Dwindling service clubs adapt or die in changing times

Paul Wellington wishes he had the answers.

The president of the defunct Sarnia St. Clair Optimists says his shrinking group of members was blindsided recently when their charter was suddenly revoked.

“We weren’t even informed properly. We found out through the proverbial grapevine that we were too far behind on our dues,” said Wellington. “The zone officer just happened to mention it to someone else who told us that our charter was yanked.

“It’s left a lot of raw nerves.”

Wellington worries what happened to his service club will happen to others.

Countless dollars are raised annually by non-profit service clubs in Sarnia-Lambton, paying for everything from park attractions to hospital improvements.

Their voluntary work is often taken for granted but would be sorely missed if it disappeared.

“Government can’t provide all that’s needed out there. I’m afraid the future of service clubs could be in jeopardy because younger people don’t have the time anymore,” he said.

“Parents are committed to so many of their children’s organized sports now.  All I know is we weren’t able to figure it out.”

As clubs struggle, they aren’t able to take on big, appealing projects. And without interesting projects they don’t attract new members.

“It’s a catch 22,” said Wellington. “Maybe we should have gone in over our heads and tackled a big project. We just weren’t that brave.”

Big projects are a key to success, agrees Cindy Scholten, president elect of the Seaway Kiwanis Club.

Her club has 26 members, down from 35 a few years ago, but still a going concern.

They support high-profile projects like the Seaway Kiwanis Children’s Animal Farm and built the wedding pavilion and BMX bike park in Canatara Park.

“We’ve changed with the times and we promote or engage members online,” Scholten said. Seaway Kiwanis is on Linked In, Facebook and has its own website.

It’s a challenge recruiting new members and only the most innovative clubs will survive, said Scholten, noting the Sarnia Kiwanis Club folded recently and its members joined the more stable Golden K Kiwanis Club.

The days when employers would pay membership dues and provide time for employees to attend meetings are long over, said Lawrie Lachapelle, a Sarnia Rotary Club member since 1998.

Sarnia Rotary is one of the strongest clubs in town with about 60 members. Together, they raise $175,000 to $200,000 a year for the community.

“We used to have over 100 members in our heyday,” Lachapelle said. “We know we have to have new strategies, new approaches, and that’s why there are things like e-clubs now. We talk to our membership as much as possible so we know what they want.”

People who believe they’re too busy to join a local service club may not realize what they’re missing, said Brian Bolt, an executive member of the Sarnia Lakeshore Optimist Club.

“There’s a lot of satisfaction doing community service. Close friendships are developed,” he said.  “I hope service clubs will continue to exist.

“Otherwise, we’d all miss them.”

– Cathy Dobson