That was one project I started on my own.
JM: You mentioned Harlem is an underserved community. Do you think there is a particularly bad problem with homelessness that people are unaware of?
DN: There’s a lot of issues especially as a result of Harlem gentrification. The investors buying up buildings are increasing rent and they don’t seem to have the desire to embrace the culture. Harlem has also had a problem with drugs, unfortunately. A lot of people are having a hard time with substance abuse.
JM: Tell me about some of the work you have done for homelessness.
DN: We do meal pledging, we sponsored the money for this project. With the help of over 135 volunteers, we packed meals and brought them to Harlem food pantries. We also work with Rescue Alliance for “Don’t Walk By.” In the month of February, we patrol the street in groups every Saturday and reach out to offer food, supplies, and if they accept, a place to stay for the night. We send a van to pick them up and bring them to a church site.
JM: Do any of your interactions from that event stand out in your memory?
DN: There was a guy we met who couldn’t afford housing. He got into a fight at a shelter where he was staying, so he was just having a hard time. He was pushing a shopping cart with cans and any belongings he had. We had someone translating for him in Spanish, so we asked if we could pray with him. It was very moving. He teared up, a few people teared up actually. He told us he felt very defeated and the help we gave him meant a lot. We were able to give him a place to stay, along with food, supplies, and a warm blanket.
JM: What is the biggest misconception about homelessness that you’ve learned through your work with the club?
DN: Whenever we meet and talk to these people, there’s no one situation that got them where they are. Everyone has a different story. It’s a very humbling experience.
JM: What advice could you give for others who are interested in getting involved in their community to make a change?
DN: There’s many organizations that need help. You don’t have to give your time consistently. Some meet on a weekday or weekend basis, but there are more than enough ways to get involved with projects, even if you can’t commit. With the Harlem Rotary, we put our focus on what’s most important in Harlem, but it also coincides with what members are passionate about. We want to do things that they get excited about being involved in. All you have to do is find something that feeds your passion.