From Poverty to Winning a National Gymnastics Competition

by Divya Wodon, Naina Wodon, and Quentin Wodon

Maria Nelly Pavisich from the Rotary Club of Washington, DC, has been a Rotarian for more than two decades and she has led successful international projects since living in Washington, DC. But when asked what she remembers most fondly from her Rotary years, she told us the story of a group of young girls from her native Bolivia who went on a journey from poverty to winning the country’s national rhythmic gymnastics competition. As she puts it, she and other Rotarians were of a “little help” in this amazing journey.

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One day one of Maria Nelly’s Rotarian friend told her that she had to see a new gymnastics project-school run by a Spanish volunteer and gymnast working for the non-profit Hombres Nuevos in one of the poorest part of her city. The “school” provided free lessons to girls in dire poverty, but it consisted only of a simple patio with a hard floor surface surrounded by a grass garden used for training. How could the girls perform crazy stunts with no mattress! What would happen if a girl fell and broke her bones? Maria Nelly persuaded her club members to support a fundraising effort to provide the school with proper gymnastics equipment. Her club could afford only US$300, but by contacting Rotary clubs in the United States and with matching funds from the Rotary International Foundation, they raised US$10,000. The school grew, and a few years later, the girls ended up winning Bolivia’s rhythmic gymnastics competition three years in a row.

When we asked Maria Nelly what she felt most rewarding in this project, she told us that watching these young girls bloom into self-confident young women was amazing. She recalls how the first time these girls won the nationals, they were so surprised and shy that they kept their face down. Their teacher Cristina had to tip all of their chins for them to look up. But the second time the girls won, they watched the crowd and smiled radiantly with new confidence.

If you visit Maria Nelly at her home, you will see many different pieces of art from a Senegal butterfly wing collage to a window painting done by her daughter Daniella depicting Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism and Christianity together in harmony. Maria Nelly’s conviction is that everybody should be valued, and that every Rotarian has something to offer. We just need to help people open up and give, whether this is money for gymnastics equipment, or a truckload of soybeans as was provided by a farmer Rotarian to help provide nutritious meals for the young gymnasts, their siblings, and their families.

Note: This story is reproduced with minor changes from a book published by the authors entitled Membership in Service Clubs: Rotary’s Experience (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).