Former Civitan building to become community center

Local civic clubs contend with declining membership
Jul. 04, 2013 @ 05:01 AM

As civic groups' membership increases in age and decreases in number, change is bound to happen.

Such was the case earlier this year, when the Sanford Civitans could no longer justify having their own clubhouse, so they sold it to a member of the local Shriners International club, who said he intends to let his group meet there and also rent the building out as a general community center.

"Just doing the upkeep and that type of thing on the building — we didn't want it to be a burden," Civitan President Van Blanton said Tuesday when asked why the group decided to part ways with its building near the Sanford Municipal Golf Course. They now meet at Mrs. Wenger's Restaurant in downtown Sanford.

Blanton described his group as small — composed of about 15 members — and J.C. Perry, a longtime member, said his own recent history reflects the club's declining membership. He's getting older and has needed to take time off in the past several years, but youngsters haven't stepped up to fill his place.

One club, the Jaycees, specifically focuses on getting young people involved. But like many other civic groups, its membership is down. Several area clubs merged into the Sanford Jaycees about a decade ago and renamed themselves the Central Carolina Jaycees, but club President Gina Guerrero said even that hasn't increased participation. Just in the three or four years she has been involved, she said, membership has dwindled; this year, they started with 38 members but were down to 27 by the start of July.

Guerrero, a math teacher at SanLee Middle School, attributed the decline in her group and others to a generational difference, saying people her age — she's 28 — generally aren't as interested in civic groups as their parents or grandparents. Based on what she sees in the classroom and on the teams she coaches, she said, she has very little hope that the trend will reverse itself.

"Some parents push their kids to get involved," Guerrero said. "But if you let (the children) choose, they'll just stay inside and play video games or get on Facebook."

While Guerrero and the Jaycees try to convince the community to get more involved, the man who bought the Civitans' clubhouse said he wants to give community members a new meeting or party space. Ronald Klepper said he felt it was too good of an opportunity to pass up.

The Shriners debated buying it, he said, but funding was an issue. So Klepper, an active Shriner, decided to buy it himself and let that club and others call it home.

In addition to the Shriners, a Weight Watchers group has been meeting there, and Klepper is open to renting the facility out to others. Anyone who's interested, he said, should call him at (919) 777-9956. Klepper also said he would highly encourage anyone who's eligible to join the Shriners, who operate 22 children's hospitals around the world and also engage in local charity work.

The group requires all members to be full-fledged adherents of Freemasonry. Klepper said they do plenty of good work, but their numbers are dwindling: "We're all getting too old; that's the problem."

Some men in their 20s do frequent the Masonic lodge in Broadway, Klepper said. However, he added, that lodge, the lodges in Sanford and Jonesboro and the Sanford Shriners could always use new members.

"We have been bringing in some younger people," he said. "But to me, younger can often mean 40s or 50s."

The Jaycees help such groups recruit young people — Jaycees age out at 41 and are encouraged to get involved with other clubs — and Guerrero said she has tried to offer a mix of activities to attract a wide range of potential members. Even still, she said, they're fighting an uphill battle.

"It's not just here, and not just the state," she said. "Across the country, the number of members are dropping like flies."

That doesn't mean people aren't joining anything, though. Guerrero said professional and networking groups seem to be growing in membership.

"The young professional [groups] — they do other things, don't get me wrong — but it's more focused on advancing yourself and your career," Guerrero said. "... I feel that there's more interest in those organizations than in the civic ones that help out the community. I feel like a lot of people, especially the younger generations, don't really know that you can do community service and still have a great time."

She said another thing that hurts many local groups is their lack of a website, even if it's nothing more than a Facebook page. She personally hates Facebook, she said, but realized it's often the best way to reach people.

"Even though we don't have a lot of members, our Facebook gets looked at a lot," she said, adding that she uses it to both publicize events and recruit members.