MIDDLEBURY — Jason Schnoor in February got to witness India’s Taj Mahal, one of the most opulent and grandiose structures ever made by man.
But that elegant edifice paled in significance to another, far less conspicuous man-made creation that Schnoor and six of his colleagues dispensed to more than 130 children on a single day in India — a vaccine, doled out in simple two-drop increments, aimed at ridding the world of polio.
Schnoor, a Weybridge resident, spent 10 days in India as part of an ongoing effort by Rotary International to rid the world of polio, a crippling and potentially fatal disease. Through its international program known as “PolioPlus,” Rotary has been raising millions of dollars to purchase and dispense a preventative vaccine to young children who are vulnerable to the disease. While the risks of polio have been wiped out in the Western world, there are still pockets of concerns in parts of Asia, Africa and the eastern Mediterranean, according to Rotary officials. India recently reported its first year without a case of polio, though there remains a danger of outbreaks, health officials believe.
Schnoor, a health insurance broker by trade, has been a member of the Middlebury Rotary Club since 2007, and will become its president in July. He has been attending some Rotary leadership gatherings in anticipation of his new post, and learned last year of the opportunity to go on a trip to India to help dispense the polio vaccine as part of India’s Polio Summit 2012.
“No one in the Middlebury club had ever done this before,” Schnoor said.
“I knew I wanted to go.”
Middlebury Rotarians agreed to help Schnoor finance the trip to India, during which he and fellow travelers would also help construct a dam to prevent flooding into an Indian village.
Schnoor left Vermont on Feb. 16, spending around 15 hours in the air before arriving in New Delhi, the capital of India.
He and his fellow Rotarians settled in and set about their initial work of helping to notify families of the vaccine’s availability throughout the country of 1.17 billion people.
The Rotarians and their helpers then fanned out across the country with vials of the vaccine to dispense it to vulnerable children, primary younger than five years old.
Schnoor and his colleagues were told to follow a basic guideline: If the child was able to touch his or her hand to back over the shoulder, the child did not need the vaccine. If the child was unable to perform that task, two drops of the vaccine were place into the child’s mouth.
“The child knew why he needed (the vaccine),” Schnoor said.
On the day of the mass vaccinations, Schnoor and his small group were taken to Punahanna, a village of about 14,000 people in north-central India. The volunteers were led down a few streets and into a room where, Schnoor said, the community leader “grabbed my hand and sat me on a cot. A little boy walked up to me and opened his mouth.”
Schnoor carefully popped the two precious drops of polio vaccine into the child’s mouth and sent him away, soothed by the notion that his and science’s efforts might have saved the youngster from a life of debilitating disease.
Schnoor personally immunized around 20 children that day out of many millions of young Indian people who received drops last February.
As a parent with two young children, the exercise had special significance for Schnoor.
“It kind of hit me,” said Schnoor, whose height and light skin drew stares from the Indian people, some of whom had never seen a Caucasian person before.
“You realize why you are a Rotarian, you realize why you do what you do,” he said of the humanitarian trip. “I realized I was part of a bigger picture.”
That bigger picture included spending five days building a dam in Sariska, a town around 100 miles outside of New Delhi.
“Every time the monsoon comes, it is hard for them to control the water,” Schnoor said. He and fellow volunteers helped lug rocks that they put in place next to a local river. A mixture of sandstone and cement was then applied to make the structure watertight.
The dam, approximately 150-feet-long by 20-feet-wide, should be completed this month, according to Schnoor.
The volunteers roughed it and slept in tents for several nights, but they were able to mix in some sightseeing during the trip. Highlights, according to Schnoor, included riding an elephant and, of course, seeing the Taj Mahal, a mausoleum located in Agra. Completed in 1653, the Taj Mahal was built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal.
“It kind of takes your breath away when you walk in,” he said.
Schnoor returned to Vermont on Feb. 28, enthused about the trip and wanting to help again in the future.
“I would do it again in a heartbeat,” he said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]