NEW HAVEN >> A century ago, Rotary International opened its first three clubs in Connecticut, and their members’ service has reached from their local areas to the far reaches of the world.

On Wednesday, the three clubs born in 1917 — Waterbury, New London and New Haven — will celebrate the work they’ve accomplished with a gala at the Omni New Haven Hotel.

Members of the three clubs say they value both the ability to help the less fortunate and the bonds of friendship that come with their membership in Rotary.

“It’s given me the opportunity to understand that there is something qualitatively different about joining an organization where you know that you’re going to be connected and in communication with other members for the rest of your life,” said Lesley Mills of New Haven, one of the first women admitted to the New Haven club in 1988, along with Lynn Fusco of the construction company Fusco Corp.

Mills, owner of Griswold Home Care in Connecticut, was allowed to join — much to the joy of her new Rotarian brothers — after a 1987 Supreme Court ruling forced Rotary in the United States to admit women.

“When someone joins Rotary, there’s immediately a sense of ease,” Mills said. “It’s like a permanent entry into a new family. … I was just overwhelmingly welcomed.”

Mills said she appreciates “the opportunity when I travel. It’s amazing. I can go anywhere in the world and meet with other Rotarians who have also made the commitment to ‘Service Above Self,’” the organization’s motto. A native of England, Mills also has traveled to Haiti and Cuba.

“I think the message is that while New Haven Rotary is a local organization, it will impact not only this community but also has a worldwide impact,” said Thomas Beirne of Milford, president of the New Haven Rotary in 2005-06 and vice president of Halsey Associates, a New Haven investment firm. He said a notable achievement during his time as president was helping to launch a camp for children affected by AIDS in Durban, South Africa, along with the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp.

“Essentially, it’s a summer program where the children were given some time away from an unfavorable environment where they were adversely affected by the devastation of AIDS,” Beirne said. “Not all the children were actually infected with the virus but they were affected by the virus through family or close relationships.”

Projects like that are what members say make the organization stand out. Beirne said the club also worked with students from Notre Dame High School in West Haven to provide 60,000 meals through the Harvest Pack organization, with 90 percent of the donations going to Haiti in response to a hurricane and 10 percent going to underprivileged families in West Haven and New Haven.

Richard Popilowski of Fairfield, president of the New Haven club, runs the New Haven Ronald McDonald House’s capital campaign. He said he’s worked in several places, such as Bridgeport, Hartford, Milford and Nantucket, and said, “When I changed jobs the first thing I did was go to a Rotary meeting and enjoy the club” in that place. It was a very comforting feeling to find that home away from home.”

The New Haven club also sponsors Rotaract at Yale University, which is raising money “to provide medical equipment for a Syrian refugee camp on the Syrian-Turkish border, said Colin Gershon of Branford, a New Haven attorney and chairman of the gala committee. Other New Haven projects have been scholarships to Camp Cedarcrest in Orange, which the New Haven club helped found, and the Rotary Youth Olympics.

“That’s one of my favorites and it’s been on the books for a long time,” Mills said. “To see those kids out there, it’s a joyous thing.”

“Community service is very important to me, but we also reach internationally, which makes us stand apart from other civic organizations,” said Ellen Pollack, who twice has served as president of the Waterbury club and is an advertising account executive with Signal Outdoor. She said the Waterbury club has built a dining hall, amphitheater and health center at Camp Mattatuck in Plymouth, which the club continues to support.

The Waterbury club — the first in the state — also partners with ShelterBox USA, and annually donates a box containing a year’s worth of supplies, such as a tent, tools, water-filtration equipment, a stove and bedding. “They’re numbered so you can track your box, where it’s gone,” Pollack said.

Pollack, too, has found Rotary a welcoming presence when she travels. “In these very small, very poor countries, you see Rotary signs down these dirt roads and if you see somebody with a Rotary pin on,” they’re likely to say “Oh, we’re having a meeting at 12 noon. Why don’t you come?” she said.

Geraldine Jacobs Tom of East Lyme, a past president of the New London club and a former district governor, owns Barry’s Cleaners and Launderers in New London. She said one of her club’s primary projects is Camp Rotary, a summer camp for middle-school children.

“It started off with serving 30 and now it serves 150 children,” she said. For many of the children, “Even though [they] live in New London on the shoreline, they’ve never been to the beach. The camp offers classes in science, technology, engineering and math for half the time, with the other half spent in activities such as swimming, kayaking, sailing or taking a special trip to Block Island, Jacobs Tom said.

“The best thing is helping people and they’re not even aware that you’re helping them,” she said. “Rotary is a great group of like-minded individuals who want to do a lot of good in the world and at the same time having a lot of fun doing it.”

The guest speaker for Wednesday’s gala will be Rotary International President John Germ, who lives outside Chattanooga, Tennessee. “This is the first time a president of Rotary International will be in our district at an event open to all members in 20 years,” said Gershon, a former district governor of the southern Connecticut district, which includes 61 clubs in the state’s four coastline counties.

“Our No. 1 priority program in the world is the eradication of polio,” Germ said in a telephone interview. “We started it in 1979, when Rotary put up $760,000 to eradicate polio in the Philippines” by supplying vaccines.

According to its website, “Rotary has raised more than $1.6 billion and countless volunteer hours to immunize more than 2.5 billion children in 122 countries.”

Germ said Rotary partnered with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, UNICEF and the World Health Organization. “The whole world has spent $11 billion to eradicate polio and its now contained to three different countries: Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria,” he said.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation partnered with Rotary International in 2007 to help in the eradication effort. “Right now, we still have to vaccinate 400,000 children a year to be sure there are no more cases of polio,” Germ said. The disease is incurable and can lead to paralysis. It is spread through bodily fluids and human waste.

The Rotary Foundation, which is also celebrating its centennial this year, has spent more than $3 billion on projects such as clean water, stand-alone toilets that allow girls entering puberty to continue in school, and adult literacy. “Even in the United States we find people who cannot read the directions on their medicine bottle,” Germ said. Medical projects are also a high priority.

Once an elite club, open only to male business owners and executives, “we are much more flexible now in allowing individuals to come into the club,” Popilowski said. New members must be invited to join, but Rotarians are eager to issue invitations.

Over the years, the movement of businesses and their employees to the suburbs has challenged the city-based clubs.

“In New Haven, for example, all of the banks … would donate their employees’ time to Rotary,” Mills said. “They’ve all moved out of town. The suburban clubs have thrived.”

“Now, people aren’t being sponsored by their employers, so they’re going to work and going home and it’s harder to get those people engaged,” Pollack said.

The Connecticut clubs were only too happy to begin welcoming women once Rotary International lost its court battle against a California club that had admitted three women, against Rotary rules. The Supreme Court decision “was a relief to the American organization,” Gershon said.

“It allowed us to overcome the objections of Rotary International because the American Rotary had been leading the fight to admit women.”

Even today, there are clubs in some parts of the world that are male-only. “Since it’s an international organization, there are a lot of countries in our world today that have different cultures and look at women a different way,” Popilowski said. “It just took longer before more and more clubs petitioned Rotary International to have women included.”

Overshadowing the challenges, however, has been Rotary’s success, Popilowski said. “We still have over 1.2 million Rotarians worldwide and they’re all involved in their local communities doing Service Above Self.”

Call Ed Stannard at 203-680-9382.