Member interview: Jay Cook helps young people through Rotary Youth Exchange

Illustration by Monica Garwood

From the September 2015 issue of The Rotarian

A Rotarian for nearly three decades, Jay Cook has helped hundreds of young people broaden their horizons through Rotary Youth Exchange. Recently, while working for the nonprofit Water Missions International, he’s turned his attention to bringing safe water and sanitation solutions to developing countries and disaster-stricken areas. Cook is a member of the Rotary Club of Charleston Breakfast and the Water and Sanitation Rotarian Action Group.

THE ROTARIAN: How did you become involved with Rotary Youth Exchange?

COOK: My club was hosting a young man from Brazil named Marcos and debating whether to send him home, because it was reported that he had behavior problems. The issue turned out to be that Marcos’ English skills were poor. His host father, a retired general, would ask Marcos to take out the trash, and Marcos didn’t understand; he would nod yes, but then not do it. I said, “Instead of sending this kid home, let’s have him stay at my house.” That was the beginning. I became involved as my club’s Youth Exchange officer and ultimately became the Youth Exchange chair in our district. I think my wife and I have had 16 students live in our home, and we’ve had many, many more sleep here.

TR: What makes you so passionate about Youth Exchange?

COOK: If we want to fight prejudice and misconceptions, the Rotary Youth Exchange program is one of the best ways to do that – having young people with different skin colors and different religions live together. It was a positive experience for my own children. They could say “Let’s play Nintendo” in six or seven languages by the time they were seven years old.

TR: What led you to work toward bringing clean water to countries in need?

COOK: My friends Molly and George Greene had a daughter doing mission work in Honduras, and Hurricane Mitch came. George found out that the people needed water. He started trying to buy a water treatment system. At that time, all he could find were systems that were expensive and complicated; you almost needed a degree to figure out how to work all the buttons and knobs.

So he called me and said, “Jay, I’m going to build these things. How are we going to get them there? You need to handle that part.” So I helped him with logistics. We sent these systems down to Honduras, and they worked. So George founded this group called Water Missions International, doing water and sanitation work, and I became the director of operations. I have an international network because of these exchange students, so we decided that one of my tasks was to become a liaison between Water Missions and Rotary. With Rotary’s help, we have dramatically increased the number of people we’re serving. We’re involved in 18 or 19 Rotary-based projects all over the world, from Peru to Tanzania.

Together, we’re saving babies. We’re saving children. If the kids don’t have diarrhea every day from drinking bad water, they can go to school. If the parents aren’t sick all the time, they can get a job. Do you know why girls quit going to school in Africa? There are no bathrooms. That needs to be our focus. We need to remember our core purpose: to break the poverty cycle.

The Rotarian