The club’s four members, plus a visiting regional officer, sat at one round table in a meeting room at the city’s community center. They were surrounded by empty tables, which were circled by empty chairs.
Over their foam plates of noodles, sauce and garlic bread, the men discussed, not for the first time, whether it was worth it to continue meeting.
“We still haven’t reached a firm decision about what we’re going to do,” said member Bob Ford.
The problem faced by Jacksonville’s Kiwanis Club is being felt by similar civic organizations all over the country. An aging population and the time demands of modern life, remaining members say, are trimming membership rolls from groups that once claimed an outpost in seemingly every American town.
Rotary International has seen its U.S. membership fall to 337,133 this year from 402,774 in 1995, according to national spokeswoman Kimberly Dunbar. The Lions Club saw membership peak in the 1970s at about 500,000. Today that’s fallen to about 300,000, but Dane LaJoye, a national spokesman for the club, said that might be changing.
“We’re still seeing a decline in membership year-to-year, but last year the decline was better,” LaJoye said. “We think we are going to start seeing a turnaround.”
So why the decline? LaJoye said there's more competition than ever for Americans’ free time. And, local residents say, they think that’s part of the reason more people haven’t signed up for local clubs.
“Unfortunately we don’t find the time or feel the need,” to get together said Steve Smith, president of the Jacksonville Kiwanis, referring to his peers. “If you’re not growing then you’re dying.”
The Kiwanis Club is an international organization that works to help children in local communities and has worked to help eliminate iodine deficiencies in third-world countries. The Jacksonville chapter has been around for at least 40 years, helping children and promoting education by reading to schoolchildren and naming educators of the month.
The club has been losing members steadily since 2008, when it counted about 25 members. This year, membership fell from about 10 people to the current five – one member was absent Wednesday.
The remaining members give a variety of reasons their former fellow members stopped coming: they’ve moved away, fallen ill, died or just lost interest. But they have a harder time explaining the difficulty in recruiting new members.
In recent years, the club has met at different times and places in Jacksonville to make it easier for members to attend.
“Nothing has worked for very long” member Jim Wilson said recently.
Chris Craven, a Jacksonville barber in his 40s, works across the street from the Village Inn, a now-closed buffet where the local Exchange Club met for years. Though he says he would like to have become a member of that or another group, work always got in the way of the lunch-time meetings.
“I’m a one-man show so I can’t leave,” Craven said, adding that he would like to have been active in a civic organization. “If my fingers aren’t moving I don’t make any money.”
Several of the civic organizations, including Kiwanis and the Lions Club, are taking steps to recruit younger potential members. There is some indication that it’s working in larger cities in Alabama, and that’s where Kiwanis membership is strongest, said Patricia Manasco, secretary for the Alabama district of the Kiwanis Club.
“I think some of it is the economy, some of it is the age of the members,” Manasco said.
Clubs in rural areas have been hardest hit, she said. In the past two years about five clubs have disbanded in rural Alabama, including in Selma, Winfield and Centerfield, she said.
Instead of hosting traditional business meetings, organizers allow some groups to have online-only business meetings, with members getting together in person to host fundraisers and community outreach events, Manasco said.
“That’s an area we are going after,” said Manasco, referring to adults younger than 45. “We have seen a pretty good rise in our young members.”
In particular the club has seen growth in a young professionals’ club in Birmingham, which meets online and holds a 5K fundraiser, according to Jerry Ware, the Kiwanis’ chief organizer for the division that includes Calhoun County.
Ware, who is new in the regional leadership role, attended the Jacksonville meeting Wednesday. He was there to get acquainted with the group, and he said he didn’t know the club was in dire straights when he arrived.
The members agreed to get together at least one more time Oct. 2.
Ware said he wants to help drum up support.
“I’d like to help you with that effort,” Ware said. “I don’t want to see y’all fold.”
Staff writer Laura Gaddy: 256-235-3544. On Twitter @LJohnson_Star.