Who cares?

It takes money and time to make real community change, say local volunteers

By Geoff Coleman

Susan Tate of the Fenelon Falls Lions Club. Photo: Geoff Coleman.

It’s lonelier being a Lion these days – at least compared to 1974.

The Fenelon Falls Lions Club celebrates its 50th anniversary next year. Thirty members joined when they chartered in 1974. Since then, they have contributed to Ross Memorial Hospital, donated to Lions Foundation of Canada Guide Dogs and The Five Counties Children’s Centre, and made countless other philanthropic gifts.

But they are also doing so with half the number of members today than when they started.

This kind of attrition is affecting many service clubs in our area, and while the spirit of giving has not necessarily gone, it has certainly taken a different form.

Susan Tate, with the Fenelon Falls Lions Club, says the club continues to be an active part of the community, but is recruiting new and especially young members. “We know we are competing with a dozen other groups in town from the Rotary Club to the Horticultural Society.”

Brad Fraser, president of the Lindsay Kinsmen Club has had a similar experience. “Younger members are very difficult to bring on. Service clubs used to be a huge part of a person’s social life: parties, outings, camaraderie, sense of belonging. It is different now. I think people don’t want to get stuck in a position forever.”

It is hard to name an organization that Barb Truax does not have some connection to in the Lindsay philanthropic community. With over 50 years of volunteer experience, the past Lindsay Citizen of the Year honouree speaks from a position of experience. She believes most service groups are looking for new membership, particularly at a leadership level. There are a healthy number of volunteers, but fewer individuals ready to take over and chair a committee or preside over the club.

Volunteer Canada’s Megan Conway, president and CEO, told CBC News this year that up to 65 per cent of organizations in the country are struggling with a shortage of volunteers. Up to 35 per cent of those groups had to reduce their service level because of this.

So why don’t people join service clubs today? The answer may lie in the success of the 100 Women Who Care, 100 Men and 100 Kids groups. As Sharon Robbins, one of three women who started the Lindsay 100 Women group, explains, the group appealed to her on many levels. “It was participatory, it was for women, it was direct, and it was local.”

It’s a simple model. Quarterly meetings are held where three people speak on behalf of three different charities. After presentations, a vote is held and the winning charity receives the club’s donation for that quarter, which amounts to $100 per voter.

Barb Truax is a serial volunteer. Photo: Geoff Coleman.
Ruth Anne Atkinson-Clements and her husband, Andrew Atkinson-Clements, near their little Fenelon Falls food bank. Photo: Geoff Coleman.

Robbins also values the follow-up that comes in the subsequent meeting when the winning organization explains what was done with the donation.

The other appealing aspect is that the process is quick. Meetings are structured so they are over in an hour. One can donate and be home in about as much time as it takes to get groceries and run a couple errands, assuming you don’t hit all the red lights on Kent Street.

Brad Campkin, an organizer for 100 Men Kawartha Lakes – which is now 153 men – echoed those sentiments. Campkin comes from a self-employment background and feels people are always on the clock now, answering texts and emails after traditional working hours, making time a valuable commodity. “We are all busy now. For every minute given, the family gets one less.”

Barb Truax adds that “in the past, one income was enough to get by, but today, it is much easier in a household with two wage earners. There just isn’t the free time available like there once was. And, what little there is left over is spent with kids.”

There are myriad ways individual citizens contribute to their communities in the time they have available, without joining a formal organization. There are two grassroots food banks operating in Fenelon Falls. One of them is maintained by Ruth Anne Atkinson-Clements and her husband, Andrew Atkinson-Clements.

“We wanted to create a barrier-free food bank for anyone who needed help. No paperwork or proof of need required, just come if you need. Our desire to help others is based on our Christian beliefs that we are here on this earth to support and love others in need,” says Ruth Anne. The food cart has been in operation since 2019 and is open seven days a week, even during the non-snowy months.

Another example is Chris Schweitzer, a former principal at LCVI. He was involved in the Enbridge Ride to Conquer Cancer, committing to raising $2,500 in donations for Princess Margaret Hospital before taking part in a two-day, 225 km bicycle ride from Toronto to Niagara Falls. “The last ride I did raised $17 million and had over 5,000 riders. They put it on your credit card if you don’t come up with it!”

Steve and Susanne Robinson organize a car rally in support of the Make a Wish Foundation. This year, it came through Fenelon Falls and Coboconk and raised $38,000. It has been an annual event for more than 30 years and has raised nearly $1 million. Between creating the route and driving it a few times to make sure there are no bridges closed or new roads not appearing on maps, the couple easily puts two work weeks of time into it each year.

It’s clear people still want to give financially, and they still give willingly of their time, just on their own terms. The question might not be why are service clubs in decline, it may be ‘why do they still exist?’

The answer may be the simple and overlooked fact that money alone doesn’t get things done. Susan Tate points out, “someone still needs to organize, coordinate and show up. The Lions’ tree plantings, toy drives, annual fund-raising car show, or free vision and hearing testing in public schools don’t just happen because money exists for them.”

Fraser confirms this saying, “Our community loves and needs the Kinsmen Annual Christmas Toy Drive, but it is very difficult to run a labour-intensive project like that. It is not something an individual could pull off,” adding, “it is a challenge with our current membership and we would love new members.”

Service clubs are at their best when involved in big projects that require many hands, and coordinated efforts, often involving contractors and various levels of government. The splash pad in Fenelon Falls and the washrooms at Wilson Fields in Lindsay are prime examples of substantial projects completed with the assistance of service clubs – in these cases, the Rotarians.

As important as financial donations are – a recent 100 Men of Kawartha Lakes meeting generated over $20,000 with the help of a contribution from the Lindsay Kinsmen Club – there is still a need for in-person donations of time. As Barb Truax puts it, “someone still has to volunteer to cover the phones while someone goes to collect the donations.”

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