When Carlisle resident William Hoffman began his career as a funeral director at the age of 24, he followed the path many aspiring business owners chose to advance in their professions, he joined the Carlisle Rotary Club.
“I didn’t know much about it then, but I grew to like it very much,” Hoffman said. “The Rotary was doing good things to help the town. It was a good group of people, and you just felt good to be a part of it.”
Over the next 50 years, Hoffman remained a faithful member, serving terms as president, treasurer and member of the board of directors. But today, he doesn’t see many 24-year-olds joining the club. Young people are too busy.
“There’s nothing wrong with the organization at all. It’s just that it seems to clog up the arteries as far as time goes,” he said.
Civic volunteer organizations such as Rotary have acted as cornerstones of Midstate communities for decades, serving as social and business hubs as they give back to their local towns.
Now, these organizations struggle to survive, leaving some to ponder the holes in communities they might leave behind.
Carlisle Area School District Superintendent John Friend is among those who are concerned — so much so that he volunteered to serve as president of the Carlisle Kiwanis Club and encourages other district administrators to become involved in service organizations. Friend sees such clubs as critical to the school district’s success, particularly in an era of tight budgets.
“Their contributions to the district over the years has been tremendous. All those clubs provide us with some sort of monetary assistance,” he said. “Those organizations now are serving an even more vital role now than they have in the past.”
The Rotary Club provided equipment for the district’s new health careers program, which otherwise might have been unaffordable, he said. The Carlisle Kiwanis Club runs the district’s Terrific Kids reading program. The Carlisle Lions Club, with 28 members, runs the Lions Quest youth development program and supplies training and manuals for teachers.
Overall, the Rotary Club donates $20,000 annually to local and international charities, and the Lions Club and Kiwanis Club also donate money to a wide range of local charitable organizations, officials said.
While the organizations share an interest in helping their local communities, they also share gray hair and wrinkled foreheads.
Many of the Carlisle Kiwanis Club’s most involved members now are in their 70s and 80s, Friend said.
“They are still very active, don’t get me wrong, but we can’t depend on them to do all the activities they did when they were in their 40s and 50s,” he said. “We’re aging out, so to speak.”
The average Carlisle Rotary Club member is in the 50s age range, and membership has decreased from about 130 members about a decade ago to 97 members today, said President Bill Blankmeyer.
“We’ve had some attrition in our club,” Blankmeyer said. “People are busier than they have been, and it takes a commitment. One of our challenges is to continually recruit new members.”
People tend to stay in Rotary after they join, but getting new, younger members can be a challenge, he said.
“We’re definitely going after a younger crowd. The youth and vitality of what younger members bring to the table — we need to have that,” he said.
Community organizations insist they aren’t declining in activity despite the lack of younger members.
The Carlisle Kiwanis Club’s annual blueberry sale, for instance, seems to be getting more and more popular, said member Steve Martson. “We get people calling us saying, ‘When are the blueberries? When can we order the blueberries?’”
Gregory McVey, secretary of the Lions Club, said the club is “holding its own” with about 28 members, but admits the average age of members is climbing. At 53, McVey is the third youngest member, he said.
“It does concern me. It’s hard to get new members,” he said. “A lot of time folks don’t have the time to commit to it.”
Club members say they are fighting back against the trend of aging membership.
The Carlisle Sunrise Rotary Club was created in 2003 to attract members unable to attend the Carlisle Rotary Club’s noon meetings each Thursday at the Elks Building, Blankmeyer said. The Sunrise Club meets at 7:15 a.m. on Tuesdays at Market Cross Pub and Brewery, and has grown to 43 members, he said.
“Carlisle has many more Rotarians than we would have had if we just met Thursdays at noon,” he said. “There’s a whole flurry of people that can meet in the mornings.”
Rotary Clubs also have loosened membership restrictions over the years, such as the maximum number of members allowed per profession, Hoffman said. While the requirement that members attend every weekly meeting was never strictly enforced, it no longer even receives lip service, he said.
At the Carlisle Kiwanis Club, which has 83 members, Martson understands that people don’t have a lot of time. He encourages people to help out in some small way — such as assisting with the blueberry sale — if they can only make a minor commitment.
“You can put in as much time or as little time as you want,” he said.
The organizations also attempt direct outreach campaigns.
The Lions Club is involved in a “Pennsylvania Plan” initiative in which members reach out to the community and invite people to a meeting, McVey said. “We want to let them see first-hand what Lionism is all about,” he said.
The Newville Lions Club is also participating in the state-wide initiative, and held an Easter-themed community pancake breakfast on April 12 to let the community know what the Lions Club is about, said member Dan Brant, who is heading a committee aiming to recruit new members. The club’s 44 members only represents a slight decrease from previous decades, but membership is aging, Brant said.
The club is also completing a community needs assessment to determine how to better help the community, and is specifically working to recruit younger members, he said.
“If you’ve done a good job, you retain your members, and then your membership gets older. But if you’re going to keep your club current, you really have to get younger members,” he said.
The Carlisle Rotary Club publicized an event at Bosler Memorial Library last September to “try to stop the bleeding” and recruit new members, Blankmeyer said.
Dave Getz, publicity chair of the Rotary Club of Mechanicsburg-North, said their club is looking to recruit members through more attractive programing. “We try to have dynamic programs that are interesting to people,” Getz said.
Friend, meanwhile, is trying not only to directly recruit new members to Kiwanis Club but also to inspire increased civic involvement among youth by emphasizing it in the educational system.
“I see lots of wonderful kids at our high school recognizing the value of community service. I think that’s the future. That’s the hope to keep these organizations going,” he said.
Email Daniel Walmer at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @SentinelWalmer