Local service clubs are fighting to keep members

Cullen Ferguson
Special to Black Mountain News | USA TODAY NETWORK

Three small, round, yellow-and-blue signs stand nearly hidden off N.C. 9 South at the entrance to town. The three signs proclaim the town to be home to the Lions, Rotary and Kiwanis service clubs.

But what if the three clubs had to close due to shrinking membership? It’s not an idle question.

All three have served the Swannanoa Valley for more than half a century. For several decades now, however, they and their counterparts across the U.S. have been locked in a mostly losing struggle to recruit new and younger members.

Nationally, the carnage has been daunting. The story is much the same in Black Mountain. Its oldest service club, the Lions, (chartered in 1935), is also the smallest, with 21 members now. That’s 56 percent less than it had 30 years ago. The second-largest club, Rotary, has 57 members, but because of advancing age, only 32 are considered active and required to render service. The largest of the three local service clubs, the Kiwanis Club of Mountain-Swannanoa, has 82 dues-paying members. But average attendance at meetings is down to about 30.

Why the decline? Presidents of all three clubs said their long-time members are aging out and dying. Meanwhile, with their busy schedules, younger people have no time for attending lunch meetings, and no interest in singing old songs, listening to speakers, or sharing lunch with people two to three times their age. They prefer to connect with others their own age via social media or in more casual settings.

Black Mountain Rotary Club president Sam Hobson said service clubs here face a special challenge in attracting younger members because this area is such a mecca for retirees. In addition, Hobson noted, his club’s meeting place in the Givens Highland Farms Retirement Community isn’t exactly conducive to drawing in a more youthful membership.

Lynn Deese, past president of the Kiwanis Club of Black Mountain-Swannanoa and immediate past lieutenant governor of Kiwanis’ Carolinas District, said the gravity of the problem struck close to home when the Kiwanis Club of Marion, founded in 1923 and having dwindled to about a dozen mostly elderly members, had to disband last year. Kiwanis is now trying to get a new club started there.

In an attempt to attract new, younger members, “we’re using different techniques,” Deese said. “One of the models that we’re working on is called the ‘3-2-1 model,’ and it’s three hours of service, two hours of fellowship, one hour of meetings per month.”

She cited Kiwanis Uptown, a satellite of the Kiwanis Club of Charlotte. The group of young professionals “is going great guns, and they meet (after work) at a bar,” she said. They get together to socialize, network and discuss upcoming projects for helping children in Charlotte and around the world.

In Black Mountain, the Kiwanis Club has recently started an “Early K” breakfast meeting for young professionals (7:30 a.m. the second and third Wednesdays of each month). The group is currently meeting at Denny’s on N.C. 9.

Randy Champion, president of the Black Mountain Lions Club, acknowledged the need to explore new ways to attract younger members.

“It seems to me that the medium we’re going to have to go through is cell phones, the Internet or whatever … more so than what we’ve done in the past,” he said. His club is also going to pursue an old-fashioned method - knocking on doors. “We’re going to start visiting businesses in Black Mountain and Swannanoa,” he said, “and see if we can drum up new membership.”

Much is at stake for the schools, towns and nonprofit agencies in the Swannanoa Valley.

“If you take all of us out, this community would lose a lot,” said Rotary president Sam Hobson. “In terms of what we provide to a food-fragile, family-fragile community, if we weren’t here, there’d be a lot left for somebody to try to pick up the pieces.”

Here is a very incomplete list of contributions the three clubs have made to the area recently:

Last fiscal year, the Kiwanis Club contributed more than $184,000 for college scholarships to graduating seniors at Owen and Community high schools, as well as in grants to schools and nonprofits serving families and children in the Valley. It raised the money through its signature project, the all-volunteer Kiwanis Thrift Store.

Through the Dolly Parton Imagination Library, the Rotary Club spends about $10,000 annually to provide free books to some 450 children from birth to age 5. The club adds enough food to the bags it gets each week from the MANNA FoodBank to ensure that about 90 students in the Valley get three meals a day. Each spring it provides Community High School with the money, food and place needed for its juniors and seniors to have a prom. Several years ago, Rotary paid for the highly popular Splash Fountain in Black Mountain’s Town Square Park.

Together, Rotary and Kiwanis have pledged more than $200,000 toward the Swannanoa Valley Christian Ministry’s $1 million apartment complex being built outside Montreat’s gate. The “Hope for Tomorrow” development will house homeless mothers with children.

The Lions Club, among other things, helps provide eyeglasses and eye exams for visually impaired Valley residents who can’t afford them. It supports the Marjorie McCune Community assisted living center and works with patients with impaired eyesight there. Each year it sends a visually impaired person to Camp Dogwood, (the N.C. Lions summer camp for the blind in Sherrills Ford) and provides a scholarship to a graduating senior from its Leo Club at Owen High School.

(Editor’s note: Cullen Ferguson is a board member of the Kiwanis Club of Black Mountain-Swannanoa.)

Join the club

Meeting times and dates of area clubs

Black Mountain Lions Club

6:30 p.m., fourth Thursdays

Marjorie McCune Memorial Center

100 Lions Way, Black Mountain

Black Mountain Rotary Club

Noon Tuesdays except first Tuesdays

Givens Highland Farms

200 Tabernacle Road, Black Mountain

Kiwanis Club of Black Mountain-Swannanoa

11:45 a.m. Thursdays

Christmount Dining Hall

900 Holly Road, Black Mountain

Early K (Kiwanis)

7:30 a.m. second and third Wednesdays

Denny’s, Black Mountain