They help distribute eyeglasses to people in need in other countries. They make sure cancer patients get Valentine’s Day gifts. They light children’s faces up with much-needed school supplies. They’re the smiling faces at community concerts and other events.
And yet many people have no idea they exist.
“The name is not out there,” said Mike Shaw, a 63-year-old Lakewood resident who volunteers with the Kiwanis Club of Belmar, a local chapter of the international Kiwanis service organization. He didn’t know what Kiwanis was until around the time he joined, now 13 years ago.
Familiar names to older crowds — such as the Rotary and Lions, similarly minded service groups — have been struggling for decades as participation has declined. A bevy of news stories in recent years — and not-so-recent years — has pointed to that trend. As far back as 1992, a New York Times story sounded the alarm about membership decline for various possible reasons, such as Americans staying less rooted in one place or young people possibly feeling like the clubs were “out of synch with the times.”
“On balance, I think the Rotary has declined in membership and has not appealed to younger generation or women,” said Lynn Hoffman, professor of business management at Metropolitan State University of Denver and a Rotary member since 1994. “My particular club has been a little better about getting women and diversity and younger people in, but that’s not true generally.”
One president of a small Lions club in the Northglenn-Thornton area remembers the Lions being much more of a local fixture.
“I can remember as a kid we would have Lions picnics with all the families together,” said Zoe Reese, whose father was a founding member of her club in 1959. Reese felt the club was more connected to the community back then.
Clubs such as Reese’s have experienced shrinking numbers. That trend may be due in part to an aging membership base, something that Rotary clubs in general have experienced and are focusing on, said Gail Lehrmann, a Parker resident and president of the Rotary Club of Parker.
Many members have died or moved away, Reese said of her club. The overall trend is a loss in clubs in her north Denver metro area, she said, but some, such as in Arvada and Denver’s Stapleton neighborhood, are new or revitalized.
“Yes, it’s smaller, but we ain’t dead yet,” Reese said.
Theories abound on why, including the idea that young people may not identify with an older crowd. Then there’s the societal change that social media has brought about, allowing young people to find connection without the aid of community groups.
“I think (that’s) partially correct there,” Hoffman said. “I don’t think that’s the whole answer, but yes, they’re meeting their social needs totally differently than we are.”
Lehrmann chalked it up to society becoming “so fast and so computerized and go-go-go.”
“If I look at what I went through in high school, it doesn’t compare at all to what kids in middle school and high school do now,” said Lehrmann, 68, pointing out that parents in this era support kids’ sports teams and other activities. “Kids have so many more opportunities than I had when I grew up.”
Young people today also face added pressure to succeed economically, possibly pushing them to be busier than youth in past decades were. Many students at Metropolitan State are in their mid-20s and don’t have time for community service while working and attending school, Hoffman said.
“I know they’re worried about doing as well as their parents. When you ask a class, you get half” who think they’ll do as well, Hoffman said. “Ten years ago, most people would say yes.”
One of Hoffman’s classes is small — only 10 students — but just two out of that 10 said they’ve heard of clubs such as the Rotary and Kiwanis.
“I think going to school is so stressful for people” that they don’t have time for service, said Eloy Moya, a 22-year-old in Hoffman’s class. “I don’t think it’s the fact that we don’t want to help other people — I just don’t know what those clubs are.”
Moya worked at a nonprofit and noted there are other avenues by which to give back to the community. Many of Hoffman’s students said they’d consider joining a service club after graduation, though.
In this era, service clubs have made efforts to cater to younger people who are interested in volunteering but are too busy for weekly meetings.
The Rotary started online “e-clubs,” where people can get involved in projects and meet online instead of having meetings physical places, Hoffman said.
For years, branches of clubs for a younger crowd — such as the Rotary’s Interact Clubs for middle- and high-school students and Rotaract for ages 18 to 30 — have made a direct effort to get young people involved, Hoffman said.
And still, all over the metro area, groups as small as four and some large as dozens meet at local restaurants and offer free lunch or breakfast for members, planning their volunteer efforts and enjoying each other’s company.
Shaw’s Belmar Kiwanis club has gone door-to-door at local businesses and makes pitches for recruitment while volunteering at Lakewood events such as the city’s summer concert series. The club hasn’t gotten many bites, but it isn’t giving up.
Dominick Breton, a 35-year-old Wheat Ridge resident who rose up the ranks to become lieutenant governor of a Jefferson County region of Kiwanis clubs, emphasized the importance of service clubs in communities.
“Kids need Kiwanis,” Breton said, echoing a slogan of the club. “We’re all about kids and giving back to the community. It gets you going at the start of your day.”
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