Kiwanis looks back as club comes to an end

After nearly 70 years of serving the island, Vashon’s Kiwanis club will disband this month because of a lack of members.

For decades, the club — which formed in 1946 — was a thriving social and service organization that provided an array of good deeds for the community. For many years, Kiwanis members have been behind some staple events of island life, offering a free holiday dinner to seniors each December, running the Christmas toy drive and serving the popular pancake breakfasts during the Strawberry Festival. They have provided lesser-known services as well, buying books for Vashon’s school libraries, awarding annual scholarships to graduating seniors and helping fund a variety of service projects others carried out.

Once there were more than 40 members at every meeting, but the group’s numbers have been declining for years, those involved say, and membership has shrunk to just 10 people, making it difficult to fulfill the club’s mission and falling short of the 15 members Kiwanis International requires.

Though sad to see the club come to an end, Jan Lyell, the club’s president, said it is not a surprise.

“The writing has been on the wall for many years,” she said.

In recent weeks, as remaining members have looked to disband the club, they have reached out to other groups to take on some of Kiwanis’ long-running projects.

The Sportsmen’s Club will now run the pancake breakfast, Lyell said. John L. Scott will sponsor the annual toy drive, and Lyell and Joyce Smith, the Kiwanis treasurer, will continue in their longtime roles as the drive’s organizers. So far, no organization has stepped forward to take on the senior dinner, which has provided a free holiday dinner with all the trimmings for many island seniors over the last 35 to 40 years or more.

Club members are grateful to those organizations that are taking on the breakfast and toy drive, but Lyell said she would like to find a home for the senior dinner, as well.

“Those are two things the island can’t afford to lose,” she said, referring to the breakfast and toy drive. “I would love to see the dinner continue too.”

Jean Bosch, a member for six years, coordinates Kiwanis’ Readers are Leaders program, which buys books for the public and private school libraries on Vashon. Now, Bosch said, schools get 10 books a year, and some libraries have received 40 or 50 books from Kiwanis this way.

“It’s a really nice program. I would hate to see it die,” she added.

If someone would sponsor it, she said she would be happy to continue doing the needed legwork for it.

The club’s longest serving member is Jim Scott, who is 94 and joined nearly 40 years ago, when the club met each week at the long-closed Spinnaker restaurant.

“It’s been quite an organization,” he said, looking back over the decades.

Scott, like Lyell and some other members, said he saw no option but closing.  Still, it is a sad ending after so many years.

“Just getting together and the camaraderie of the group, we’re sure going to miss that,” he said.

Jay Becker recalls that the group’s heyday was during the 1960s and ’70s. He joined about 1976, he said, and has been a member ever since.

“It was the most active service club on the island,” he said.

At one time, some of the members felt that a morning meeting would be beneficial on the island, Becker recalled, so some members, including Becker, established the Vashon Rotary. When other members thought a service group that met at noon would be good, they tried to establish a local Lion’s Club, Becker said, but that effort did not take hold.

Dave Parker, 86, a member for the past 25 years, noted that for a long time, the Kiwanis sponsored the Key Club and Builder’s Club, service clubs at Vashon High School and McMurray Middle School. Those group’s disbanded in recent years.

Several of the students took educational trips abroad with Kiwanis’ financial support, Parker said, and members of the high school volleyball team also received assistance from Kiwanis several years ago, when the team traveled to China.

Long a men’s club, Kiwanis International changed its bylaws in 1987 to allow women, a move that Parker recalls.

“It’s worked out pretty well,” he said. “There are some men that dropped out when women joined. They felt it should be a men’s organization.”

Now, he noted, women outnumber the men in the group.

Ray Konrad, a member for more than 10 years who left the club in recent months, also recalls the good work the Kiwanis members did.

“They have a long history on the island,” he said. “They’ve been consistent contributors in many ways.”

In fact, he said, fundraising auctions are common on the island now, but it was Kiwanis that started the trend many years ago, providing thousands of dollars that went back into the community.

Konrad said he had hoped to avoid bringing the club to a close, perhaps by changing how the group is structured to help draw in new members, but that is not the path the group took.

Like many others, he noted that across the country, service groups are struggling.

“I think the idea of these clubs is an outdated notion,” he said. “They have outlived their usefulness. I believe in a matter of time they will disappear.”

Times have changed since businessmen first formed these groups, he noted, and for many, the format of a weekly dinner meeting, a few large service events a year and dues to a large headquarters do not appeal or fit with family life.

Indeed, statistics from both Kiwanis International and Rotary International indicate that Vashon’s Kiwanis story is unfolding in many other places. In 2000, Kiwanis clubs in North America had nearly 229,000 members. Since then, however, the numbers have steadily decreased and stand now at about 151,000. Rotary in the United States, Canada and the Caribbean Islands has also seen a significant decline, dropping about 12 percent between 2003 and 2012, from about 432,000 members to 379,000 members.

A wide variety of factors are contributing to the decline in membership, said Jo Lynn Garing, the public relations manager for Kiwanis International. Many groups have an aging membership, she said; there have been dramatic changes in how people communicate and network, multiple volunteer opportunities exist for people to serve their communities, and corporations rarely purchase such memberships for their employees anymore — something that used to be a common practice.

“All service clubs have seen a decline in membership over the decades,” she said. “Every service organization will tell you the same thing.”

On Vashon, though, the picture is mixed.

The Masons say they are still going strong with 32 members, according to Ken Ellingson, the group’s secretary. However, that number is down considerably from the 1970s, when membership was at its peak of approximately 135.

At Vashon Rotary, treasurer Joyce Olson said that group’s membership has been steady at about 50 in recent years, down from 70 nearly a decade ago.

At the Vashon Eagles, however, business is booming according to Karina Deutsch, the club’s general manager. A service organization and community club with its own clubhouse, the group has 520 members, many of them between 21 and 40.

For Kiwanis, though, the final meeting was expected to be this week. Konrad, who had hoped the group would continue in some form, said he will go to see how he might help with the final work that needs to be done.

“‘It was a good run,” he said.



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