Gary Bren on his bike.
Gary Bren during a previous year’s Ride to End Polio in El Tour de Tucson.

By Gary Bren, past governor of District 5650 (Iowa, Nebraska, USA)

For more than two decades, my wife and I have been committed to Rotary’s effort to eradicate polio. The roots of my involvement go back to events before I was born. I have two older sisters, and after my second sister was born, my mom had two miscarriages. My parents really wanted a third child, so the doctors prescribed a drug that would help my mom carry a child full-term. 

I was born with a few side effects from that drug. The first – a single abdominal kidney – was discovered at the time of my birth. The second, I didn’t discover until years later. In the 1990s my wife and I were having trouble conceiving a child, and we found out the problem was related to the drug my mother had taken.

All this left me asking, “How do I do justice to the life I was given?” I started to find an answer after someone recruited me to join Rotary in 2000. Then my wife, Gretchen, joined Rotary in 2007, and a few months later attended a seminar about The Rotary Foundation. Someone gave a presentation on Rotary’s work of vaccinating children against polio in Nigeria. It struck a chord, and she left convinced she needed to get involved.

Sixteen years later, she’s been on 15 trips to Africa and south-central Asia, including nine trips to Nigeria and the only two Rotary National Immunization Day trips to Chad. These trips have deeply affected both of us, showing us the impact Rotary is having through the PolioPlus campaign. My involvement with polio eradication prior to 2020 consisted of supporting Gretchen and donating to PolioPlus.

Then, in 2016-17, I became our district’s governor while still running my company full-time. I worked more than 350 hours per month that year and gained 45 pounds along the way. I had a bit of a health scare at the end of the year and decided I needed to take care of myself.

Bren in biking jersey with his wife, Gretchen.
At the end of the Ride to End Polio with his wife, Gretchen.

I changed my diet and started exercising, but I needed something besides an indoor elliptical and walks to get me motivated. I pulled a bike out of storage and started riding. It was 2020, just before the COVID-19 pandemic and the isolation it brought. My first rides were challenging at just seven to nine miles. But I was looking for a way to push myself, so I set my sights on doing the Ride to End Polio during the El Tour de Tucson in Arizona – all 102 miles of it.

The Tour was canceled in 2020 because of COVID-19, but I rode in 2021 and 2022 and plan to ride again in 2023. I’ve raised more than $250,000 (after the 2-to-1 match by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation). My goal is to double that this year.

My wife and I have done these things because Rotary made a promise to the children of the world 38 years ago, and we want to play a part in seeing that promise fulfilled. We feel that PolioPlus is a perfect example of the true power of Rotary. Rotary transcends borders, boundaries, politics, and religion, and Rotarians unite to make the world a better place.  I have a favorite saying from Margaret Mead: 

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” 

Rotary and PolioPlus are shining examples of that quote in action. It’s why I’ll continue, as long as I’m able, to Ride to End Polio.