THE BIG INTERVIEW: It's a good life for a Rotarian
Steve Parsons, 53, is senior vice president and president elect of Swindon Old Town Rotary Club, whose charity work includes the annual duck race, which usually raises up to £20,000. He is a senior purchasing manager for UK SBS, which provides office services for Government bodies including the Swindon-based UK Space Agency. Steve is married to Teresa, who works for Primark, and they live in Oakhurst...
COMMUNITY-mindedness and altruism are often said to be dead or dying in this frantic, belt-tightening age, but Steve Parsons begs to differ.
“I don’t believe most people are like that. We do this duck race every year and I have never had anyone say, ‘No, I’m not going to give you a pound,’ or that they’re not going to support the cause.
“When we do public duck sales, the amount of people who don’t want a ticket but just want to put their money in...
“Some elements of the media have suggested charity is dead and people have what’s called passion fatigue. I don’t believe it. You only have to look at when there’s a natural disaster; the response to the Philippines earthquake was amazing and the response to Haiti was amazing.
“It’s at times like that that you realise there is probably only a small percentage of people who aren’t bothered, and maybe they’re the ones who make the most noise.
“But I think most people quietly get on and support these things.”
Local causes supported by Steve’s branch over the years include CALM (the Children’s Cancer and Leukaemia Movement), ABC (Affected by Cancer) and respite care group Hop Skip and Jump.
In the wider world, Old Town’s projects include joining forces with another branch to help maintain a school in Kenya, and Rotary as a whole has long been campaigning globally to eradicate polio. When that campaign started in 1979, the disease was rampant in 27 countries, but that figure has been reduced to three.
The Old Town branch raises about £40,000 a year for various charities.
Paul has lived in Swindon since 2006, having previously spent 20 years in Kent. He’s originally from Swanage in Dorset, where his late father, Harry, was a builder and his mother, Doreen, now 93, was also in business.
“My father was in Rotary for 55 years, which was where I got the original interest. My mother originally ran a clothing shop, and then she was my father’s secretary for some years. She carried on doing that sort of work after he sold the business and retired.”
A younger brother, Richard, is an architect. The two were educated at boarding school, first in Hampshire and then in Devon, from the age of eight.
“My brother and I both had a wonderful time. I have very, very fond memories and still a number of friends from those days. Apart from the academic opportunities, there was the chance to take part in sports and other activities.
“It was a great grounding and I’m eternally grateful to my parents for funding it because it’s not cheap.
“It gives you that initial discipline and respect and all that kind of thing. I’m not saying other schools don’t, but I feel it gave me the best chance.”
It also left him with an abiding wish to help others. “It’s something that I’ve always been involved with from quite a young age, even at school.
“I can’t put a finger on exactly what triggered it but it’s one of those things I’ve always felt.
“I’m under no illusions that I had a privileged upbringing. I really didn’t want for anything as a child and I didn’t struggle at all. But a lot of people do, obviously.”
Joining Wimpey construction from school, Steve went on to work all over the world, including Saudi Arabia, Oman, West Africa, on the Channel Tunnel project and in the Falkland Islands, where the firm built an airport after the 1982 war.
There were some interesting moments, with a couple in particular in Africa. “I remember staying in a hotel once in Benin, and the police and army descended on the place. I had no idea why because I couldn’t really understand what they were saying. Everyone cowered in rooms until they’d moved on again. I still don’t know why they were there.
“We worked on a site in Africa that was about a three-hour drive north, only half of which was tarmac roads.
“When I first arrived out there, they’d laid on a taxi for me to get me up there. Only halfway there did I realise that the taxi driver only had one arm.
“I’d wondered why he was steering and changing gear with the same hand until I realised he didn’t have another one...”
At 29 he joined the Round Table, a group originally set up by a Rotarian but with younger people in mind, which has a leaving age of 45.
He admires people who work alone for good causes, but believes doing it as part of a club has special advantages.
“You can do it yourself and a lot of people do. A lot of people run marathons for various charities and so on, but as a group of people you have that much more capability of being able to help.
“Typically, clubs such as Round Table and Rotary are very much aimed at a local level, so they tend to bypass the big charities that get lots of publicity and they aim very much at local charities and local causes.”
The move to Rotary came in 2010 after a member spotted the Round Table stickers on his car.
Some people mistakenly believe Rotary is an all-male organisation for older people solely from certain professional and social backgrounds, but the organisation wants the world at large to know this isn’t true.
According to Steve, there is only one entry criterion apart from having the time to attend meetings: “You need to have a joy for life, really, because the best Rotarians are the ones that really enjoy everything about life – getting out, meeting people, doing things.”
Swindon Old Town Rotary Club holds breakfast meetings on Wednesdays from 7.15am to about 8.30am at 20 at the Kings in Wood Street. Its website is swindonoldtownrotary.org.