The decline in service club memberships is a phenomenon happening with increasing frequency across rural Canada; and according to several national studies, the impact on small towns can alter the character and way of life in these communities for generations to come.
Port McNeill is currently facing the realities of one of those closures, as the local Lions Club is looking at the possibility of having to shut its doors in the new year. Incoming Lions President Carolyn Stewart says, “It is something we must consider, but by no means are we announcing a closure at this time.”
Stewart explained how over the years, membership has declined and at the moment there are only eight active members. A viable club needs between 18 and 20 people to be able to carry out the many charitable activities it undertakes in any given year.
According to Lioness Christina Hinton, the Port McNeill Lions Club has been in operation for more than 50 years and over that time, Hinton estimates it has helped hundreds of people in the community. Confirming that assessment, Stewart stated, “We do so many things. From a helping hand when there’s been a house fire, to purchasing seeing eye dogs for those who can’t afford to, contributing to the school soup program, buying hospital beds, donating to the grad program, and the annual and all important Christmas Hamper, to name just a few.”
Port McNeill Mayor Gaby Wickstrom knows how valuable the Lions are to the town. “We would lose a lot of things,” she explained. “Their garage sales, bingo, the Christmas Craft Fair, and likely many others I am not even aware of.”
Wickstrom remains hopeful, stating, “What I have noticed is if a closure of an organization or an event is on the table, then people come out of the woodwork.” However, Wickstrom is also aware that more than hope is needed, and she said she would talk with other rural mayors at this month’s meeting of The Union of BC Municipalities (UBCM) and see what other towns have done to reverse these declines.
Service clubs form the backbone of the community and according to Richard Putman, author of Bowling Alone, the downward trend is in part a result of communal institutions like churches, clubs and even schools closing and that is tearing the heart out of small towns.
In a CBC interview, Bruce MacDonald of Imagine Canada points to a Volunteer Canada report called Bridging the Gap, as a possible explanation, stating, “People are still volunteering. But they have less time now, so they want short-term, targeted opportunities.”
Stewart recognizes times are changing and new ideas and new ways of doing things may be part of the Lion’s future. “We’ve been brainstorming and talking to other clubs to see how they’ve solved this problem. To remain viable, we need community input. We need to find out what is really important to Port McNeill and in the process find out what is holding them back when it comes to volunteering. Maybe we need to open up a family membership category. Perhaps the Lions Club and the Lioness Club need to merge. We are exploring every available option, as closing would be devastating to the community.”
The Port McNeill Lions Club has spent over five decades helping others in town and both Stewart and Hinton hope volunteers will step forward to help them out through this difficult time.
– Bill McQuarrie article