HAMILTON - They're about public service, companionship and community. But the very core of social organizations is being tested as membership declines.
MTN News checked in with two Bitterroot service clubs — not only about what they do but what could be lost if numbers continue to dwindle.
Eyeglasses, Christmas trees, scholarships, disaster relief. Longtime service organizations like the Lions Club are often the backbone of communities across America.
But with membership waning, could their mission be fading?
“Kindness matters at home and around the world,” said Hamilton Lions Club president Dixie Dies as she recently led the organization into its bi-monthly meeting.
It’s not the involvement in the community -- or the camaraderie among members that the Lions Club lacks -- it’s the very foundation of their organization that’s missing.
The Hamilton Lions Club – the longest-serving organization in Ravalli County – has had about 80 members for years. “And it was these people that ran the town,” Dies notes.
But somewhere along the way, people got busy and organizations like the Elks, the Rotary Club, and the Lions suffered.
“Today I think we only had about 12. We usually have about 18 or 20,” Dies said about the number of members at a recent meeting.
However, the reality of dying service organizations doesn’t deter the Lions from serving because without their work the community suffers.
“My pitch is, we’re a low energy, high outreaching club because we don't have something every day. We don't have something every week,” Dies explained. “We have a golf tournament and bingo, and clean up the highways. But we can help people see and hear because of that.”
Even with fewer members, the Lions Club still manages to support eye, ear, and diabetes care. “So, is that a big deal? It's just kind of a matter of perspective,” Dies pointed out.
The perspective prompted Christina Voyles to go from a Lions Club guest speaker to a new member, "and they just charmed me. I loved their energy, their enthusiasm, and I've never been part of a group like this."
Her work with Bitterroot Health aligns with the Lions Club’s focus on care, but the real hook in joining Lions is deeply personal.
"I dealt with cancer eight years ago, because I got good care. My father passed away last year from cancer because he didn't get the care that he needed,” Voyles told MTN News. “So, it's a personal passion project of mine to focus on care.
Voyles sees the benefit in maintaining a long-standing. But she’s one of the few -- and the Lions aren't the only club hurting for younger members.
“I don't know where that starts, where young people start volunteering for organizations. And I think it's kind of a lost art,” observed Hamilton Soroptimist President Patti Martin.
Martin says part of the problem is time, “people are so busy, even when they're not working.”
Her group did see new membership this year with the addition of eight more women and while it’s encouraging, the numbers still aren’t what they used to be.
“We're thinking that maybe in the heyday, there were maybe 60 or 65 members, we have 45 right now,” Martin said.
Internationally, Soroptimist of the Americas lost over 1,000 members between January 2021 to January 2022.
Without members to volunteer and raise funds, Soroptimist can’t help victims of domestic abuse, offer scholarships, support Bitterroot Literacy, or any of the dozens of charities they back.
“You're not going to get paid, you don't -- a lot of times get any accolades. You just in your heart you know you're doing the right thing, and you're helping people, even if you don't really see who you're helping. You're still helping people,” Martin told MTN News.
Lions and Soroptimist, Kiwanis and Rotary; these groups may feel like a chapter in our community’s history, but without them, our communities wouldn’t see a future.
“I think there's something really powerful in jumping on a legacy that started long before you were born, and to take that and be part of it and further it,” Voyles concluded.