Clubs that welcome kids can boost membership and service
Kim Lisagor with her husband, Scott Bisheff, and their son, Wes. Photo courtesy of Kim Lisagor
Two days after my son, Wes, was born, my husband delivered celebratory cigars to the stogie-loving ladies and gentlemen at our Rotary club’s Tuesday morning meeting. The gesture was genuine, but I secretly hoped it would also help cushion the impact of our next surprise: Our noisy, spit-up-spewing newborn was about to become a Rotary regular.
Our club had not yet broken the baby barrier. We’re a young and jovial group, but I had trouble envisioning an infant blending in at our weekly breakfasts. After a three-month leave, I stuffed a diaper bag with pacifiers, blankets, diapers, wipes, onesies, and enough spit-up rags to mop up the entire restaurant. Scott and I loaded up the car and hoped for the best.
It didn’t take long to realize that my concerns were unfounded; the welcome from the members of our club – the Rotary Club of San Luis Obispo Daybreak, California, USA – couldn’t have been warmer. Soon enough, Wes had a better attendance record than many of the grown-ups. The wait staff started setting out a high chair for us in advance – near an exit, in case we needed to make a speedy departure. Fellow Rotarians joked that Wes was the founding member of a brand-new club they called “Romperact.”
Clubs are not always so accommodating. In an online forum in 2009, Genevieve Flight, now a member of the Rotary Club of London, reported that at her previous club, she was reprimanded after she brought her three-year-old to a meeting. A club officer warned her never to bring her son again. In the same post, she suggested that Rotary International do more to encourage clubs to welcome Rotarians with children. “This is the best way forward towards getting more younger members into Rotary,” she wrote.
Rotarians often fret about the absence of 30-somethings in their clubs. Interact and Rotaract clubs attract teens and young adults, but most don’t become Rotarians. Worldwide, only 11 percent of Rotary club members are under age 40.
Some clubs have attempted to bridge the gap with less-frequent meetings or lower dues. Many others have worked to make Rotary more appealing to tot-toting families like mine. Those family-friendly clubs have reported success in gaining new members and keeping those they might otherwise have lost.
Here are some tips from parents and clubs who are making Rotary a family affair:
Just bring ’em
“You’re bringing them everywhere else. Why aren’t you bringing them here?” says Christine Byrne, past president of the Rotary Club of Casco Bay-Sunrise (Portland Area), Maine. Though she acknowledges that some clubs are more child friendly than others, Byrne says people with kids in tow will feel less self-conscious if they remember that they’re not the only parents in the room. Byrne’s son Jack, 7, has long been a visitor to club meetings. He puts on a name tag and even contributes “happy dollars” when he has something to share. “Kids get it, and they do listen,” Byrne says.
The Rotary Club of Fremont (Seattle), Wash., hired a sitter to help at its evening meetings at Hale’s Ales. Parents and grandparents pay $5 per child, and the half-dozen or so kids have a room of their own. At the start of each meeting, the children lead the Pledge of Allegiance. At the end, they ring the bell. In between, they retreat to watch movies, color, and eat dinner; they also may choose to eat with the adults. Once a month, the kids help make sandwiches for a local homeless shelter. “It’s a meeting for them too,” says club member Shoshanna Osterfeld, whose children are four and six. “They get together. They talk about their week. It’s a wonderful experience.”
Most members of the club are in their 20s, 30s, and 40s. In the club’s early years, younger members would often get married, have children, start missing meetings, and eventually drop out, says cofounder Suzie Burke. The club worked to become more family friendly, she says, because “we saw it as, ‘Either we do this, or we aren’t going to have that dynamic group of people.’”
Another key to the club’s success is child-oriented projects. Several times a year, the Rotarians and their families take a walk along a local bike path, picking up trash as they go. Last year, they installed swings for children with special needs at area playgrounds. In July, they held a “Gymathon” event, raising money for a Seattle school through sponsored workouts.
Take a little vacation
District 7600 (Virginia) hopes to attract Rotary families to its October conference by holding it at a ski resort. “This is going to be the first time we’re having a conference that’s really promoting bringing children and grandchildren,” says Past District Governor Bill Pollard, who has an 11-year-old daughter. “We’re getting younger people involved in more leadership positions, and they don’t want to leave their families all the time for Rotary.”
Take a big vacation
Though they’re not child-specific, RI conventions are open to guests of all ages. The main draws for kids include collecting pins, visiting the House of Friendship, and exploring the host city.
Marycris Oplas, of the Rotary Club of Makati Urdaneta, Philippines, brought her children to the Salt Lake City convention in 2007, when they were seven and nine . She and her husband, Donnies Alas, of the Rotary Club of Makati North, felt as if they were the only family with small children in tow. Even so, she says, “it was a good experience for the kids.” Now 12 and 14, they have come to expect that their family vacations will coincide with Rotary conventions. They’re already looking forward to Lisbon, Portugal.
Eleven-year-old Samantha Pierce has logged five international conventions. Her mom, Candy Pierce, of the Rotary Club of Cordelia, Calif., pulled her out of school to go to the 2011 convention in New Orleans, but gave her an assignment: Meet someone and learn about that person’s country. Samantha spent three days interviewing and photographing some new friends at the Safe Blood Africa booth. “She had the time of her life,” Pierce says, and Samantha returned to school with a detailed report on Nigeria.
Take the long view
Samantha started going to club meetings as an infant. As she got older, she started helping out at fundraisers, and she attended many Rotary events when her mother was governor of District 5160. It wasn’t always an easy balance, but to Pierce, the benefits are clear. “She has no qualms about walking up to an adult and having a conversation with them, and I think it’s mostly because of Rotary,” she says.
In the past four years, I’ve watched as my son has started to see himself as a Rotarian. At some point, he learned to stand for the invocation, put his hand over his heart for the pledge, color quietly during the program, and help out where he can. Our meetings have become an important part of his weekly rhythm, and I wouldn’t be surprised if his Rotary identity stayed with him for life.