STRUGGLING TO SERVE
About this series
TODAY: Service clubs struggle to find, keep members.
Sunday: Service clubs adapt to change.
Next Wednesday: How a new generation serves the community.
First in a three-part series
That’s the number of Green Valley Kiwanis members who turned out for a June 17 meeting.
The club blamed the summer heat, the yearly migration of snow birds and bad luck – two members were out for surgery – but the low turnout dramatically underscores a general decline in active membership among many local service organizations and their national counterparts.
The drop is being felt nearly everywhere.
Lions International is down a quarter of a million members from three decades ago. Shriners International has slightly more than a quarter of the nearly 1 million members it had in 1978. Membership in the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks currently sits at 825,000, down from the peak of 1.5 million in 1981.
For some, the decline has been rapid. The Order of the Easter Star has 400,000 members, down from 600,000 in 2008 and its peak of 1.5 million in the early 1950s. Optimists International has dropped by 72,000 members – more than half their peak – in just 18 years.
And as current members age and new recruits trickle in slowly, if at all, once-strong groups such as the Lions, Masons and Shriners are left struggling to carry out their charitable work and find people to fill leadership roles. Their futures are in question.
Mark Heltemes, president of the Kiwanis Club of Green Valley, said their membership has been on the decline in recent years, and the trend isn't changing. The Kiwanis chapter has about 20 to 25 members.
More usually show up to meetings during the cooler months, he said, but it's still hard for them to do a great deal of work with numbers being so low.
“We don’t have enough people to do the big projects in the community,” Heltemes said.
Kiwanis used to have two clubs in area with dozens of members belonging to each one, according to Heltemes.
Nationally, participation in Kiwanis, excluding its youth programs, has declined by more than 59,000 members to 265,130 since hitting a peak in 1992-93.
Kiwanis' mission statement is to change the world by serving children. Locally, the group has given 10 scholarships to students at Sahuarita Unified School District over the past four years and goes into 8th grade classrooms to tell students the importance of graduating high school.
There are a lot of reasons membership has declined so precipitously for the Kiwanis here, with societal changes being among them.
There are so many more distractions for people, said Pam Kulbarsh, a Kiwanis member, and the job of raising a child has become more time consuming for parents, so they have little time to devote to much else.
Like many local service organizations, aging membership is a problem for Kiwanis. Heltemes said most of the members are retired or near retirement age, not to be unexpected with Green Valley’s demographics. Two members left last year because they felt they were too old to contribute anything meaningful, he said.
Additionally, it’s hard to attract younger members when most of the current members are retired and they meet in a retirement community, Heltemes said.
Members also said that younger generations would rather see their work done in the community than work on something half a world away.
“We live in a society where we want to see results now,” said Barry Peacock, a Kiwanis member. “You want that reward.”
Peacock also said the requirement to pay dues to be a part of Kiwanis, as well as other service organizations, is a sticking point.
“The thinking is, ‘Why should I pay to do good deeds?’” he said.
Retaining and enticing new members is always a challenge for the La Canoa Lions Club, president Chuck Hedlund says.
Almost all the club's roughly 40 members – 25 of whom are active – are retired. All of them are 70 years old and up. The average age is in the mid-70s.
“When you're in a retirement community with lots of aging members, you're going to have built-in decline,” Hedlund said.
It seems that when the club gets three new members, then an older one passes away, he said.
And even when new members join, they tend not to come to the meetings and will volunteer episodically, focussing on individual projects, Hedlund said.
The Lions support various charitable works, but with an emphasis on sight and hearing. The local clubs and have conducted free vision screening for thousands of kids in Green Valley, Sahuarita, Amado and other communities.
La Canoa's sister organization, the Green Valley Lions Club, got a rare addition recently when Rob Knotts was inducted in July. He’s 52, a mere youngster.
Veteran members enthusiastically said Knotts immediately lowered their average age to 60 as they introduced him to others. Like most of the Green Valley club, Knotts transferred from another affiliate, in his case, Tucson. Prior to him joining, the club’s average age was about mid-70s; the oldest are well into their 80s. Most don’t have a computer, said club President Mary Beth Wallace.
Membership in the club is around 30, Wallace said, about 10 fewer than when she joined a decade ago. In that time there's been at least six Lions who have passed away, and at least three in the past couple years, she said.
As for why membership is not climbing, Wallace said she occasionally hears people asking why they should pay dues when they could go elsewhere and do service for free.
Nationally, the Lions Club is not fairing any better, having dropped 250,000 members from its peak of 550,000 in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
The club also has a leadership challenge identical to that of other longtime organizations. Namely, people just aren't as willing to serve.
“They tell you there are two positions never to serve unless you’re in for the long haul: treasurer or secretary,” Wallace said. “I got stuck doing it three years. Some are perfectly willing, some hesitate because they don’t like to go to (board) meetings, which involve about an hour a month.”
An aging membership is also the main concern at the local chapter of the Order of the Eastern Star.
Eastern Star is a Masonic organization open to men and women with a mission to support charity, education, fraternal and scientific goals. Locally, the chapter donates money to DaZees, the Amado-Green Valley-Sahuarita Community Food Bank and other local groups. The chapter also provides student scholarships.
Longtime Green Valley Eastern Star member Georganne Rodgers-Garn, who joined the fraternal organization in 1976, said about 30 of the 100 local OES members are active.
Harold Lindamood has been the treasurer of the Southern Star 71 Chapter for more than 10 years and said the average age of members is over 60.
"Our club has older members and I'm the treasurer every year because it's difficult to get people to serve in this capacity," Lindamood said. "We have very few people show up for meetings and I'm afraid when this group gets too old overall, there will be no more Eastern Star in Green Valley. We just can't get younger people to join."
The decline seen at the local chapter isn't uncommon.
"I was named a Grand Representative from Arizona and I was sent to Australia this summer for Eastern Star, and the Australian chapters are having the same problems we are in getting new members," Rodgers-Garn said.
Arizona has 35 OES chapters and 2,963 members, according to Diana Houlette, Grand Secretary of the Arizona Grand Chapter.
"Of the number of members in Arizona, only about 25 percent are active," Houlette said. "The members who are active participate in rituals and practice good principals, but getting members to take the position of leadership and attend meetings is an ongoing struggle."
Rodgers-Garn said she blames technology for service organizations not getting younger members.
"If some of these young people would get off their cell phones and talk to each other, they may learn something," she said. "Younger people are also working longer hours these days – some with more than one job and they just may not have time to volunteer."
Green Valley's Masonic Lodge, No. 71, has about 80 members, and, like other clubs, the membership is aging.
Jay St. John, who joined the lodge in 1994, said membership has dropped from 140 members to 72 in the past two decades.
Nationwide, the Masons have 1.25 million members. While more than many organizations, it's only a quarter of the 4.1 million Freemasons there were in 1959.
The group is only open to men who are 18 or older. Masons do a lot of work for charities, including holding and participating in various fundraisers within the community to promote charitable causes.
Bob Kline is a Mason, a Shriner and a member of Eastern Star, and has served in leadership roles in all three.
"The average age of members in these groups is 50 or older and as far as the Masons go, women will not be able to join because they have their own groups associated with Freemasonary," Kline said. "I don't want to be in an office anymore, but I do go to meetings once a month, something that is a problem in the membership. Nobody wants to attend meeting anymore."
Harold Lindamood is also a Mason and has also served in a leadership role in the local lodge.
"We have a number of Border Patrol (officers) in our Masons and they take it very seriously," Lindamood said. "It's basically word-of-mouth and recommendations from fellow members that get our local lodge filled. Still, we also rely on a lot of members who are longtime Masons but only here in the winter months."
The Green Valley Shrine Club has 15 members, down from the 35 to 40 they had in their heyday about 15 years ago, according to Lindamood, who also is a member of the club.
"We don't have any meetings in the summer and only meet October through March because once the winter members go, we don't have enough members to meet," he said.
Much like Kiwanis, those low numbers have impacted how much the club can accomplish.
"A lot of our members are old and they just can't be outside or lifting anymore," Lindamood said. "The Shriners help a lot of people, but we just can't get the members anymore and we are aging out of help."
The organizations runs 22 children's hospitals, 18 pediatric orthopedic hospitals, three Shriners Burns Institutes and one hospital that provides orthopedic, burn and spinal cord injury care, where patients don't pay a cent. The Green Valley Shrine Club is known for its annual Vidalia sweet onion sale, with proceeds helping the local Masonic lodge and the Shriners' network of hospitals.
The local club supports the Sabbar Shrine Temple in Tucson, which is also seeing similar decreases.
The Sabbar Temple has 600 dues-paying members, including some who attend events from Green Valley and Sahuarita.
"Our numbers have decreased from a peak of close to 3,000 to the present 600," said Van Elrod, recorder for the Sabbar Temple."
Our active members that are working hard for the Shriners Hospitals and the fraternity is around 100. Many of our members are older and do not have the ability to attend or participate."
The once popular Sabbar Band that has performed for more than 30 years in the Country Fair White Elephant Parade is struggling for membership.
Bruce Wickham, 92, a charter member of the Sabbar Temple, was also a charter member of the Sabbar Band. Wickham played for 50 years in the group, which was founded in 1965 and once included musicians from Green Valley and Sahuarita. Today, the future is in question because it's difficult to recruit new musicians.
The leader of the Green Valley Lodge of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks believes she knows the reason for her organization's decline in membership — the lodge restaurant.
Susan Trecartin, Exalted Ruler for the lodge, points to when the Elks greatly cut down on hours for their restaurant as the primary cause behind the precipitous drop in membership in recent years. She said many of the members who treated the Elks lodge as a country club, rather than a fraternal service organization, left soon after.
Trecartin said the numbers of local members has fallen from its peak of about 2,400 in 2008, to about 1,200 to 1,300 now.
Their membership is aging, too. Trecartin estimated that the average age of their members is 77. At times that number as been has high as 80, she said.
The Elks go into local schools for drug awareness campaigns and also teach first graders the Pledge of Allegiance. The lodge also places flags on La Cañada Drive and puts on events for the Border Patrol.
Most of the younger people in the area tend to gravitate toward the Sahuarita Elks Lodge, Trecartin said. Representatives from the Sahuarita Elks Lodge did not return phone calls and emails for this story.
“It would be nice to have younger members, but I think that because of the economy, people aren’t retiring as early as they did back in the mid-'90s,” Trecartin said.
Dropping membership numbers are not just a local concern. The same dynamics manifest themselves on a nationwide level, although some have made up for domestic losses with growth overseas.
James M. McQuillan, chairman of the Elks Grand Lodge advisory committee and past national president, said the problem for the Elks and other service organizations is hustle and bustle of modern life.
“We’ve got parents that are so busy with activities with their children, years ago when we had children growing up, we didn’t have all these clubs activity events and sporting events. There’s a club for everything,” he said.
The national Order of the Eastern Star has been worried about membership for 20 years, according to Alma Lynn Bane, Right Worthy Grand Secretary. Their high point was immediately after World War II and the Korean War, when returning vets chose to be Masons and their wives chose to be Eastern Stars, she said.
“Those members are dying and we’re not picking up new members,” Bane said, before adding that the organization is seeing some growth in South America.
Brian King, director of membership and development for Rotary International, said the organization's numbers have been holding steady at around 1.2 million across 34,000 clubs in 200 countries. However, U.S. membership peaked in 1993 and has been in a “slight, gradual decline,” he said. Where Rotary is showing good growth is places such as India, Taiwan and other parts of Asia.
Much like Rotary, Lions Club International has seen a decline in U.S. members during the past decade, but overall membership has gone up for the ninth year in a row thanks to growth in China and India, according to Dane LaJoye, a Lions spokesman.
King and LaJoye said the growth overseas could be attributed to rising middle and upper classes in Asian countries, with new businessmen choosing to give back to their community.
Maintaining and growing
But not all service organizations are seeing this downward trend. Some are managing – even if it is a bit of a struggle – to maintain numbers, while others have shown growth.
Any perceived drop in service organization numbers isn’t being felt at local American Legion posts.
The Legion is open to any one who served honorably in conflicts since World War II. It's mission is to care for veterans and their communities.
The posts' leaders say their numbers are higher than they have ever been, thanks mostly to the number of retirees in the area. The Legion has two locations locally: Post 66 in Sahuarita and Post 131 in Green Valley.
Post 66, founded in 1968, is the third-largest Legion post in Arizona with about 1,400 members – the highest it’s ever been – along with more than 700 auxiliary members and about 300 Sons of the American Legion, who are the wives, daughters and sons of veterans.
The post, next to the Titan Missile Museum, has exceeded its membership goals, said Len Garigliano, adjutant for Post 66.
Post 131, which opened six years ago on Esperanza Boulevard and La Canada Drive, claims 850 members, Commander Jim Simmons said. That number rises to about 1,400 when Auxiliary and Sons are counted. Simmons said their numbers fluctuate at times, but they are growing.
Garigliano said Post 66 never has to do any recruiting because eligible members tend to seek out the post.
“This place is unique in that we don’t do a lot of going out trying to get people to come here because they know this is the place to be,” he said. “If you live in Sahuarita and Green Valley, there aren’t a whole lot of restaurants and bars and places. We have all that.”
However, Legion leaders do see a potential for a drop off in membership down the road. The reason is that the number of people who served in the military is much lower now than during the Vietnam War and World War II when a draft was in place. Now, with an all-volunteer military in place, the numbers are dropping off as World War II veterans die off.
Butch Wittman, adjutant for Post 131, said they have younger members but they represent a low percentage of members given the retiree population. Garigliano said younger people tend to be busier and have less time to give.
“Younger people with families aren’t likely to join an organization when they’ve got bills to pay and kids to raise and PTA meetings to go to,” he said.
Knights of Columbus
Despite its membership aging and new recruits not exactly rolling in, the Knights of Columbus council at Our Lady of the Valley Catholic parish is “maintaining very well,” according to Jerry Bodine, its financial secretary.
The group has 180 official members, with an average of 45 turning out for meetings between October and April, and 20 during the summer months. Many are retired, although current Grand Knight Dean Moulis is in his late 30s and a recent inductee is a working Border Patrol agent. However, that's not always the case.
“One guy is 90; his wife drives him (and) at 68, a former Grand Knight was one of the youngest guys here. He's now 77,” Bodine said.
He couldn’t say offhand how old the group’s most senior member is, but noted most live in 55-plus neighborhoods and the majority transfer in from other councils when they move to town. The council has between six and eight members who pass away each year, but has about the same number who transfer in each year, Bodine said.
Knights of Columbus is open to males as young as 18 who are practicing Catholics. The local councils holds fundraisers, such as an annual golf tournament, to support charitable causes. The council at Our Lady of the Valley helps provide a steady $15,000 or more for the Green Valley-Sahuarita Food Bank.
Luring 20-somethings into the fold is among the major challenges for Knights councils, such as the one at San Martin de Porres parish in Sahuarita. Not many young men are carrying on the tradition their forebears started, said Steve Slye, Grand Knight of the San Martin Council and an organization member for 42 years.
On average, the San Martin Knights lose an elder member a year, and all but seven don’t receive email, requiring the distribution of council bulletins by print and U.S. mail to reach members, Slye said.
“Most of them I’ve never seen. Generally, folks still have the affiliation but may not be able to physically get around or drive at night,” he said.
Slye said getting younger men to join is difficult because they are usually recently married, working 40-hour weeks and might have children.
But things are looking up. Even as the council's upper ages exceed 90, newcomers in their 30s are coming aboard. Two years ago, the council had about 50 members; it now has 65.
“The padre (Juan Aguirre) really promoted the Knights here and in his previous parish in Eloy, helping us build the organization and get more Hispanics and younger members in their 30s and 40s,” Slye said.
The last decade has been “a wash,” for membership in the Tubac Rotary Club, according to Rodney Rich, incoming club president.
A growing community full of need helps drive projects, but as most anywhere, there's always more demand than supply.
Rotary clubs focus on both local and international projects. Local funds go to scholarships for Rio Rico kids, computer equipment for schools in Sasabe, and toward Rotary International's effort to wipe out polio. The club also sponsors projects such as roadside cleanups, and occasional contributes to special projects such as helping provide shelters for earthquake-shattered Nepal.
The club of mostly retirees – the average age is 65 – formed nearly 20 years ago when it split from Rio Rico's club, a group of mostly still-working members that convenes before 7 a.m.
Early on, the Tubac club shifted to a slightly later, more convenient meeting time and sat down to address needs close to home — small changes but key to retaining and growing membership, Rich said. While overall membership has slowed recently, the club “had a pretty good year,” which saw numbers increase from about 20 to 26, Rich said. They swell to about 30 in winter high season, when the group hosts its biggest fundraiser, Taste of Tubac.
The Valle Verde and Green Valley Rotary clubs are also experiencing growth but it's marginal and requires constant vigilance, their chief officers said.
Katie Carter, incoming president for the Green Valley Rotary Club, was excited to see three new members up for induction in July, the month she took the helm.
That raised the membership to 35 for the area's first club, which was charted in 1975 and meets over lunch on Tuesdays.
“It got so big, Valle Verde broke off and formed separately,” she said. While the average age is 72, a couple are younger. One member just turned 91, another is “at least 95” and most are active.
Carter commiserates over club losses by death, out-of-area moves and health issues.
“This is probably the biggest the club's been for a long, long time,” she said, adding that at one point, membership numbered in the 40s.
But growth hasn't necessarily always been the norm. When membership in the sister Madera Sunset Club, which met in Quail Creek, became too anemic, members decided the best course was to discontinue it and those who wanted to, moved to one of the other two local clubs, said Jim Rusk, incoming Valle Verde president and a 29-year Rotarian.
Members in the Valle Verde club range in age from the mid-30s to early 90s. A number of the members are employed, although the majority are retired.
The club focuses on a mix of local and international efforts, such as the shelters for Nepal, and Dress for Success, to provide local underprivileged youth with clothes for school.
“We're growing but it's a slow process,” Rusk said. “We'll gain three or four, then lose two or three. Our particular club has grown by 12 members in the last two to three years.”
Reporters Regina Ford, Kitty Bottemiller, Ethan McSweeney and David Rookhuyzen contributed to this article.