Kripa Soans with members of the Rotary Club during the installation ceremony
Kripa Soans (second from left) with members of the Rotary Club during her installation ceremony (Photo courtesy: Kripa Soans)

An Interview with Kripa Soans- Reflections from the Immediate Past President of the Rotary Club

The Rotary Club is a worldwide organisation with over 1.2 million members. Their stated aims include: to work towards promoting peace; fight disease; provide access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene for those in need; assist in the empowerment of women; support education; grow local economies; and, support the environment. 

The Rotary Club of Kodaikanal (RCK) has been actively involved in social service for 48 years and has 54 members at present, with one Past District Governor, Sam Babu. It has been serving the villages around Kodaikanal and has been instrumental in providing food kits and conducting vaccination drives during the pandemic. 

Vision Statement of the Rotary Club
Vision Statement of the Rotary Club (Photo courtesy The Rotary Club)

Kripa Soans, now 54 years old, came to Kodaikanal in 1986, from Tumkur, Karnataka, where she grew up and met her husband, Vijayan Soans. Having lost her father, a pastor, at the age of seven, she was singlehandedly raised by her mother, who she says taught her the value of social service, to deal with the disappointments of life and be a blessing for the needy. This learning, at an early age, helped her prepare for her tenure as the second woman President of Rotary in Kodaikanal in 2020-21, 19 years after the first female President, Rani Rajendran (who served in 2001-02). 

In this interview with long-term resident and ex Rotarian Zarreen Babu, Soans describes her Rotary journey and experiences. Edited excerpts follow.   

What are your overall thoughts on being a Rotary President?

Rotary’s motto is ‘Service above Self’ and I’m proud to be a Rotarian. Rotary is a worldwide platform, which has immense potential to change lives for the better. As a woman who had already been an active part of many social organisations in Kodaikanal, I felt this RCK Presidentship opportunity was a divine calling to reach out and to do more social work. Overall, it has been a wonderful, satisfying and fulfilling journey, leading team RCK through these challenging Covid times. Mahatma Gandhi said, ’To discover oneself one must lose oneself in the service of others’. My tenure has been good for my self-development, too.

Could you share your journey: joining the club, and then becoming President?    

2003 was the initiation year for me, in terms of social service in Kodaikanal; this was when I became part of CORSOCK Mercy Home and the Secret Pal Club for Ladies (SPCL), and the year Vijayan became a Rotarian. SPCL brought me out of my home; there, I learnt to work in a team of friends for social service. I was also in CORSOCK, KOPEDEG and in church service. 

In 2015, I became the President Elect of the Soroptimist International of Kodaikanal, an international women’s organisation, which serves women and female children. As a Rotary Ann (the wife of a Rotarian), I’ve travelled and worked on various projects with Vijayan. 

In 2018, I became a Rotarian myself, and last year, was privileged to become the President of the Rotary Club of Kodaikanal 

Why did it take so long for the Rotary to vote in a woman president?

It is just that the ratio of male to female members within Rotary is around 10:1. In Rotary there is equal opportunity for women, in leadership positions. Currently, Rotary is encouraging more women to join and has mandated a strength of 30% women in Rotary’s decision-making forums. 

Currently, we have 8 female members who are actively participating in all our activities and service projects.

What was the impact of having so many men around you during your term?

Firstly, in Rotary, all members are leaders, I was just the serving President, first among equals. Rotary is also a voluntary organisation, where members have a strong sense to do good for the sake of society. So, in effect this makes you gender neutral, when you are part of a team. Teamwork is key, in Rotary. 

It made me stronger. I was comfortable, though at first, I was apprehensive about the men accepting a female president. I was confident about working with them but not sure how they would respond to me. So, I spoke to all the members to make sure they accepted me as a president and asked them to support me. Thankfully, they all did.

Many times, during the pandemic, I was the only woman present because of the challenges of COVID. Many men were also hesitant to come out but when they saw that I, a woman, was out there, they were inspired to do the same. 

You had already been doing a lot of social work. Did being a Rotary President make a difference in terms of impact?

Yes, it did, because Rotary is a worldwide organisation. With the help of social media, Rotarians from all over the world connected to the social projects we do here in Kodaikanal.

What were the joys and challenges in your tenure as a President?

My greatest joy was having the chance to meet more people. Through Zoom meetings, I was able to meet people from around the world. I spoke to the Rotary International President and heard from the top speakers of our country, who I could have never imagined meeting otherwise. My work began in Kodaikanal but now it has reached beyond it, and I feel that I have grown as a result. Listening to a talk by a Brahma Kumari, Sister Shivani, organised by a sister club, inspired me to get into yoga and taught me how to balance my work, family, and social life.

Most recently, COVID has been one of my biggest challenges. It was challenging to go out and work, particularly since I was living with a diabetic husband. ‘Leave everything in God’s hand and you will find God’s hand in everything’, was my firm belief. I surrendered my plans to God, believing I am an instrument of God, and asked him to support me. That’s how things were divinely led, and I was witness to good work happening. 

When we heard that Van Allen needed an oxygen concentrator, we did not know what to do. With a lockdown in place, we didn’t know where we would get the money. Former) Rotarian officers Selvakumar, Sukumar, Vijayan, and I sought the help of Rotarian Dhanashekhar Jayaraman, who contacted his clients. My first big project—to provide the best high flow nasal oxygen concentrator, costing three and a half lakhs—was accomplished. 

That’s when I truly understood Rotary’s potential. Anything you ask for in the name of Rotary, comes. This inspired me to ask for donations for more projects, citing the difficulties of lockdown and lack of tourism, which had brought Kodaikanal to a halt. Whether it was for medical or education purposes, finances became available. This helped us provide food kits to those whose livelihoods were affected by the pandemic.      

Provision kits during the first wave of Covid
Provision kits during the first wave of Covid (Photo courtesy Kripa Soans)

Could you tell us more about your other projects?

We have been working on vaccination drives, as well as providing medical assistance to those in need. 

A ten-year-old boy pricked his eye with a broomstick and needed immediate surgery for his retina. With our financial support, Dr Hari Priya helped and this and other eye surgeries were done.      

Another case was a 25-year-old young man with severe appendicitis, who had to leave the hospital because he couldn’t afford the cost of the surgery; Rs. 25,000. When he returned to Kodaikanal, he came to Rotary in severe pain. Rotary sent him to the hospital and got his operation done. All Rotarians, despite the pandemic, helped to collect the money needed. Since this was Rotary, the hospital returned Rs. 10,000. When you do things in the name of Rotary, discounts are given by hospitals. They know Rotary is a genuine organisation. 

Rotary has been at the forefront of the global effort to eradicate polio. I created a record of being the only president here who visited all 28 polio vaccine centres on Polio Day. 

Rotary adopted a tribal village during PP Selvakumar’s time in Peringadu. RCK provided food kits to 37 children, and built an additional first floor classroom for the school there. The village had no electricity, no road and no water. RCK wanted to improve their standard of living, so we continued the supply of food kits, (Rs 15,000 a month) which the government program had stopped providing. Two teachers would not come to the school because there were no toilets. We therefore decided to canvass for funds for toilets and a community kitchen. God willing, these will be done soon.    

We wanted to ensure that COVID did not affect this village, so we had checkups and fever clinics, and now vaccinations have been done there also. A shelter for a girl and her deaf mother was also built. 

Noon meals for the children at the village school at Perukundu
Noon meals for the children at the village school at Perukundu (Photo courtesy Kripa Soans)

RCK wants the village to become self-sufficient. Now they have a motorable road, electricity and water. Once the school starts, the noon meals will be provided by the government, so we can save money and start doing other work needed for the village. All this was achieved with the help of the government, and we especially thank Collector Dr T G Vinay. Mr Vinod, the previous collector, the DSP, and the DMO, who all supported us too. 

The Mother and Child project at the Rotary adopted village, Perungkadu
The Mother and Child project at the Rotary adopted village, Perungkadu (Photo courtesy Kripa Soans)

Who has inspired you in your work? 

Mother Theresa has always been an inspiration for me. I get tears in my eyes when I think of her, remembering the story where she asked for money and the person spat on her hand. She put that hand behind her and stretched out her other hand saying, ‘That was for me, now give me for the children.’ This taught me not to hesitate to ask for those in need because they need help, and I am in a position to give it to them.

What next?

There is still a lot to do for Kodaikanal. I am keen to be a part of any team that supports good causes for women. I will continue to work towards women’s empowerment, starting with establishing some vocational training programs for women. Apart from tailoring, I want to introduce some arts and crafts and beauty parlour courses, so that they need not be dependent on men.

Are you close to your dream? Any final words?

My journey since working in the Church has been more than I could have envisioned. My biggest project was conducting the vaccination camps, which I was warned would be a big risk. It was God’s grace that we all survived. I would also like to thank Secretary Gopi Vishwanath for his incredible support. He was a part of all of the projects we worked on. Now according to the record of residents in Kodaikanal, we are a 100 percent vaccinated town today and I am continuing to work in the villages, which are 35 percent vaccinated.

Rotary Club conducted 21 vaccination camps to almost 2500 people in Kodaikanal
The Rotary Club conducted 21 vaccination camps to almost 2500 people in Kodaikanal (Photo courtesy Kripa Soans)

Zarreen Babu

Zarreen Babu is the founder and publisher of The Friendly Post magazine, (2003-2011). She has been working with schools such as Zion, KPS, Bhavans and St. Thomas, on various subjects and training teachers on a freelance basis. Zarreen has served as the Club Representative of INTACH in working with schools, as the Secretary of PHCC and the Program Action Officer of Soroptimist International of Kodaikanal. She is currently a member of Soroptimist International of Bangalore. Zarreen has been a resident of Kodai since 1996.

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