Service clubs are the backbone of small towns, and they need help

Service clubs have cleaned highways and built arenas. They distribute eyeglasses and hold fish fries. As they decline, advocates say, so does the Canadian small town.
Alyssa Gomori and Edith Calling hold the original constitution and bylaws of the Women's Institute at the Erland Lee Museum, which is the birthplace of the movement. They foresee WIs, integral to small towns across Canada, as being prone for a revival. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Edith Colling grew up in the tiny northern town of Charlton, Ont., where becoming a Women's Institute member was sort of inevitable.

As a little girl, she played under the dining room table while WI members quilted above. Her mom held every possible local WI position.

Now Colling is president of the Hamilton-area Wentworth district, which had 51 branches a century ago. Today, it has seven.

It's not automatic for women to join anymore, Colling said. "Everybody's so busy." 

"I'd like to see us get younger members. I think that's the key to our growth, to staying a vital part of the community. To somehow get younger members."

That's a common refrain among service clubs these days. Groups such as Lions, Kinsmen, Oddfellows and the WI have long been the engine that makes small communities tick. But increasingly, younger residents don't know it.

Service club emblems adorn the gateway sign to Burford, Ont., population 1,615. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

In Simcoe, Ont., for example, the Kinette club responds to every child's letter to Santa. The Kinsmen built one of the country's first wheelchair accessible splash pads.

Despite this, the Kinsmen dwindled to seven members a few years ago, said long-time member Walter Butler. They nearly closed, but they're back up to about 15.

The Burford Lions Club, serving a town of 1,600, helped build an arena. Generations of kids have skated there, and it's also home to the Lions' annual fish fry.

The club expanded to include women a few years ago to boost its numbers. One of those women, Kim Bailey-Brown, is now president.

The Burford Lions are strong, Bailey-Brown said. But "I'm always thinking about the future."

Busier lives

The reason for the shift away from these community backbones is a complicated one.

The Kinsmen Club of Simcoe is known for building a wheelchair accessible splash pad in the town of 14,000. (Google Maps)

Books such as Richard Putnam's oft-cited Bowling Alone, for example, suggest community members no longer commune. As communal institutions like churches and even schools are closing, small towns are losing their hearts.

Whatever the cause, it's been gradual. Bruce MacDonald, president and CEO of Imagine Canada, worked for the Kinsmen Club of Canada 20 years ago. Numbers were declining then, he said.

Volunteer Canada's 2010 Bridging the Gap report shows people are still volunteering. But they have less time now, so they want short-term, targeted opportunities. People are also doing more informal volunteering, such as shoveling a neighbour's driveway.

The report suggests designing specific roles for volunteers, and letting them determine how much they can offer. It also suggests being less bureaucratic, a challenge for some clubs rooted in ceremony and routine.

Luring the new volunteer

"Service clubs are looking at 'how do we structure ourselves to be inviting to these types of volunteers?'" MacDonald said. "Is it less about formal meetings and more about the interesting projects we do?"

It has to be solved, he said. Without service clubs, "it's almost to a certain degree like the fabric and soul of community is in decline."

The first Women's Institute was formed in Stoney Creek. Now it's an international organization. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Clubs are trying various methods to adjust. At the Freelton Lions Club in rural Flamborough, new members are given leadership positions faster than in previous generations, said long-time member Bob Lanktree. 

The Simcoe Kinsmen have shortened their meetings and reduced their frequency by half, Butler said. The group used to meet every Wednesday. Now it meets twice a month. Not only are its numbers up, but a few new thirtysomethings have joined.

Kids should learn about service clubs in school, Bailey-Brown said. She grew up figure skating in the Lions arena. When she got older, she said, "I felt it was my time to give back."

Clean highways, eyeglass drives

"If it wasn't for service clubs, small towns wouldn't have the activities they have. They wouldn't have the sports events they have. They wouldn't have even the culture the clubs bring. You get out there and you meet people."

John Nichols is the grand secretary of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows's ‎Grand Lodge of Ontario. At one time, he said, there were about 200 Odd Fellow and 200 Rebekah lodges in Ontario. Now there are about 70 of each. 

"We bring in new members every year," he said. "However, we don't bring in enough to cover death."

But "I'd hate to see (our work) expire. I'd hate to see things like highway cleanup expire, or doing drives for eyeglasses for Africa. All of these different little things service clubs do."

As for WIs, Colling has started a new branch. It has eight members so far. 

Aiming for a comeback

The new Janet Lee branch is based out of the Erland Lee Museum. The first WI constitution and bylaws were signed on the kitchen table there.

The WI's impact is clear. Over the years, it's been responsible for pasteurized milk, white lines on provincial highways, roadside breath tests, bread packaging and red flashing lights on school buses, among other advancements. The Binbrook WI even helped start the area recycling program in 1990.​

Alyssa Gomori, secretary of the new branch, is in her early thirties. She also curates the museum. New generations, she said, should just give it a try.

Early WI meetings were about face-to-face sisterhood. Women learned how to knit and quilt, to bake and can food and make jam. These old interests are becoming new again, Gomori said.

"These things are making a comeback."


Samantha Craggs is journalist based in Windsor, Ont. She is executive producer of CBC Windsor and previously worked as a reporter and producer in Hamilton, specializing in politics and city hall. Follow her on Twitter at @SamCraggsCBC, or email her at samantha.craggs@cbc.ca


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