Oxford Hills area service clubs struggle to increase membership

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COMMUNITY ORIENTED — Elizabeth and Katie Hallee of Harrison make Christmas ornaments as Harrison Lion Ron St. John, background, rolls out cookie dough in the Lions Den during the 2014 Christmas in Harrison celebration. The Harrison Lions Club, along with other service clubs in the area, are fighting against declining membership and interest in community service.

A service club is defined as a voluntary, nonprofit organization where members meet regularly to promote community welfare and service through fundraising and other efforts.

OXFORD HILLS — The Harrison Lions Club recently ramped up efforts to extend its reach in the Oxford Hills area to help fill the void created by the disbanding of the Norway-Paris chapter due to dwindling membership.

But the Lions Club isn’t the only service organization in the area struggling to garner members and interest in community service. The Kiwanis and Rotary clubs, as well as the Knights of Columbus in the Oxford Hills area, are seeing a similar decline in participation while the Optimist Club’s membership remains steady.

Lions Club

Harrison Lions Club President Maureen Johnson said the Norway-Paris club has not been active for a couple of years now, but many people were unaware of that. She cited lack of interest and commitment leading to the demise of the Norway-Paris club.

COMMUNITY ORIENTED — Elizabeth and Katie Hallee of Harrison make Christmas ornaments as Harrison Lion Ron St. John, background, rolls out cookie dough in the Lions Den during the 2014 Christmas in Harrison celebration. The Harrison Lions Club, along with other service clubs in the area, are fighting against declining membership and interest in community service.

“It dwindled to two or three people and that’s why they ended up turning in their charter,” she said.

The Harrison Lions purchased a vision screening device for students, which galvanized the Harrison club to try and service the Norway-Paris area. The computerized camera has been used throughout the Oxford Hills School District, which Harrison is a member of.

“There is nobody this way to serve them in other ways other than this vision screening. … We get a lot of requests for eyeglasses and so forth from that area,” Johnson said of Norway and Paris. The goal is to “fill in that void. If we could take advantage of it, it could be a service to the area and it could be a nice member base for us. … There is all kinds of different ways we could work it.”

The Harrison Lions decided to join the Oxford Hills Chamber of Commerce to get involved with the greater Oxford Hills community and spread the word they’re looking to help.

“I think there’s a need and a want but we just don’t have the how yet,” Johnson said. “We will figure it out.”

Another issue the Harrison Lions are up against is the Friendly Village is geographically out of the way, she noted.

“People just don’t want to drive the distance. They don’t have time. It’s hard,” Johnson said.

One member of the now defunct Norway-Paris club has joined its Harrison counterpart and a couple others said they’re considering it, Johnson added. She hopes young people will join the club because most of their members are retirement age. Right now, the club’s membership stands at 36.

“We have 36 members but they aren’t 36 active, working members,” Johnson said. “Maybe 50 percent of those provide service [and] participate in projects and fundraising.”

But those who participate are the core group of members who help with vision and now hearing problems in the area.

“We have a wonderful club. It is a very dedicated club and we feel badly that there is a whole area – the Oxford Hills area – without a club,” Johnson said. “They should have one.”

She hopes that down the road, Norway and Paris will form another Lions Club, but for the time being, Harrison members are willing to help.

Meetings are first and third Monday of the month at 6:30 p.m. at the Lions Den at 46 Main St. Anyone wishing to join the Harrison Lions Club can contact Johnson at maureenjohnson847@gmail.com.

Kiwanis

The Norway-Paris Kiwanis Club – which focuses on helping kids – has a similar membership and participation rate to the Lions, according to longtime Secretary Kathy Laplante. There are 36 members and on average between 15 and 18 members attend the meetings. The club used to host weekly meetings, but since have been pushed back two twice a month – even with featuring speakers at the meeting to try and draw interest.

“Kiwanis used to be over 100 members back in the ’80s,” Laplante said. “It’s just waned and waned. A lot of people say, ‘Why do I want to pay to be a volunteer?’ because that’s basically what we’re doing.”

She added the membership dues help with resources from the international organization, including insurance and ways to recruit members.

“All the service clubs are struggling and I don’t know if anybody has thought of a solution yet,” Laplante said. “We are always trying to recruit new members. It’s really difficult. Younger people are busy. They both have to work nowadays [and many have] young children involved with sports and stuff. We understand that. It certainly doesn’t help.”

Laplante has served as an officer of the club, along with Mary Ann Brown, who has been treasurer, for a number of years.

“We try to stick with it. I am getting old, I am getting tired,” Laplante said, laughing. “It is always the people who are busy who stay busy.”

Recently, a survey went out to all Kiwanis members to see if people want to still operate the club, Laplante said. It asked questions about members’ willingness to step up and help by serving as an officer.

“I wish I could tell you we’ve come with this wonderful solution but it’s just not there,” Laplante said.

“It is a good club. It does serve a purpose for the community,” she continued.

Perhaps part of the answer lies in collaboration with other service clubs. Kiwanis used to have a joint auction with the Rotary Club of Oxford Hills for a number of years. Laplante said sometimes Kiwanis members go into the schools to help with the vision screening with the Harrison Lions Club.

And March marks the annual Dr. Seuss breakfast, where children can eat for free. Kiwanis teams up with the local nonprofit Rightstart for this event, where the latter provides free books for the kids. Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School’s Key Club – which is the school group sponsored by Kiwanis – joins in the effort as well.

“Kiwanis has always tried to work with the other clubs,” Laplante said. “We realized it is difficult for everybody.”

Meetings are the second and fourth Thursdays of the month at 5:30 p.m. at VFW Post 9787 at 58 E. Main St. in Paris. Those wishing to join Kiwanis can contact Laplante at 583-2978.

Sarah Glynn is a member of Kiwanis and also the commander of the Foster Carroll American Legion Post in Paris. She said declining membership has been a serious problem for the American Legion for a number of years.

“Everyone wants the Posts to stay active and do all of the supporting programs, but there are no younger folks stepping up to participate,” she said by email. “We’ll die off soon … .”

Rotary

Chris Summers, who served as president of the Rotary Club of Oxford Hills last year and currently is one of District 7780’s assistant governors, said membership fluctuates.

MOBILE — Rotarians collect crutches, walkers, wheel chairs for the Crutches 4 Africa program, which provide mobility devices to Africans. Assistant Gov. Chris Summers says any passion can find a place in Rotary.

“Our club was founded 33 years ago and in the 33 years that we’ve been around, we’ve seen members as high as 65 people,” he said. “At the moment we’re at 33 or 34 and that’s actually up from when I joined.”

Summers joined Rotary five years ago. He said most members hail from Norway and Paris and two new members were just inducted. Members tend to be retirement age as they have more free time, he said.

“I know clubs that would love to get members who are in their 20s, 30s, right on up through but people start having kids – that’s a huge distractor,” Summers said. “Our club membership is one of the things that is now and forever a talking point – to figure out what’s going on and how to best reach out to millennials right on through.”

When Summers was president, he initiated a nighttime meeting for Rotary any time there was a fifth week in the month at Maurice Restaurant in Paris. The public was invited and Rotarians were encouraged to bring anyone they thought would be interested in service to others. Unfortunately, it didn’t take off.

“Sometimes 5:30 can be a bad time of night to try and coordinate that kind of stuff. It is easy to find an excuse – there is always something else that can be done,” he said. “It is a matter of going ahead and making service to others – whether it’s the purpose of glasses like the Lions or general service to others – a priority.”

Rotary projects can range from bringing Oxford Hills students on ski trips to assisting local food pantries to water projects in Africa.

HELPING HAND — Rotarians put on a new roof on the barn and built a shed for Alan Day Community Garden in Norway. The Rotary Club of Oxford Hills like other local service clubs are struggling with membership and interest.

“One of the nice things about Rotary is if you have a passion, and it doesn’t really matter what the passion is as long as it involves service to others … we can find a place in Rotary for it,” Summers said.

Recently, the club had a visioning session where members discussed activities they want to focus on and looked at Rotary’s long-term strategic outlook for the next three to five years, including how to grow membership.

Meetings are held from 7:30 to 8:30 a.m. Wednesdays at the First Congregational Church of South Paris at 17 E. Main St. Those wishing to join can visit the club’s Facebook page at www.facebook.com/rotaryclubofoxfordhills/ or Summers invited people to stop into a meeting, enjoy breakfast and learn what Rotary is all about.

Knights of Columbus

While the Knights of Columbus Council 5515 of Norway has slightly more members than some of the other area service organizations, not as many are active, according to Grand Knight Alan de Silva.

“At any given time we have about 40 members of the Norway council, but usually only about 10 members show up monthly [to our meetings],” he said. “We do have Knights who don’t come to meetings but they are on hand for certain functions.”

The Knights of Columbus is a fraternal organization where one must be a Roman Catholic to join. De Silva noted not only do the values of the Knights of Columbus and Roman Catholics align, including service to others, but so does their age populations.

“Some of them have been Knights for 50 years. It’s pretty amazing,” he said. “The Knights of Columbus group as a whole is of an older generation. I am one of the young ones and I am 68.”

While the Knights of Columbus are aging, de Silva said on average about one new member joins every two or so months.

The Norway council’s service to the community is spread far and wide across Oxford County and into neighboring Androscoggin County. The local Knights of Columbus donate money to The Progress Center in Norway, attend mass with veterans, donate toys to foster families in the Lewiston-Auburn area and raise money for baby bottles distributed through the Mother Seton House in Fryeburg, to name a few projects.

“To get people to be dedicated to show up once a month or be interested in donating your personal time and efforts in charity and giving, it’s not hard for people who want to do that. All the people we are Knights with are all of the same caliber. We can call us Catholic gentlemen but I think we are more driven with the thought of giving and helping others,” de Silva said. “The 10 guys who regularly show up, I think it’s their passion.”

The Knights of Columbus meet the first Tuesday of the month at 7 p.m. at rotating venues of St. Catherine of Sienna Church in Norway, the Maine Veterans’ Home in Paris and Our Lady of Ransom Church in Mechanic Falls. To join, call church secretary Jodi Roma at 743-2606.

Optimist Club

Over in neighboring Mechanic Falls, the Optimist Club, which focuses on local kids, is sort of bucking the trend. While it has fewer members than other neighboring service clubs – currently 15, including residents, business owners and past and current RSU 16 employees – the Optimist Club never has trouble completing projects, said President Jeff Gagnon.

STUDENT OF MONTH — The Mechanic Falls, Minot and Poland Tri-Town Optimist Club is proud to announce its RSU 16 Student of the Month recipient for January, Timothy Brienza. Timmy, an eighth grader at Whittier Middle School, is described as helpful, kind, dependable, curious, hardworking – and always smiling from ear to ear. Not only is he a model student who brings out the best in others in his school community, he is also an outstanding member of his Tri-Town community where he helps neighbors, encourages younger teammates in Panther Track, and helps to maintain trails for the Poland Sno Travelers. Congratulations Timmy! From left, Brienza with Club President Jeff Gagnon.

“It is a pleasure for me to have the people in the club that I have,” he said. “When we have events, our members do step up and we always have enough people to do the events.”

Membership usually fluctuates between 15 and 20 members.

“We do have enough people in the club who are active. We could always use more,” Gagnon said. “I think we can get new membership if we go out and knock on doors. I don’t just have the time.”

Part of the reason is because Gagnon is a member of three other clubs and his wife serves on the PTO. He said in his experience, he has found others like himself who are active in the community and belong to two or more clubs.

“I do flat out believe you’re going to get a core group of people who feel like their work is worth it to them and do it not because people expect it, but because they get a sense of satisfaction of doing it,” he said. “That is a common denominator for all the people in these clubs – people have to want to do something and be there for others.”

And for Optimist members, it’s all about celebrating and engaging kids. The Mechanic Falls club hosts an annual speech contest and sends the winner onto Regionals, Bike Rodeo, dance, Adopt a Highway program, honors the Student of the Month and adopts a local family each Christmas.

Part of the club’s success is having a good working relationship with administrators in RSU 16, according to Gagnon.

“The superintendent of our school district comes to every single meeting and the Student of the Month [presentation]. The cooperation between our regional school unit and our Optimist Club is something that is unique to other Optimist Clubs. They ask, ‘How do you do it?’ The answer to that question is the longstanding relationship between the school district and Optimist Club,” Gagnon said, noting he tries to nurture and grow the relationship whenever possible.

While the Optimist Club doesn’t have membership problems in general, there has been an issue of members stepping up to serve in a leadership role. Gagnon has been the president for the past eight or nine years and the club’s treasurer and secretary have also served in those capacities for a while.

Gagnon said he is part of the problem because he hasn’t told the club he won’t serve as president. At the same time, he feels he is part of the solution.

“What would happen if I didn’t do it?” he asked.

So for the time being, Gagnon will remain as president and the Optimist Club will continue to serve students in RSU 16, which covers Poland, Mechanic Falls and Minot.

The Optimist Club usually meets at noon on the third Tuesday of the month, at the Mechanic Falls Town Office, 108 Lewiston St., where lunch is provided and guests are welcome. But sometimes school vacations and snow days changes the monthly, one-hour long meeting. Anyone wanting to join the Optimist Club can email Gagnon at jeff@gagnon.net.

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