Volunteerism Has No Geographic Boundary: Wally Brown

Situated between the Great Salt Lake and the Wasatch Mountains, Salt Lake City is a beautiful reminder of how geography plays a huge part in implementing a project – especially a project with a goal as momentous as Utah’s hilltops: providing dictionaries to every school in Rotary District 5420. But goals are accomplished by the people who believe in them – and Wally Brown believes in education.

Wally Brown was born and raised in Salt Lake City, Utah. He came from a family of limited education. As a young man his father worked in the sugar beet fields in Utah and held a 7th grade education. But Wally’s childhood experiences would encourage his education in an unsuspecting way. Wally’s older sister Shirley suffered brain damage at birth. Her condition made keeping up with her class difficult and as a result, Shirley was required to repeat two grades. “But it did not matter. She was sweet spirited and wanted to go to school,” said Wally, “and she loved to read!” Shirley would come home from school, sit Wally in her lap and read to her little brother regularly. “It was a great experience,” he said. “Not only did it strengthen our relationship, I believe it made a significant impact on my education.”

Having someone to encourage reading is paramount in a child’s educational development. Research has shown that reading aloud to children not only stimulates their language and cognitive skills, it also builds motivation, curiosity and memory. Perhaps this is why Wally was quick to pick up reading and continued to be an avid reader throughout his life.

“My favorite books as a child were the Wizard of Oz series. They were a big deal at the time. The books were 8×10 inches and about an inch thick. Each one was a different adventure in Oz and my sister and I couldn’t wait to get the next one in the series,“ he said. “I remember when I was about six years old, there was a family across the street from us with a boy who was a little older and very bright. When the newest Oz book would come out, we would compete to see who could read the book the fastest.” Looking back at these experiences that Wally had as a child reminds us how impressionable children truly are and how important it is to build literacy skills at a young age.

“Learning to read is the most important thing you can do for yourself,” said Wally. Reading not only gives a person confidence to reach out and learn more, it also cultivates a certain independence that no one can take away. That’s the kind of idea behind The Dictionary Project which captured the audience at Rotary International. Wally heard about The Dictionary Project in 2003 when he was preparing to be District Governor for Rotary District 5420 which serves the state of Utah. “While at one of the trainings in Anaheim, CA, a speaker challenged the rising governors to do something meaningful – something that has never been done before, a project that would promote literacy,” said Wally. Fortunately, Pat, Wally’s wife, heard about The Dictionary Project from a fellow Rotarian and the couple decided “this will be our project.”

“One responsibility of a District Governor is to visit each club within the district,” said Wally. He took the opportunity to have Pat make a presentation to club members about The Dictionary Project and the impact it would have on children in their community. At the time there were 40 clubs in the district – a district comprised of vast mountainous terrain, canyon lands and rivers. Wally became “well acquainted with rural Utah,” as he put it. His travels across the state to district clubs would be a reflection of what individual Rotarians would (and continue to) encounter when implementing their own club’s dictionary projects. “The greatest obstacle our district faces is geographic,” said Wally. But the district is filled with individuals who have gone the extra mile, literally. “The Rotary Club of Cedar City adopted two neighboring counties where there were no Rotary clubs to participate in the project,” said Wally. He told of two clubs needing to cross into neighboring states to circumnavigate Utah’s terrain to reach accessible roads that would lead to small rural schools on Native American reservations. Several clubs travel hundreds of miles to visit distant schools. This sort of determination is what fueled Rotarians to reach their overarching goal of distributing dictionaries to every school within the district. “That was a huge challenge,” Wally commented, “but in 2010 we were able to finally reach 100% of the public schools in Utah. [The project] totaled 50,770 books personally distributed to children at over 600 schools all over the state by members of 44 Rotary Clubs.”

Tenacity is defined as the quality displayed by someone who just won’t quit – someone who keeps trying until they reach their goal. It is safe to say that Wally and his fellow District 5420 Rotarians embody this word and because of their tenacity, over 470,000 Utah students have received a dictionary during Rotary District 5420’s 10 years of participation in The Dictionary Project.

But Wally’s commitment to serving others is not limited to individuals in the United States. Wally, a retired Doctor of Dental Surgery and endodontist, has traveled to Nepal numerous times with dental supplies and performed surgeries and extractions in small villages there. “There is no electricity and little to no road access – we often have to hike to reach the mountain villages, “said Wally. But it is clear that geographic boundaries will not hold Wally back from accomplishing his mission. Wally first went to Nepal because he saw a great need. “There are very few dentists in Nepal so teeth are often extracted because of a lack of resources to save them,” he said, “The people were warm and loving which inspired me to make a difference in their lives.” In total, Wally has traveled to Nepal seven times because of his love for the people and his desire to make a difference there.

Wally’s story is an example of how compassion and determination can change the lives of the people around you – whether it’s your neighbor down the street, a school on the other side of a mountain or a village across an ocean.

Favorite Quote: “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” Anne Frank, 1929 – 1945.

Wally and his wife Pat reside in Salt Lake City, Utah. They have three children, nine grand-children and two great-grand-children. (As of May 14)