Service clubs dead? Not in Traverse City

They work in the public eye without pay – mentoring students during the school year and ringing bells and collecting money at Christmas time.

They work behind the scenes the rest of the year – raising money for and helping the underprivileged and overburdened.

So why – with the state of the Michigan economy and the price of gas – are service clubs like Rotary, Kiwanis, Elks, Lions and Zonta bucking the national trend in Traverse City?

The trend has been a falloff in numbers on a national level. Here, the number of people belonging to service clubs remains steady.

"In fact, we are the fourth fastest-growing lodge in the state," said Traverse City Elks Lodge president Ed Graham. "Our current membership is around 1,150 men and women. Most of our members consider the Elks a second family. We feel service organizations are important because of all the charitable works they do."

The Elks, in fact, are second only to the government in handing out scholarships to students.

Traverse City Kiwanis president John Sonnemann said the strong service club numbers are simply a reflection on the area.

"The lifeblood of any community is reflected in the number of service clubs," he said. "And when you look around, there are a lot of service clubs."

All of them have one goal in mind: Helping.

"Let's face it, neither the governments nor corporations can supply all the services required for our society," said new Traverse City Noon Rotary president Al Bonney. "So service clubs play a huge part.

"I really believe the human soul is more fed by giving back. I call it 'those who can helping those who need.' I think that when we help out as service club members we become fulfilled in ways far beyond the capacity of the commercial sector."

The Noon Rotary Club has remained steady at around 300 members. They reached a high of 315 members in 2004 and have 290 in 2008.

"That number fluctuates with people joining, resigning and deaths," said Rotary administrator Bob Yeiter. "But our numbers have remained steady."

How does a service club stay relevant and attract new members?

"Basically, the truth is that volunteers don't have the time or patience for irrelevant missions or value-less activities," said Bonney.

"The key is for service clubs to provide fulfilling work that has significance in the community. If you do that, you can recruit new members and keep the ones you have. Without significance and relevance, new members will be few and old members will become fewer."

According to the book "Bowling Alone," which deals with service clubs and volunteerism, the world has changed so much in the last 25 years that "social capital" is becoming harder and harder to come by.

That's why Traverse City's numbers buck the trend.

"The same conversation that goes on in Traverse City service clubs is the same one that goes on in churches, art councils and bowling leagues," said Bonney. "That is, we're all looking for new members. The key is, we have to provide adequate reason for them to not only join, but to continue membership."

Membership numbers vary widely from service club to service club – but Kiwanis and Zonta have similar numbers, for instance. Kiwanis has about 125 right now and Zonta around 100.

"Our clubs have some overlap, but for the most part we each have a main focus," said Sonnemann. "For instance, Kiwanis concentrates on serving the youth in our community."

The Kiwanis Club in Traverse City has been around since Nov. 26, 1924. Rotary was established here in 1920 while Zonta was chartered in TC in 1956.

Zonta just finished one of its two main fundraisers – its Z-Tee Golf Outing at Crystal Mountain in June. They also are behind the Festival of Trees in November.

"These events raise over $30,000 each year for the women and children of the Grand Traverse area," said Zonta president Deanna Cannon.

Together, area service clubs raise hundreds of thousands of dollars every year and also donate thousands of people hours. "There's no question that service clubs play an important role in our region," said Graham. "You can't put a price tag on what we do… we just do it because it needs to be done." BN