Making an Impact in Her Communities: Kathe Debenham

 

I recently sat down with Kathe Debenham, who is currently in her last year of a Bachelor of Science at UAlberta. Kathe is also the President of The University of Alberta Rotaract Club, which is an organization focussed on community and international service through ties with Rotary International. I had the privilege to ask her a few questions about her experiences through Rotaract and what the club means to her.

 

What made you want to get involved in community service?

Since I was a little kid and first kind of knew about people, I wanted to help. When I was really young, that correlated to my family doctor because I just kind of connected with her. She was really cool and my mom told me that I could help people by becoming a doctor like her.  I have changed a lot since then but I just really like helping people and creating relationships with them and being a part of a community.

What made you choose Rotaract as a source of involvement in your community?

I chose Rotaract because I was looking for something and it was an opportunity that arose. I was involved with Interact in high school but it didn’t mean as much to me then because I was doing other things.  I think it was more that I found Rotaract because someone that I respected and wanted to get to know better told me I should join and I remember thinking that this is the kind of opportunity I’ve been looking for. When I showed up to Rotaract, I thought “this is my kind of place” and everyone is really positive. It has a lot of different aspects to it that I really like, but that also I know that people could connect with in different ways. The social aspect of the club is really crazy. It’s really exciting that we can all be friends, but also do all this community service and pursue projects that we are passionate about. Having a club on campus that is so diverse and allows for people from all different faculties and ways of life to participate in it is really cool.

What is the most rewarding part of your position as President of the Rotaract Club here on campus?

I think really, at its base, its the people I get to meet and the friends I get to make. I'm not in this position because it want to better myself, so it’s a happy accident that I get to learn managerial skills and learn how to work with a group and deal with conflict and grow as a person. The reason that I’m doing it is because of the people. I’d say that I’m still here because of that – if I didn’t like the people that I was spending time with, I probably wouldn’t have taken the position. The most rewarding part is having a responsibility where it is my job to get to know people or give them my time and help them pursue their passions.

What is your favourite project or cause that has been supported through the club?

That’s hard. I think the project that I did when I was a general member that I thought was the coolest was an awareness campaign for the refugee crisis. It wasn’t specifically about Syria, but it was in a broader sense about refugees coming to Canada. That was really neat for me because as someone who is not from Edmonton, I was never really exposed to that as a younger person. Also, I got the University of Alberta to purchase a documentary that is now available for students to use. That was really neat getting to use the resources from the U of A and from the club to create a project that other people can learn from. I think that the work we have done in Nicaragua over the years has also been really important. We have been involved with Nicaragua for three years and have gone on three different trips there (as well as fundraising for them). When did “Rotaraction for Change” last year for a water project in Nicaragaua, it was really nice to see that our club is capable of creating those long term sustainable events where we support each other through helping those communities repetitively and creating those relationships when we go back on international trips to Nicaragua. Also, just in general, with Rotaraction for Change, the fact that we were able to raise $9800 is really cool because our club couldn’t really do it before. It is a representation of how we keep getting better and how the work we are putting in is really paying off. I like doing great things for our community.

Do you have any tips on balancing life as a student and being a leader in a student group?

I think first of all, I still don’t have it figured out. I think being a student is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. A lot of people that go to the U of A are used to being the top students in their high schools and I’m really proud of all of us for being able to achieve that. You come to the U of A and you are with everyone else just like you, and it gets harder. There isn’t as much support for you from other areas.  You sit, listen and you drive yourself. I think learning to do that my first couple years of university and then stepping into a leadership role was a really big thing for me. I don’t think I would be able to balance it as well as I do now if I hadn’t learned how to be a student and an adult and do all that on my own when I was eighteen and nineteen. I think the more things I’ve done over the last couple of years and the more work I’ve put into this club and into my projects and relationships, what I’ve found the most important thing to do is ask for help. As a president, you have a whole team of people around you that are there helping you and you need to utilize them to the best of your ability because asking someone to do a little thing for you might save you some time so you can do something else that’s more important. Using the resources, especially the people, around you but also resources that the U of A offers like mental health resources or just general resources is crazy valuable because we’re not as alone as we feel sometimes. This community, the U of A, provides so much stuff for us. This club wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the U of A. we wouldn’t have as many members as we do. I wouldn’t be able to be the President if I we weren’t within this larger community. I think the balance part of it is really hard in knowing what you want to get out of your work, your volunteer opportunities, your school work, out of your relationships, out of everything you have packed into your life. I think at its base its knowing why you’re doing what you’re doing. It’s been cool getting the opportunities I have had because I better know who I am because I know why I’m doing what I’m doing. I’m getting my degree for a different reason now than I was before, but the stuff that goes along with it, like Rotaract, it’s really valuable. But balance is hard, I don’t think there is an overarching answer.

What has been the hardest aspect of your position to overcome?

Personally, the hardest thing for me has been self- reflection. Not because I never thought I was perfect but when you’re managing a group of people and you’ re trying to make a team or an organization or community better, it takes a lot of looking at yourself and being a little more hard on yourself, especially in my case. I’m not a very reflective person so it has taken me a long time to learn how to think about who I am, what I want and why I’m doing things. It’s been really fun to be part of this group because now I know that I’m doing these things for the people, like I said.  I’ve been able to understand myself well enough to know that I’m doing Rotaract for my own reason, and that maybe someone else who would be in this role would do it for a different reason. It’s completely dependent on what we each want to get out of an experience. I think all that being said, the hardest thing for me was learning to ask for feedback, reflect on the work I’ve done and allowing myself to take constructive criticism from people and try to use it as best I can to make myself and the club better. A lot of the time, with the amount of time I put into Rotaract and the amount of time we put into these groups, it’s because I care. Why shouldn’t what I care about make me better? It shouldn’t be a hurt, it should be a help. Stepping past any personal fronts that might come from someone giving me feedback and steeping into that and saying “I agree , I could have done that better” or “yes, we could have done that better. How can we change?” That has been something I’ve been really happy that I got out of it.

Do you feel you have made a difference in your community or internationally through your involvement in Rotaract?

I love community, and I am apart of what I would call a lot of different communities. Community is a really big word for me that basically means “a group of people that if you sit down with them and don’t know anything else about them, you can talk about that one thing you have in common”. It can be anything. Do I think I’ve made a difference because I’ve provided people with a community? Yeah. If I hadn’t put the work into the club, or if I hadn’t stuck around, I don’t know where the club would be right now. It’s about each of us taking a small step to support one another in our lives, in being a member of something bigger than us. In that sense, yes, I think I have made a change that is positive for people. If it is just letting people around me know, even if I don’t know them well, that they can come to me and ask for help or that we can connect more or go for coffee if they need me or if I can help them find a new friend or help them pursue a project that they are really passionate about through the club or I can give them a hug. I can just be that person for someone who might not have it otherwise and just connect over something that is bigger than an individual, I think that’s something that a lot of university students don’t get to have is a community while they are here. It’s important to have a group of people or have a cause, hobby or something for yourself to make yourself feel that you belong. I think, by extension, being a leader in Rotaract, has allowed me to do that but I also think that the system of our club allows that type of positive community to form.

Any advice you have for people wanting to get involved in Rotaract?

Come to a meeting! My favourite story of Rotaract is my story of when I joined the club. In a shorter form, I knew I wanted to get involved with something on campus and I went to the first meeting. I knew what the club was, but it was the people that really sold me. I was sold by the environment and the ability to be a part of the club and focus on what you’ re passionate about. You can share that with other like-minded leaders and open-minded individuals that want to know what else is going on in the world. There is always an opportunity for you to engage with someone new or talk about something you care about or just get a smile from a friendly stranger. I say two things about Rotaract: the first is that Rotaract is like a study break. If you want to take a break from all the things you’re doing in your life, an hour of Rotaract is a good way to do that.  Just step away from everything else you are doing and make it a little less academic for a second, which is always good in the spirit of balance. The second is that Rotaract has something for everyone. If you want to join us, I think you can pick how you want to engage. If you are passionate about our community and international projects that we put on (that are all member driven), or if you are passionate about the volunteering that we do in the community outside of meetings, or if you’re passionate about the social opportunities we provide or the fundraising we do for international projects, there is always some way to be a part of the club that works for an individual.