Some Rotary, Kiwanis clubs in Western Pennsylvania struggle to avoid collapse
John Ventre landed a one-year reprieve — another chance for the New Stanton-Youngwood Rotary Club to recruit more members and continue helping a local food bank, fire department and elementary school.
The chapter has struggled to maintain at least eight members, the minimum number allowed by the Rotary district covering Westmoreland County, and managed to stave off being dissolved last month when Ventre, the chapter president, got both Youngwood Borough and Westmoreland County Community College to consider sending representatives to the group.
But the college is still on the fence, and two other members are on the verge of leaving. So Ventre is back to trying to drum up more members.
“We haven't been able to get the businesses involved lately,” he said. “The owners of small businesses in the area can't break off to come to meetings because they're busy running their shops. ... Larger businesses don't want to fund clubs. They don't want to pay for membership in clubs.”
“We haven't made a formal determination,” WCCC President Tuesday Stanley said when asked whether the college would provide a member. “We're leaning toward ‘no.'”
If the local chapter closes, it would be a small part of a nationwide contraction of service clubs such as the Rotary and Kiwanis, whose aging members aren't being replaced by younger people.
Stanley said WCCC has limited resources to pay for memberships in community organizations and must carefully evaluate whether each membership would fit with the college's mission. As of late March, the college or its representatives were part of 44 professional organizations, boards and chambers. WCCC had representatives in the Burrell Area, Greensburg, Latrobe and Norwin Rotary clubs.
The Rotary district representing Westmoreland and six other counties is on the verge of being merged with a neighboring district unless it can attract more members, Rotary officials told the Tribune-Review in February . District 7330 President Pam Moore said the organization was having difficulties because many towns where clubs were based were declining in population.
In New Stanton, Ventre said he was most concerned with what would happen if the club could no longer support its remaining charitable causes: Christmas presents for needy kids at Stanwood Elementary, dictionaries for the school, grants for fire equipment at the Youngwood Volunteer Fire Department and fresh-food distribution at the fire department with the Westmoreland County Food Bank.
“It's really the kids that I'm most concerned about,” he said. Even if the group were to shut down, he would put some of its remaining funds aside to buy presents one last time.
Wednesday at the Youngwood fire department, the Rotary sponsored an “Operation Fresh Express” distribution through the food bank, paying the transportation and salary costs so the food bank and about 20 volunteers could distribute pallets of frozen food, dairy products, produce and baked goods.
Randee Eberhardt, the food bank's finance director, said volunteer organizations, businesses and churches sponsor Fresh Express distributions 46 to 48 weeks out of the year around the county. Without organizations like the Rotary, there would be far fewer, she said. The New Stanton-Youngwood chapter formerly sponsored two a year but cut back as membership declined.
“Rotary clubs are some of our biggest donors,” said food bank development director Jennifer Miller. “They're a vital part of what we do.”
C.R. McCauley, a member of the local chapter and the fire department, said the Rotary had paid for the firefighters' turnout gear and other equipment over the years.
If the chapter were to fold, “that would be one less asset we have to complete our mission,” said McCauley, a Rotary member for 23 years.
Through a partnership with the Hempfield Area School District, the Greensburg Rotary Club buys dictionaries for third-graders at every elementary school except Stanwood, said Superintendent Barbara Marin. She did not know whether the Greensburg club could take over at Stanwood if the other chapter closed.
In Kittanning, the Kiwanis Club is struggling to keep enough members to stay active, said chapter president Dorothy Sipe. There are about 10 members paying annual dues of $100, but only two to four people show up to meetings. The group still supports activities, including book giveaways and the local Key Club, a Kiwanis-run service organization for high school students.
“We're not able to provide really good service to our program if we only have two or three people,” said Sipe, 78, of Manor Township. “Because we have the Key Club, we really don't want to shut down. If they don't have somebody to sponsor them, they might have to shut down too.”
“We adopt a highway for cleanup twice a year,” said James Stitt, past president and longtime member of the Greensburg Kiwanis Club, which has struggled to keep about 30 members compared to the 90 when he first joined in 1967. “If you have 15 to 20 people show up, you can have your section cleaned up in a couple of hours. If only half a dozen show up, it takes twice as long.”
Tracy Soska, an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh's school of social work, said the role of fraternal and service organizations has partially been absorbed by social media, where users can meet, socialize and organize with like-minded people.
“Where people belong to stuff, they belong to stuff online. ... Groups as a whole really have been falling off. People ‘bowl alone' instead of joining a league,” said Soska, referring to sociologist Robert Putnam's 2000 book on the decline of social connections.
Soska said the decline in “social capital” — the total value of who a person knows and what their shared values inspire them to do — has manifested itself in different ways, including the erosion of trust between police and communities, declining voter participation and fewer community service projects.
“Our communities have always needed those (connections). We're really losing out on those kind of people,” he said. “Nothing gets done without small cadres of people who get together and organize.”
Matthew Santoni is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-836-6660 or firstname.lastname@example.org.