At your service

Published 1:37 pm Saturday, October 17, 2009

Giving back and pitching in are part of small-town living — whether it’s for a church fundraising dinner, a youth sports team or the community food shelf, people who go the extra mile get things done when little money or resources are available.

But generating cash for an organization isn’t always the motive for volunteerism. The interaction with parents, friends, neighbors or co-workers builds networks and a connectiveness that encourages people to lay down roots in a town, stay awhile, raise children there.

Civic engagement, many believe, has been on a downhill slide for years. Americans have become more and more busy with work and their children’s activities. The Internet and other technologies have replaced dinner with friends; the neighborhood block party is all but gone. Even asking the neighbor next door for a cup of sugar seems abnormal.

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However, a hurting economy can change things. During recessions, the unemployed often seek new paths in life, such as returning to school or joining a service organization to pass the time and make a difference.

President Barack Obama, who has called on Americans to perform more community service, is joining former President George H.W. Bush in urging citizens to volunteer.

Bush on Friday was to host a forum on volunteering at Texas A&M University, to be attended by Obama, who initiated a “United We Serve” call to service in June that culminated in a national day of service on the eighth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Associated Press said.

“Better Together: Civic Engagement in America” and “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community,” by best-selling author Robert Putnam, document how Americans have become increasingly disconnected from their friends, neighbors and communities, and how the U.S. can civically reinvent itself again. According to Putnam, social trends in the past 25 years include a 58 percent drop in club meeting attendance; 43 percent decrease in family dinners; and a 35 percent decrease in having friends over.

According to the Corporation for National and Community Service, the Minneapolis-St. Paul area has the highest number of volunteers in the country — 38.4 percent of residents volunteer. Between 2006 and 2008, Minnesota was ranked third of the 50 states and Washington, D.C. in the number of residents who volunteer, with 1.6 million volunteers. The top activity was fundraising, followed by collection and distribution of food, general labor and tutoring and teaching.

In Austin, there is no shortage of civic opportunities, with a niche for every interest, from the environment (Izaak Walton League) to animal rescue and adoption (Mower County Humane Society) to the public library (Friends of the Library).

The continuing challenge is seeking fresh membership to replace a previous generation who is retiring or aging out of active volunteering.

Members recruited

by reputation

Lions Club International is the largest service organization in the world, with two clubs in Austin. It’s signature projects are parade go-carts, the Lions Eye Bank Program and in Austin, Pancake Day.

“Our membership has been stable,” said Jerry Wolesky, Noon Lions secretary. “We actually have drifted upward the past few years, not a lot. It is tougher to get younger members.

“Realistically, younger people have more family concerns,” he said.

The club has about 74 members; approximately 15 are female. Lions Club International began allowing women into their ranks many years ago. Austin also has a Morning Lions Club.

Lions activities locally include Pancake Day, Austin High School Packers football concession stand, sale of Lions Club Mints, pancake grill rentals, White Cane Day and participation in the Austin Go-Cart Unit. The major recipients of Lions’ fundraising efforts are the Lions Eye Bank Program at the University of Minnesota, Camp Winnebago and the Lions Club International Foundation.

The late George Dugan, a Lions Club member from Austin, devised a plan for continued financial support for the Minnesota Lions Eye Bank, now one of the organization’s major projects.

“There’s more Lions Club members than any other service organization (in the world),” Wolesky said. “We help people who need it.”

Another deeply-rooted organization in Austin is the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, which has a club and lodge downtown. Membership is at about 600, although it has been at more than 1,000 in the past. According to the Elks’ charter, the group was founded 111 years ago in Austin.

Exalted Ruler Sherri Erickson said the Elks focuses primarily on youth and veterans, like providing scholarships and sponsoring sports teams. The Elks Club hosts regular burger nights, for instance, as fundraisers.

“Unfortunately, all the service organizations are struggling,” Erickson said, “but we are hopeful. People need to give back in the community.”

She said the Elks recruits new members mostly by word-of-mouth. The minimum age for Elks members is 21, but they do not “age out.”

“We’re always looking for members,” Erickson said. “Without that, there’s always a need for continuing those programs.

“I got involved to give back, because of all the things the Elks did for my children,” she said.

New club caters to young


Angie Kasel, 24, an accountant at Hormel Foods, is president of Rotaract.

“We (were) unofficially founded about two years ago,” Kasel said.

The club was chartered in September 2008 and has about 25 members, mostly professionals in the 20-30 demographic.

They meet officially once per month, but also have social outings, like barbecues or a trip to a baseball game, “just to hang out.” The yearly membership fee is affordable, at $40.

Most of its members are single with no children, Kasel said. They volunteer twice a month at the Salvation Army; and have helped with Meals Against Hunger, the Mower County Relay for Life; and are trick-or-treating on Halloween for Shelterbox, a charity that provides aid for disaster victims. They are purchasing one box that will help a family of six live for 10 months after a disaster with essential needs.

“We focus on local and international service,” said Kasel, who grew up in Rose Creek and returned to Austin after college to work at Hormel.

“Most people I would say are new to the city,” she said of the Rotaract members. “They are getting involved in the community … doing something outside of work. I would say a lot of people are involved because of the service aspect.

“The young people at Hormel have half the battle fought because there are other young people at Hormel,” Kasel said. “That’s the first thing I always hear is, ‘How do you even go about meeting people?’ You have to make your own fun a little bit.”

Rotaract works to publicize their organization through the Chamber of Commerce and Rotary, their “parent” organization and sponsor. They have hung posters in businesses and put information in new teacher packets.

“Otherwise,” Kasel said, “I would say our biggest tool is word-of-mouth.

“People our age … it seems they are actually interested in being active and going out and doing things,” Kasel explained. “Instead of sitting around at meetings, we like to plan things and actually go out and do them.”

Previous generation leaves void

The Austin Jaycees, or Junior Chamber of Commerce, is one of the oldest organizations in the city, and is the oldest chapter in Minnesota. Their membership age has expanded to 18-41 over the years.

“Our current members are very active in asking their friends and families to come to events to see what the Jaycees are about,” said Danielle Nesvold, chairwoman of the board and regional director. “The Austin Jaycees organization does bring value to the community and provide a great service.”

The Jaycees are most-known for projects like their Sandbox Fill and beer-pouring at community events, but have expanded their service to activities like painting pumpkins with youth at nursing homes and hosting Take a Kid Fishing in the summer.

“We get to experience how being part of the community and giving back is really rewarding,” Nesvold said. “People that are new to Austin, we usually seek them out in a casual way and invite them to a meeting. Sometimes people who come from Jaycees in other towns will actively seek us out.”

Austin’s membership is now about 45.

“We’ve recently had members leaving because the age of 40 is the maximum age we can keep them,” Nesvold said.

“Members over the age of 40, we can keep them as alumni. We’ve had a lot of our members turn 41.”

She points out that the Minnesota Jaycees — one of the top Jaycees states in the nation — has actually grown for the first time in a decade. Austin’s region in southeast Minnesota was ranked No. 3 in community involvement this year.

“I have gotten to know so many people,” Nesvold said of joining the Jaycees. “I know it’s cliche — networking, networking, networking — but it’s very true. Just because of being kind of thrown into community service projects … you’ve gotten polished, and built so many great bonds.

“Even with the recession … joining an organization that costs $70 a year as not deterred people,” Nesvold said. “This is the greatest time in our day for people to step up and join a community organization.”