Jeff Gaye

Service clubs like the Lions, Elks, Optimists, Kinsmen, and many others have a long history in communities across Canada—in fact, around the world.

The clubs provide a way for community-minded citizens to pitch in and help out. Some have specific mandates, but all share a general desire to serve. 

Most of them have their roots as men’s organizations, often with an auxiliary role for women. Nowadays, men and women participate as equals.

But participation seems to have peaked, at least for now. Local organizations are looking to grow their membership numbers in order to maintain their levels of service. Perhaps because the clubs are reluctant to blow their own horns, communities are not fully aware of how much they do—or how much they would be missed if they had to close up shop.

The St. Paul Elks Lodge #465 is coming off of its most successful radio auction fundraiser ever. In 2019 they donated $53,580 to worthwhile community causes, exceeding their previous best by more than $14,000. You would think the club is in great shape.

But president Jim Turton says that with only 17 members, they’re in a serious situation. The average age is 70, but they have three members in the 25 – 50 age group.

“That’s what we’re running up against this coming year,” he said. “We don’t even know if we’re going to be able to do our auction because people are averaging about 70, but a lot of them are in their 80s. And for collections and computer skills, we’re really struggling in those areas.”

The Grand Centre Lions Club faces similar challenges. It has 28 members on its books including some who had been members of the Cold Lake Northern Lights Lions Club. The two clubs recently amalgamated.

Of their 28 members, some are inactive lifetime members and some are snowbirds, according the president Margaret Bouchard, so the number of available volunteers is somewhat smaller.

The Lions would like to see a boost in their membership as they approach an important milestone.

“We’ll be in the community now for 50 years as of September 17,” Bouchard said. “So in September, we’ll be celebrating our 50th charter night and we’re hoping to have people come on out and celebrate with us.”

Clubs like the Lions and the Elks offer opportunities to make friends and work together for the good of the community. In addition to regular meetings and fundraising projects, members get together occasionally just to enjoy each other’s company.

“We have social functions for ourselves, like prior to our meetings, we do go out as a group and enjoy supper. And after our auctions, we usually have a bit of a celebration,” Turton said. 

“In the summertime, we’ll get together and have a barbecue for our members at the lake, and they bring their friends with them or whatever. And sometimes we’ll get a new member out of that.”

Bouchard said the Lions just enjoy working together. 

“They just want to come on out, help in the different things that we’re doing in the community. Like when we flip burgers in the summer, we get lots of people that like to come on out and help us flip burgers just to socialize, get together with people.”

She finds many members are less enthusiastic about meetings, so the club places more emphasis on participating in projects and events than attending meetings.

Turton and Bouchard agree that the biggest motivator for members is the satisfaction of giving back to the community. Turton says anyone with that attitude is a good prospective member.

“I think most of them join because they want to give back to the community. This club has given a lot to people as they raise their kids up. We’ve given to support their kids. And I think the ones that have come in see a need, and they see they have to give something back if they want to keep it going,” he said.

The St. Paul Elks don’t put a lot of demands on their members’ time—occasional meetings, maybe selling some tickets, Turton says. Fall is the busy time as the club prepares for its annual auction.

Of course everybody is busy with work, kids, other volunteer work, and leisure activities. This makes recruiting difficult, but Bouchard says busy people are welcome.

“A lot of people say they’re too busy. And we turn it around and we say, ‘well, you’re the kind of person we want, because busy people get things done,’” she said.

And there are rewards.

“What keeps me in there,” Turton said, “is when I see the smile on kids’ faces when we help them. That’s the real big thing for me, you know, when you get tired and wonder whether you should continue, all you’ve got to do is think about some of the smiles you’ve seen.

“I think one favourite moment we had was when we gave cochlear implants to a little boy, a 10-year-old boy, and that was like $30,000. He was born deaf. That really touched me. That’s what really got to me that the Elks is really worth something. And when you see him talking and smiling ear to ear, it’s worth it.”

Bouchard knows the feeling. The major thrust of Lions Clubs International is eyesight and services for the visually impaired, but local clubs go beyond that mandate to help their communities in whatever way they can.

“We are here to help anybody and everybody, and each circumstance is treated differently,” she said. 

The club stepped up when an apartment block fire forced tenants out of their homes. “We took care of all the families, we covered the hotel bill,” Bouchard said. 

“We also built the flower beds in the community gardens. At Long Term Care, we just purchased chairs because they didn’t have chairs that weren’t falling apart. We help children whose parents can’t afford to get them glasses. There was a young boy that had cochlear implants and his parents couldn’t afford the batteries, so we purchased the batteries.”

While every organization would like to attract “young blood,” Turton and Bouchard both say their doors are open to anyone who wants to pitch in. Recently-retired people have a lot of experience, ideas, time, and energy that would give clubs a boost.

Psychologists have documented a phenomenon they call a “helper’s high,” a chemical boost your system gets from lending a hand. In that way, volunteering is good for your physical and mental health.

But it can be much simpler than that. As Turton says, “it’s a good feeling you get in your heart.”

The St. Paul Elks presented $6,000 to the Cappella Centre women’s shelter in December.  SUBMITTED

The Grand Centre Lions Club donated gas cards for the Lakeland Cancer Peer Support Group to help with travel to and from the Cross Cancer Institute in Edmonton.  SUBMITTED