Evolution of the Rotary Club of Vail

Placing Community + Service Above Self

For more than 53 years, the Rotary Club of Vail has promoted a sense of community among members and, more importantly, has served the community, making it a strong and vibrant place to live and work.

And now, there’s a new way to participate in Rotary locally. Impact by Rotary Club of Vail launched in March 2023 and has drawn more than 20 members who wouldn’t have otherwise become involved in the traditional Rotary club due to expenses ($225 a quarter) and weekly meetings. Impact by Rotary Club Vail allows members to pay a reduced fee of $40 a quarter and focus more on service projects.

“It’s for people who just want to do service work and not sit in meetings,” says former president Penny Wilson, who launched the initiative — the first in Colorado — after hearing about a Rotary club in South Carolina that offered the alternative. As legit members of Rotary Club of Vail, Impact members can attend weekly meetings at 7:30 a.m. Wednesdays at Manor Vail Hotel whenever they desire, and if they want to stay for breakfast, they simply pay for the meal. “If you aren’t sure about Rotary, come along and check it out.”

Vail Rotary Club

Photos courtesy of Vail Rotary Club.

Impact members may also gather every so often to plan projects or simply to socialize.

“It makes it easy to enter into Rotary without a huge financial or time commitment,” says longtime Vail Rotary member Bill Wilto. “It’s a good option for young people to help with different activities. Anyone who wants to help out is encouraged to join.


On July 29, 1970, locals chartered the Rotary Club of Vail; Chicago attorney Paul P. Harris originally founded the international organization in 1905 as one of the world’s first service organizations. Rotary now stands at 1.4 million people strong, within 46,000 clubs in more than 200 countries.

Throughout the decades, Rotary Club of Vail has evolved; it’s about half the size of its original count but much more diverse, and its substantial impact has remained. Back when Vail was a fledging ski town, Rotary drew about a hundred professionals, because no other clubs existed. But in those days, the international organization mandated that only one high-level representative from each profession could belong to a local charter, because Harris didn’t want it to become a breakfast club for attorneys, as Wilto describes it. And, women weren’t allowed.

Rotary Club of Vail set out to change that last sexist barrier immediately. At a 1970s conference in Crested Butte, attendees booed then-president Jan Strauch for advocating for female club members, he says. Only Vail, Aspen and Glenwood Springs supported allowing women.

“We were very vocal in getting women involved at regional events,” Strauch says. “Without the women, the club would have died. They volunteer and help the social mechanism.”

Or, as Wilto puts it, “If anything, it should be all women in the club; they get more things done.”

Vail’s local chapter couldn’t officially allow women until 1989 when Rotary’s Council on Legislation voted to admit them. Since then, several women have served as president of Rotary Club of Vail, including Wilson, who joined the local chapter when she moved to Vail
nine years ago.

“It gave us instant community and instant connection. The Valley can be a hard place to move to. You’ve really got to get involved,” she says. “If you’re looking for local community connection, it definitely gives you that. When I’m out and about, I see Rotary members all the time.”


Rotary connects people locally, nationally and internationally; any member can attend meetings anywhere worldwide. In fact, sometimes Wilson contacts a local Rotarian president whenever she’s visiting a new town.

“You become part of a worldwide community,” she says. “They’ll tell me about the best restaurants and what to see. I [experience] things I wouldn’t have seen otherwise.”

Those strong connections, both locally and internationally, extend to fulfill Rotary’s overall mission, summed up in three words: Service over self.

“Personally, it’s allowed me to do more as an individual than I could possibly do myself,” Wilto says, explaining how Vail’s local chapter may raise $2,000 for a water project in Guatemala, then ask the district to match that and then obtain a match of $4,000 from the national level. “Suddenly, it has a multiplying effect.”

Vail’s main fundraiser occurs during the Labor Day weekend Duck Race, where about 80% of the money benefits local projects and the remaining 20% supports international efforts.


Locally, the club has supported The Cycle Effect, Community Market, SOS Outreach, Access Unbound, Foresight Ski Guides, Habitat for Humanity, Bright Future Foundation, highway cleanup and much more. It has provided dictionaries and other books to third graders,
distributed anti-bullying materials to local kindergartens and annually offers $20,000-$25,000 in scholarships to local high school seniors.

International projects primarily focus on water and sanitation projects in Central and South America and Africa, educating youth in South Sudan and helping doctors in other countries utilize an innovative treatment for clubfoot. It also participates in Rotary Youth Exchange, which sends local students overseas and brings foreign students to the Vail Valley for a school year.

“We get behind anything we can that will promote international understanding and international peace,” Wilto says.

For decades, Rotarians have sponsored PolioPlus, a commitment to eradicate polio worldwide. From 1988 to 2012, countries suffering from the polio epidemic decreased from 125 to only three, and now only two remain affected: Afghanistan and Pakistan. Locally, Rotarians still address it through fundraisers on World Polio Day, Oct. 24.

From the very start, Rotary Club of Vail made huge strides. It provided one of the first scholarships to local students, facilitated installation of an emergency phone atop Vail Pass, supported the first safehouse in Gypsum, built the first bus shelter and helped fund the hospital, including financing a Chevy Suburban to act as an ambulance from Vail Resorts to the hospital. It also installed the flags on the International Bridge in Vail, which has left an enduring mark on the community, Wilto says.

Members employed live auctions and eventually televised auctions when the local station started. Strauch was one of the creative minds who dreamed up various fundraising events, including a kids’ carnival in Lionshead.


“Rotary provides a doorway for people to come with their special charities and needs,” Strauch says. “And, if there’s a fire, a kid with a problem, a family displaced or a need for fundraising in schools, there’s a place for that.”

As the Valley continues to grow, so, too, does Rotary. After about 25 years in Rotary Club of Vail, Strauch moved to Wolcott and eventually organized Rotary in Edwards with about a half dozen others in 2004. As Wilson jokes, about the only difference between the Vail and Edwards clubs is Edwards’ includes a song master, so members sing at the beginning of the meeting.

“We do not sing, but some have left Vail to join the club to sing,” she says good naturedly.

Western Eagle Valley Rotary Club serves Eagle and Gypsum, and in 2022, the district organization honored it as Small Club of the Year.

All of the local clubs contribute to the food bank, offer scholarships, support foreign student exchange and participate in Rotary International projects, which, overall, revolve around promoting peace, fighting disease, providing clean water, sanitation and hygiene, assisting mothers and children in need, supporting education, growing local economies and protecting the environment. For example, Western Eagle Valley Rotary Club has provided aid to Ukraine, installed clean water in Sri Lanka and Honduras and furthered Nicaraguan education. Edwards shares in the Duck Race fundraising, and occasionally, the three Rotary clubs hold joint meetings.

Throughout the Valley — and worldwide — people of all walks of life join Rotary to build friendships and volunteer to make the world a better place for everyone.