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Wichita civic organizations struggling to survive

Published on -6/24/2012, 3:54 PM

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WICHITA, Kan. (AP) -- Some civic groups in the Wichita area are disbanding and the future of others is threatened as their memberships age and fewer young people are interested in them.

One such group was the Hypatia Club of Wichita, which disbanded on May 31 after doing civic works in Wichita since 1886, The Wichita Eagle reported (http://bit.ly/LFgbcB).

"As we got older and did less, people weren't interested in joining us," said Josephine Brown, the last president of the Hypatia Club, which had 15 members when it disbanded, including two who live out of state and four who live in care homes.

The same problems have the Haysville Lions Club debating its future.

Phil Journey, a member since 1983, estimates the average age of members is over 65 and it's sometimes difficult to get the 12 remaining members to attend events. Younger people don't have the time and have economic concerns that stop them from joining, he said.

"As the age difference becomes greater, it becomes harder for people to make the connection," said Journey, a Sedgwick County District Court judge. "It's hard to relate."

Nancy McArthur Snyder, director of the Hugo Wall School of Urban and Public Affairs at Wichita State University, said younger people find their community groups online and through newer social outlets, she said.

"They've just grown up differently," she said. "There's more choices available to people."

The loss of civic organizations means the group's contributions to the community also disappear.

"It's more than just a bunch of old guys getting together," Journey said. "It's about doing something for your community."

Not all civic organizations are in trouble.

Rotary Club of West Wichita President Jody Besthorn said the club has 65 members and a stable and younger membership. Interact, the student version of Rotary, helps introduce the group to young people.

The Downtown Wichita Rotary club also sponsors Rotaract, a club for young professionals, ages 18 to 30. Downtown Rotary president Sheryl Wohlford said that helps attract and keep younger members.

"Service organizations have to find a way to keep their members engaged and wanting to do the service projects," Wohlford said. "People's time is valuable. They have to see a connection with the service project."

Derby's Rebekahs also is successfully recruiting younger members. The club will initiate five people in July, said JaNell Clark, secretary and past president of the Rebekah Assembly of Kansas.

Still, Kansas lodges of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows and the Rebekahs - a branch of the Odd Fellows - have seen an 8 to 12 percent decline in membership during the past 15 years, and the average age of members is between 65 and 70 years old.

In Wichita, the Downtown Lions Club is doing well, with 75 members, of which 35 to 45 members regularly attend meetings. Still, former president Tim Holmes estimates the club's average age is over 65.

While Holmes doesn't think the Downtown Lions Club will disband anytime soon, he acknowledges it could happen.

"Last year we lost four members to old age," Holmes said. "When you have maybe two-thirds of your membership over 70 years old, disbanding is possible one day."

The disbanding of some groups is part of the evolution of civic organizations.

"You reach a point where you have to say, 'We've done good, and it's time for something else to replace us,"' Besthorn said. "There will be things to fill that void, but they will be different."

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Information from: The Wichita Eagle, http://www.kansas.com

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