The earliest known predecessors to Rotaract, Twenty-Thirty clubs, were first sponsored by the Rotary Club of Sacramento, California, USA. The clubs were based on the principles and goals of their sponsoring Rotary clubs, and membership was open to young professionals and university students. The first meeting of a Twenty-Thirty club was held on 19 December 1922. At one point, the movement claimed as many as 125 clubs under the sponsorship of California Rotary clubs, and published a monthly magazine.
In 1927, Round Table clubs were founded in Great Britain and Ireland. Membership in Round Table clubs was open to young men ages 18 to 40, and by 1935, there more than 90 Round Table clubs existed. In November 1930, the first Apex club was formed in Geelong, Australia. Apex clubs grew rapidly, expanding to more than 20 clubs in just a few years. These clubs were sponsored by Rotary clubs, and were open to professionals and students between the ages of 18 and 35.
Similar Rotary club-sponsored groups continued to spring up simultaneously and independently around the globe. Unisserve clubs in India, Orbis clubs in South America, Rotors clubs in South Africa, Paul Harris Circles in Europe, and Quadrant clubs in the United States are some of the best-known examples. Eventually, these clubs would provide the base for the future growth of Rotaract as the clubs adopted new names under the Rotaract program.
Perhaps the greatest impetus for the creation of the Rotaract program came from Rotary’s youth service club for secondary school students, Interact clubs. Established in 1962, the Interact program enjoyed immediate success. However, since membership was only open to students in secondary schools, graduated Interactors and Rotarians were soon looking for ways to extend their relationship. Several proposals were brought before the RI Board of Directors to allow membership in Interact clubs to extend for a few years after graduation. Instead of extending the age requirements for Interact, the Board decided to study the feasibility of creating a new service club program for young adults at the university and young professional level.
The decision to adopt the Rotaract program came at a time when student protests worldwide were of growing concern to Rotarians. The Rotaract program was adopted not only as means of keeping former Interactors within the Rotary family, but as a means of channeling the energies of young adults into positive activities that could benefit their communities.
A special committee was convened to design the new service club program for young adults during 1966. After polling students at the University of Houston, Texas, USA, the committee decided that “Rotaract” would be the best name for the program — a combination of the words “Rotary” and “action.” Coincidentally, the service club at the University of North Carolina had already adopted the name in 1966, but they coined it as a combination of the names “Rotary” and “Interact.” The committee also decided that young women should be allowed to join on equal standing with male members at the discretion of the sponsoring Rotary club.
Within a day of the certification of the Rotaract Club of the University of North Carolina, the Rotaract Club of the University of La Salle was chartered in Tacubaya, Mexico. The Rotaract Clubs of Florence, Italy, Gaston College, North Carolina, and Secunderabad, India, were all certified in the following weeks. The young adults’ clubs that had already existed in many regions fueled the rapid growth of Rotaract for the first few years.
By 1981, Rotaract was so popular that Rotaractors in South Africa decided to host the first INTEROTA conference, an international meeting for all Rotaractors. Subsequent conferences have been held every three years. To date, INTEROTA conferences have been hosted by Rotaractors in South Africa, Australia, England, Turkey, Mexico, and Brazil. The next conference is set for Munich, Germany, in 2005. International meetings for Rotaractors are also held every year at the Rotaract Preconvention Meeting that precedes Rotary’s annual convention. The first such meeting was held in Seoul, Korea, in 1989, with more than 450 Rotaractors in attendance.
Several developments in the early 1990s helped strengthen the Rotaract movement. In February 1991, the first Rotaract club in Eastern Europe was chartered in Budapest, Hungary, with the help of Austrian Rotaractors. Ties with Eastern Europe were further strengthened when the same Austrian Rotaractors helped charter the Rotaract Club of Prague in what was then Czechoslovakia later in 1991. In March 1992, the RI Board established World Rotaract Week, which is celebrated annually during the week of 13 March to commemorate the chartering of the first Rotaract club. During World Rotaract Week, Rotaractors attend meetings with their sponsoring Rotary clubs, undertake joint service projects, and speak with clubs that do not sponsor Rotaract clubs about the benefits of the program.
Since 1968, Rotaractors have continually shown that they can be an innovative and positive force for change in their communities. Service activities commonly undertaken include projects to improve the environment, visits with the elderly or disabled, blood or organ donation campaigns, and aid to developing countries. One example of the ingenuity employed by Rotaractors is a project undertaken by the Rotaract Clubs of Heemstede and Hillegom-Lissee, the Netherlands, in 1987. In order to raise funds for PolioPlus, Rotaractors from the two clubs designed an amphibious cycle that would cross the English Channel under the power of 36 Rotaractors. The campaign raised US$210,000 for PolioPlus and earned the Rotaractors a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for their speedy crossing.
Today, Rotaract continues to experience phenomenal growth. There are currently more than 7,600 Rotaract clubs in more than 158 countries, with an estimated membership of more than 176,000 Rotaractors. As the program continues to grow, Rotaractors repeatedly show that they are prepared for “Fellowship Through Service.”