This is the unusual journey of Steve Bender, who came from the typical, hard-working Midwest to lead one of the most creative and effective Rotary clubs, the Rotary Club of Newport Beach. Not only is this Rotary club addressing the usual global challenges, but they are also leading the implementation of solutions on LGBTQ+ issues, health, inclusion, safe water, democracy, and of course―climate change!
Ten years ago, Bender was asked to donate money to a non-profit organization in South Africa working to combat AIDs. However, Bender replied, “Lets not just send a check, lets send a solution.” Partnering with local high school students, Bender designed and built a medical clinic within a shipping container full of medical supplies and examination tables to educate and treat individuals living with AIDs. He called this initiative the “Doc in a Box”.
Since then, Bender has continually built and created different innovative projects to benefit both people and the environment.
After designing these “In a Box” projects, he wanted others to recreate them. “Someone asked me a few years ago if I was patenting all of my ideas. But, I really want people to reproduce them. Because with every idea that’s replicated, there’s another human being taken care of, or another challenge solved,” stated Bender, finding that all communities can truly be cared for if all played a part.
His “Doc in a Box” project has now grown into “Help In a Box” as he continues to design many other programs globally. The first three of his boxes were actual 20-foot shipping boxes designed for AIDs, dental, and vision programs. His “Doc in a Box” dental program partners with different Rotary Clubs, Ayuda International (which he is also the CEO of), and USC dental school to provide over a million dollars worth of free dental services annually around the globe.
But now, the box is no longer a shipping container. The “box” now represents a project that can be duplicated by other Rotary clubs, schools, NGOs, or individuals around the world to accomplish similar goals.
But at the time Bender started these projects, he wasn’t a Rotarian. So, when asked to join by a friend, he said yes. Through Rotary, Bender found like-minded individuals who wanted to solve the world’s problems. He quickly rose to President of The Rotary Club of Newport Beach Sunrise. In his first term, Bender won the “Best Large Club” in his district as well as other awards, including the “Energizer Bunny Award” which was designed by DG Ray Sanford to recognize Steve’s endless energy.
In 2015, Bender spent father’s day with then President of Rotary International, John Germ, on a boat in Newport Beach. After hearing of Bender’s accomplishments and ideas, John encouraged Bender to create his own club model based on his ideas of making Rotary more inclusive and service-oriented. He now serves as President of the Rotary Club of Newport Beach / Global Service Club.
Rotary clubs are a longstanding trademark of communities all over the world. Rotary International is one of the largest global organizations with 1.2 million Rotarians and over 35,000 clubs. Famous for solving tough problems, Rotary clubs are most well-known for tackling polio and distributing polio vaccines globally in the 1980s.
In constructing their solutions, Rotary members are guided by the Four-Way Test. The Four-Way Test asks: Is it the truth? Is it fair to all concerned? Will it build goodwill and better friendships? Will it be beneficial for all concerned? Any problems or solutions Rotarians analyze must pass the Four-Way Test first.
But, some say, Bender’s Rotary club is a little different. “A lot of people think of Rotary as like the good ol’ boys club that grandpa was in,” said Bender, “but I wanted to design this club with the same Rotary values by “Respecting its Past,” but implementing new ideas by “Embracing the Future,” Bender explained.
“That is why our club motto is ‘Respecting the Past and Embracing the Future,’” he said, “We are also known by many International clubs as “The Rotary Global Service Club,” said Bender, emphasizing the club’s global design and focus.
In 2020, Rotary International President Mark Maloney said, “New club models represent an opportunity to connect with a more diverse group of individuals — particularly those who are unable or unwilling to join our traditional clubs. While new club models have been emerging for some time, it is up to district governors to make them a reality.” So, Bender was a bit ahead of his time when designing this model in 2018.
Striving for diversity and out-of-the-box thinking, Bender began by recruiting friends and experts in major fields, individuals from diverse backgrounds, and women in business to solve a range of global issues that the club works on. Now, Bender usually finds himself traveling the world with other Rotarians to launch various health, dental, environmental, and democracy initiatives.
However, as a kid, Bender was not so much the globe trotter.
From the Midwestern United States, Bender grew up in Kansas City with a family-owned farm and ranch just outside of town. At a young age, Bender had a hard work ethic instilled in him. You could often find him assembling truck parts on his bedroom floor for his father’s business on weeknights while tending to the cattle or cutting wood for his grandfather on the weekends.
“Both my grandparents and father were entrepreneurs and were self-made successful people. We had a very strong work ethic in my family,” he reminisced.
Not only did his parents and grandparents have a strong work ethic, but they carried a sense of philanthropy and volunteering too. Growing up, his dad volunteered as a cub scout leader and his mom was also a girl scouts leader. They often encouraged Bender to volunteer and help out where he could. “I think it gave me a lot of positive reinforcement, at a young age, to do good,” said Bender.
Since his family wasn’t able to afford mechanics to fix things growing up, Bender learned from his father and grandfather how to do it himself. Those problem-solving skills translated into a life-long passion of creating solutions, driving positive change, and making things better. Bender believes that through Rotary, he can make a difference.
Bender has traveled all over the world to establish various initiatives like “Help in a Box,” “Democracy in a Box,” and “Meals in a Box” through Rotary. Currently, the Rotary Club of Newport Beach is well on its way to partnering with 100 clubs across 6 continents in 2020. Bender himself has traveled to 4 continents in the past 24 months promoting environmental and health projects as well as “Democracy in a Box”, a new program that promotes practicing civility while deepening civic education and engagement.
“I say I live in California now, but I spend more time volunteering out of the country than I spend actually in the United States,” said Bender, referring to the work his Rotary club does all over the world. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Bender has been residing in Panama to support Indigenous communities suffering during the pandemic.
Bender and his Rotary club have a history of partnering with other Rotary clubs around the world. “Rotary Clubs outside the United States usually have members from local government, police and medical professionals, so if you can get those people engaged, you’re more likely to be successful on a project in that area,” explains Bender.
Most recently, Bender and the Rotary Club of Newport Beach have taken on climate change by partnering with the U.S. Green Chamber of Commerce and Climate Counts to launch the new Global Climate Pledge.
In the past, Rotary clubs have had six areas of focus. These included promoting peace, fighting disease, providing clean water, sanitation, and hygiene, saving mothers and children, supporting education, and growing local economies. But most recently, Rotary International added a seventh area of focus: supporting the environment.
“We always say Rotarians aren’t scared of big problems,” said Bender, believing that climate change is the next big problem that Rotarians are equipped to solve. Bender had been campaigning to add the environment as another area of focus at Rotary International and sees this as a grand success. Now, Rotary clubs all over the world can apply for grants for environmental causes starting next year.
Bender believes the Global Climate Pledge is just the beginning to a brighter future. “It’s a first step, you know, basically saying we have a problem and we need to address it. It’s just phase one,” said Bender, “[These are] easy steps that Rotarians or anybody could do today or tomorrow and get the ball rolling, open the conversation, and get started,” he continued.
Since its launch on Earth Day this past April, the Global Climate Pledge and the Rotary Club of Newport Beach has been steamrolling ahead to achieve the goal of having Rotary clubs in 100 countries sign the Global Climate Pledge.
While the Global Climate Pledge is just the latest initiative Bender is helping to launch, Bender has a history of developing solutions through Rotary. He aspires to share the research, planning, and information that his Rotary club develops with others so they can maximize their impact and be an even bigger part of the solution.
Bender continues to strive for a better and healthier environment every day through the Global Climate Pledge. For Bender, climate change is not only the biggest problem of this day and age, but it’s also the largest opportunity for humanity to take part in building a better future together.
“We can all do more for people with less,” said Bender, “Instead of sending a check, lets send a solution.”
All photos courtesy of Steve Bender