ST. JOSEPH – Behind every successful professional is someone who helped them take their first steps up that ladder.
The St. Joseph-Benton Harbor Rotary Club realized that universal truth seven years ago and launched a student mentoring program that is now going global.
“Sometimes I think the difference between success and failure is passion. Sometimes I think it’s having a focus. Sometimes I think it’s hard work. And sometimes I think it’s having someone helping you out,” said Jackie Huie, past president of the St. Joseph-Benton Harbor Rotary Club and president of JohnsonRauhoff marketing firm, who helped launch the Rotary Student Program.
The program started in 2008 as Huie and others saw that any young people did not have access to the experience and advice of the top people in various career fields. Huie had that chance from an early age, shadowing her father, Don Johnson, who started JohnsonRauhoff 50 years ago. “I love my job,” Huie said. “I feel like the luckiest person in the world, and I would love it if everybody had that opportunity.”
Since the Rotary Student Program started, hundreds of area high school students have had the opportunity to meet leaders in Southwest Michigan and around the country, from a former NFL player to a prima ballerina with the New York City Ballet.
With the support of the local community (including JohnsonRauhoff) and Rotary International, Huie and her husband, Mike, have made presentations at global conferences in Lisbon, Portugal, and this year in Sao Paulo, Brazil. So far, 60 countries have pledged to adopt the program, with more signing on all the time.
Student mentoring is a popular concept these days, but back when Huie first had the idea, it was not as common.
The Rotary Student Program consists of a one-hour “reverse interview” with the professional, in which the student asks questions about their field of expertise. They then report back to their home club, gaining experience in public speaking.
“It’s not about the business professional just showing up, it’s not about a tour or even about shadowing. It’s about having an honest conversation about their career choice,” Huie said.
One of the breakthrough partnerships was with Jeff Fettig, president and CEO of Whirlpool Corp.
St. Joseph High School student David Reimers wrote on his application for the Rotary Student Program that his dream job was to be CEO of Whirlpool.
“We all laughed,” Huie said of their committee. “We called Mr. Fettig and said ‘There’s a kid who wants to be you. Would you be willing to sit down with him? He chuckled and said ‘Sure. I’ll sit down with him.’”
In a video testimonial, Reimers said Fettig gave him invaluable advice. He suggested that the young man first major in finance and accounting “since numbers are the language of business,” and then get his MBA. He also told Reimers “Don’t worry about your next job. Work as hard as you can on your current job, and the next job will take care of itself.”
The participation of Fettig, head of one of the largest companies in the world, encouraged others to take part, Huie said.
In his own testimonial, Fettig acknowledged the worldwide potential of the project. “It doesn’t matter the language, it doesn’t matter the culture, sharing your experience and letting people find out how they can succeed through your experiences can help anyone, really, in any country in the world.”
The mentor relationship with Reimers continued, with Fettig visiting him at Michigan State University. All that advice must have stuck because Reimers is now working for Whirlpool.
“I don’t know what I’d be doing today,” without the Rotary Student Program, Reimers said.
Reimers, now 22, is poised to become the youngest member of the St. Joseph-Benton Harbor Rotary Club.
His father, Randy Reimers, community president with Fifth Third Bank, was so impressed with the results that he joined Rotary, as well.
“Overnight David went from a kid to a man…that is how huge of an impact Jeff Fettig had on our son,” he said.
Recruiting new Rotarians boosts the organization’s global missions of providing clean water to remote locations and eliminating polio, Huie said.
Traveling overseas tapped into a worldwide need for mentors. The Huies first traveled to Bangkok, Thailand, to test the waters for their concept. The next year they went to Lisbon, and received an enthusiastic response.
“People were telling us ‘We can’t make the connections in our communities for our kids,’” Huie said.
Things only continued to grow during the Brazil trip, with nations such as Zambia, Uganda, Ghana and Italy among the latest converts.
The program has been featured on Rotary International’s website.
With 1.2 million members worldwide, Rotary is the perfect vehicle to sustain such an effort, Huie said. And the St. Joseph-Benton Harbor club, one of the largest in the world with 150 members, has the connections to make it happen, she said.
Rotary Clubs interested in the mentoring program are sent information with 11 steps for getting one off the ground. Huie said they have recently provided downloadable material to make it more accessible.
The project hasn’t reached its peak, Huie said. “It’s nowhere near where it’s going to be.”
Huie even sees this as a way to help underprivileged kids.
“For kids in poverty-stricken areas, if you have a goal, if you have a path, it’s easier to pull yourself through, and if you have hope,” said Huie, whose father is a self-made man and whose mother picked cotton as a child.
The continuing success of the Rotary Student Program emphasizes for Huie and the others involved the power of a dream.
Maria Kibler, a Rotarian and advisor to their Interact group for students, reminded her, “Jackie, remember that day when we said this will go global? It did!”
For information, visit www.rotarystudentprogram.org.Copyright ©2015 The Herald-Palladium 07/26/2015