Editor’s Note: This is the final installment in a series of stories examining how apathy is affecting community and service groups in Champaign County. The previous installments were published Saturday and Monday.
While some community and service groups have been facing tough times or have closed, others have found ways to stabilize or even grow their memberships.
The Lions Club, both locally and nationally, is one that is growing and expanding. The local Soroptimists Club is also doing well. Rotary and the Champaign County Historical Society and Museum are seeing their membership age and looking to keep things stable.
The Urbana Lions Club is doing well, Vice President Audra Bean said. The group, with about 65 members and more expected to join, has had steady increases in membership.
“We’ve started to have a lot of younger generations coming and joining,” she said. “A lot of the older generations used to make up a large portion of our membership.” Approximately a third of the club’s members are under age 40, and maybe half of the membership attends the weekly lunch meetings.
“I think once people visit our club and see how much fun we have, they are like, ‘I want to be part of this,’” she said.
Bean said the group continually asks members to help with membership and invite their friends to meetings to check it out. The Urbana club funds scholarships through a variety of fundraisers that include the ever-popular pancake breakfast.
Membership is increasing for the Lions globally, Lions Club International Spokesperson Dane LaJoye said. Part of that is expansion of the club into areas it had never been, such as India, China, Japan, Korea and other Asian countries. LaJoye said the Lions are the only non-governmental service organization allowed to operate in mainland China.
Much of the national membership growth comes from the inclusion of women, welcomed into the clubs in 1989, LaJoye said. Membership nationally peaked at approximately 575,000 members in the early 1980s, and today that membership is down to approximately 325,000. But the membership has decreased less and less over the years, and is growing in some areas, LaJoye said.
The Lions Club evolved from working with the blind and visually impaired into more community service projects, disaster relief and more programs, he added. The organization has also started focusing on families, since some parents want to volunteer with their children. So parents and children join together. And some clubs are meeting online, since that can be helpful for members with busy or uncertain schedules.
“We do so much more today than ever before,” LaJoye said. “We continue to work with the blind and visually impaired. But we’ve placed tremendous emphasis on hands-on projects. We’ve done surveys that indicated in the U.S., Americans are volunteering more today than ever before. But because time is so precious, when they volunteer, they want to do something tangible.”
The Soroptimist Club of Urbana is another group maintaining its membership. The group, which currently consists of 26 members, got its start locally in 1953, Life Member Linda Stallsmith said.
“I think we’re doing well,” she said.
Soroptimists is an international women’s service club. The local chapter offers a $1,000 medical scholarship to any eligible graduating senior in Champaign County. That used to be solely a nursing scholarship until the group expanded it to other medical professions, Stallsmith said. The group also supports women’s programs such as Project Woman, which assists victims of sexual assault and domestic violence; and Sycamore House, a local pregnancy center. The group worked with the American Association of University Women local chapter until it disbanded.
Keeping membership up can be a constant challenge.
“There’s an age group that is not service-minded,” she said.
Soroptimists do not meet in the summer, but otherwise meet once a month. The group used to meet more often, but that was becoming difficult for members.
“We have some members with young, school-age children. It makes it harder (to meet) and to come up with money. Membership isn’t cheap,” she said.
Stallsmith said the group may try to change its meeting times to be at lunch time instead of in the evenings to see if that’s easier for members and recruiting others.
“We’re hoping those changes will help. Time will tell,” she said.
The Urbana Rotary Club is another group whose membership tends to be aging, President Mike Terry said. And the group is considering changing its meeting times to be more accommodating. The local organization has 40 or 45 members, Terry said, with many leaving the area to spend the winter in Florida.
“As you get older, it gets a little tougher (to be part of a group),” he said. “It’s kind of like all organizations in this day and age we live in. It’s hard to get people to want to be active.”
Part of that is because younger individuals with families can have difficulty finding time to take part in a service organization.
“In the society we live in, it just seems like there’s so much interaction you can do electronically, that a lot of people don’t go out much anymore,” Terry said.
Rotary International’s main focus is eradicating polio, and it has come close, with only a few countries left with outbreaks.
The local organization has fundraisers such as the Fourth of July chicken barbecue and fireworks, and selling ice cream at the fair, to contribute to its polio eradication efforts and to local scholarships. The group also maintains Freedom Grove.
“(Rotary) is a great organization. I encourage anybody interested to contact a Rotarian,” Terry said.
Champaign County Historical Society and Museum
The Champaign County Historical Society and Museum has had its ups and downs, and it seems to be on an upswing, Curator Charles “Dick” Virts said. The group has a full board of trustees, which can sometimes be a challenge to accomplish. The group has approximately 225 members.
The organization runs the museum and conducts historical research for the county. It maintains archives as well. It is currently focusing on digitizing archives and photographs of the collections, which are featured on the organization’s website.
Its funding comes from membership, donations and the Oktoberfest fundraiser.
“It’s not easy, but we seem to get it done,” Virts said. “We just want people to know we’re here.”
Casey S. Elliott may be reached at 937-652-1331 ext. 1772 or on Twitter @UDCElliott.