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Service clubs struggle as members age and volunteerism evolves

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FILE PHOTO - A Hillsboro Elks Lodge member chats with youth who volunteered to sort canned and boxed food during the 2015 Christmas season. The Hillsboro and Forest Grove Elks clubs decided earlier this year to jointly sponsor a new Antlers youth program.  Nearly a dozen teenagers mowed lawns, pulled weeds and returned cans this summer, saving up enough money to buy a new computer tablet — just to give it away.

The lucky recipient was 6-year-old Dylan Richters, whose tablet was stolen from his Forest Grove front porch earlier this summer.

The good deed was part of a newly formed offshoot of the Forest Grove Elks Lodge aimed at getting more young people to give back to their community.

The teens’ fundraising is the kind of civic engagement service clubs are designed to stimulate. But across the nation, Rotary, Kiwanis, Elks, Lions and other service clubs are declining as their members age.

It’s not that young people don’t engage in service work. They just don’t join formal organizations to do so, according to Harvard Professor Robert Putnam. They’re less likely to attend meetings of an organization or to take on leadership positions and more likely to give their time to one-on-one causes such as tutoring.

“Younger people want to be active, not sit at a meeting and plan volunteering,” said Stephanie Lommen, a long-time member of the Forest Grove Kiwanis, which closed its doors last year when its membership became too old to participate in well-established Kiwanis projects such as maintaining local wetlands and highways.

Neither of Lommen’s two adult children are members of a local service club, she said, but they will spend the weekend at Relay for Life or volunteer for hard labor, Lommen said.

“It’s ‘flash mob volunteering,’” she said, “but it’s not a long-term commitment.”

Hillary Grant, a 26-year-old Pacific University physician assistant student, has volunteered in hospital emergency rooms and tests patients for HIV. She said she is aware of service organizations and thinks they’re “awesome” — but not her style right now. Grant admits she stereotypes them as relics of a bygone era, “like they’re for your grandfathers.”

Washington County resident Veronica Yanhs, 26, has given time to animal shelters and Planned Parenthood in the past but hasn’t had much time for volunteering since she started her own business.

Max Holden, 31, has been focused on completing his occupational therapy degree the last few years, but is active in his church.

Such younger do-gooders are more likely to chuckle at the secret handbooks, unusual costumes and funny titles — the Elks’ “Exalted Ruler,” for example — they associate with service clubs.

As traditional service clubs struggle, club officials worry that the camaraderie, social connections and grand-scale service projects might be lost.


Doing good

As older members become homebound or die, once-burgeoning service clubs are trying to recruit people in their 20s, 30s and 40s.

Hillsboro resident Judy Willey joined the Hillsboro Rotary Club less than a year ago and now leads the membership recruitment committee. Willey — wife of Hillsboro mayor Jerry Willey — said it can be difficult for young people to spend the money required for weekly lunches and yearly dues, and take time off for weekly meetings. But she thinks people can be convinced. She’s recruited about a dozen new people under 30 this year.

“Yes, you can go out and volunteer one time somewhere, but you miss out on the passion it brings year-round about the work you’re doing,” Willey said. “You miss the camaraderie.”

Willey said her group is trying to encourage members to include their children and partners in Rotary events so it doesn’t become another obligation that takes people away from their families. At the club’s clean-up at Rood Bridge Park this year, they had five kids helping out.

Lommen joined the Forest Grove Kiwanis at age 25. When club members decided to close the books on their 60-year-old organization, Lommen — now in her 50s — was one of its youngest members.

Most members were 75 or 80 years old when the club went defunct, Lommen said. Kiwanis tried to snag young people while they were still in high school, but securing support from school staff proved difficult.

Lisa Gordon has had similar challenges in the past year trying to start up a youth branch of the Hillsboro Rotary Club, called “Interact.” Gordon said she found it difficult to garner any interest from staff at many schools in her recruiting efforts.

The club is aimed at teenagers age 12 to 18. The club includes about 15 members from Liberty and Hillsboro high schools, the Hillsboro School District’s online school and Poynter Middle School. They’ve prepared and served meals for HomePlate Youth Services, fundraised for the Salvation Army and organized toy drives for Albertina Kerr.

“We needed to bring in the young people and harness their enthusiasm and energy,” Gordon said. ‘They have enthusiasm and awesome ideas and have skills many older people don’t.”

Elks member Jillian Coffey, who’s in her 40s, joined the Forest Grove Elks Lodge earlier this year. She noticed that “tons of kids wanted to get involved,” and quickly capitalized on their interest, reviving the group’s long-discontinued Antlers youth program.

The program has proven popular in Forest Grove and she is exploring a partnership with the Hillsboro Elks Club.

“It’s like we have a whole bunch of aunts and uncles and grandmas and grandpas” Coffey’s daughter, Melody Coffey, 13, said. “Everybody helps each other and looks out for each other.”

Back in Hillsboro, Willey said that there is a place for service organizations with a younger generation of community-minded residents.

“It’s important we’re giving people the opportunity to truly understand leadership and service,” Willey said. ‘It makes you a less selfish person.”