Rotary clubs rally to meet the recession head-on
Rotary clubs in hard-hit towns are rallying to meet the recession head-on
Neighborhoods across Stockton, California, USA, are dotted with for-sale signs and the overgrown, brown lawns of foreclosed properties, which now account for nearly 1 in 10 homes here – the highest rate in the nation. The epicenter of the housing crisis, Stockton was named America’s Most Miserable City by Forbes magazine.
About 2,400 miles to the east, Wilmington, Ohio, is suffering the aftereffects of the market crisis in Stockton and other cities distressed by exotic mortgage schemes. About 6,000 workers in the area have lost their jobs as DHL shuts down its domestic delivery services, and 2,000 more are in peril. ABX Air, Wilmington’s major employer, operated the freight hub here for DHL. The Wilmington Air Park’s closure is “a catastrophic economic event,” says David L. Raizk, mayor of the town of 12,000 people. “One in five businesses could fail if we don’t turn around this joblessness.”
Stockton, home to California’s largest inland port, is a historic city born in the Gold Rush, with nearly 290,000 residents. Local attractions include the renovated waterfront and festivals celebrating jazz pianist Dave Brubeck, wine, and asparagus. Though much smaller, Wilmington has an equal share of civic pride, reflected in the main street’s restored shops and movie theater (featured in the film Lost in Yonkers). Today, families in both towns fear for their futures. Jobs and homes hang in the balance. But Rotarians here, and in similar places across the nation, aren’t giving up.
They’re volunteering at job banks, offering career counseling, and helping to sharpen résumés. They’re filling food pantries and taking shifts at homeless shelters. They’re also keeping clubs strong by helping fellow Rotarians through tough times, whether that means lending a sympathetic ear, paying their club dues, or lowering the cost of membership by trading dinners at pricey restaurants for potlucks.
The Rotary Club of Wilmington is focusing on Rotary’s roots, reinstating a dormant Four-Way Test essay contest. And Rotarians in both Stockton and Wilmington refuse to scrimp as they bolster the civic engagement that has defined their towns, especially the hallmark festivals.
In Stockton, the three-day Asparagus Festival draws more than 100,000 visitors each April. Rotarians from five area clubs serve up the stalks deep-fried, pureed in soup, and sprinkled on ice cream. The Rotary Club of Stockton sells entry tickets while the Rotary Club of Stockton Delta pushes the deep-fried asparagus (more than 12 tons a year), which aficionados douse with vinegar, Tabasco, and Parmesan cheese. The stand earns more than $100,000 for charity every year.
Wilmington’s point of pride is the annual Banana Split Festival, a tribute to the 1950s held by the Rotary clubs of Wilmington and Wilmington A.M. in June. Local lore has it that Ernest Hazard, a restaurant owner, invented the treat in 1907 to entice customers during a winter storm.
DHL’s announcement in 2008 that it was pulling out of the nearby air park cast a pall over the event, but Rotarians persevered, recalls Monica Wehr, the festival secretary and a DHL customer experience manager. “Not a meeting goes by when a prayer isn’t said” about the fate of the air park and its workers, notes Wehr, a member of the Wilmington club whose job is uncertain. “The club has really been a great support system.”
Her sponsor for club membership and counterpart at ABX Air, Beth Huber, sounds like a latter-day Rosie the Riveter, even as she too fears unemployment. “This is not roll over and play dead time,” says Huber, the Wilmington club’s president-elect. “This is roll up your sleeves and get things done time.”
Within a week of the DHL announcement, Huber was meeting with Rotarians to counter rumors and convey information about the job transition center, severance pay, and other issues. “When you have a situation like this, the rumors become uncontrollable because people are scared. We can straighten out the story. There’s nothing in this community that is not colored by what’s going on,” Huber says.
“Rotary plays a very vital role in communication and in the support and safety-net structure for the community,” says Raizk. “It’s not just about government, it’s about how people care about each other. We have a very strong Rotarian tradition, plus we have two clubs. My job’s a very difficult job, but clubs like Rotary make it a lot easier. I can’t imagine a Wilmington without Rotary.”
Rotarians are among those serving on a task force to lure new business to the air park, and they’re stepping up donations to a homeless shelter and a food pantry. They’re also networking and supporting each other. “The companionship of the club and the fact that we’re all in the same boat” is reassuring, says Gary Kersey, president of the Wilmington club. “We’ve also got to realize that we are just an extreme example of what’s going on in every community.
Even before the town received its bad news, Wilmington club member Kerry Steed, the owner of Generations Pizzeria, encountered soaring labor and supply costs. He credits the speakers and connections his club has provided with helping to build his business. “The associations and the ideas that come from being a Rotarian have definitely helped my business,” Steed says. “The people who are part of Rotary are well-experienced businesspeople, and they all make presentations to us that tell you what works and doesn’t – and I listen. That’s the real value of being a Rotarian.”
Kersey adds that members appreciate the stability their clubs offer. “They like that routine – they’ve got enough change in their lives. The caliber of programs is now more important than ever.” He cites one recent talk. “A local flower gardener talked about spring, how to get our yards ready, to prune our bushes, to prepare the soil. That didn’t have a hootin’ thing to do with the economy. That was a relief from all the rotten news. We’re trying to choose programs we feel will be uplifting. We want to offer something to keep people coming, in good times and bad.”
Recently, to boost spirits in town, Steed offered a buy one, get one free deal to local businesses. His biggest customer was ABX Air, on the last day of work for many employees. Demand was so high, he gave away $35,000 in free pizza.
Richard Bracht, president-elect of the Wilmington A.M. club, says standing still is not an option for the club’s 18 members, who help provide purified water in Kenya, among other projects. “We asked our members, should we be involved in international projects when we could use that money [at home]? The response was, we can do both. We have a responsibility to do both.”
Kersey and Bracht are clued in to what’s known as the “helper’s high,” the altruistic impulse that heightens good health, says psychologist and social neuroscience expert John T. Cacioppo. Belonging is a salve, says the University of Chicago professor and coauthor of Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection.
Three ways to fight isolation
There are three main ways to fight isolation, Cacioppo says: face-to-face connections, which Rotary clubs offer; intimate connections, such as those provided by a spouse; and collective connectedness – “After 9/11, for example, we had a common sense of goodwill toward fellow Americans,” he explains. “Rotarians have not only in-person interactions, they have those group interactions as well. This can help overcome isolation in difficult times. It’s collective, being a Rotarian.
“It’s during tough times that small, coherent, cohesive groups matter most,” he says. Rotarians might think they save money by dropping out. “But for the most part, money doesn’t make people happy, but being connected does. It’s a bad trade; you’re getting a lot for your dues.”
Susan Drake, a member of the Stockton club and the incoming governor of District 5220, concurs that participation pays a deep dividend. She recruits new club members by noting the benefits of strong speakers and programs, and instills a sense of pride in Rotary’s humanitarian mission.
The recession has hit “quite a few” of the club’s 200-plus members, says Drake. “They tell us they can’t attend regularly. They’ve had to let their office staff go, and because of that, they cannot leave the office to go to a Rotary meeting. We’re being pretty lenient if somebody needs a little time off to take care of their business. We tell them, ‘We’ll give you a leave of absence, but we’ll encourage you to attend as many meetings as you can.’”
Her husband, Dudley Drake Jr., president of the Stockton Delta club, says his club of 28 members has also been squeezed by the economy. “We’re trying to reduce the cost of being a Rotarian,” he says. “Instead of having a more elaborate holiday dinner, we spent half the cost we normally would so more people could go. You still want to do things, but you rechannel the funds that are available to get a little more bang for your buck.” That strategy has enabled his club to double the amount of holiday turkey meals for the needy and to help fund school uniforms for low-income students.
Mark von Hoetzendorff, past governor of District 5160 in Northern California, sees an upside to the downturn. “We’re getting more creative,” he says. “You’re seeing more club fundraising on a smaller scale to offset the decline in individual contributions, and I’m also seeing Rotary clubs go after corporate contributions at a much higher level than they have in the past. These kinds of things force us to do things differently, and that’s good.”
Alana Bergh, a past governor of District 5010, which covers parts of Canada, Russia, and the United States, observes that several Russian Rotary clubs were chartered during the ruble crisis in the late 1990s. “These were people who woke up the next morning, and the money was gone,” Bergh says. “But they could see the value in Rotary and in being able to help themselves and reach out to the global community.”
Brad Webber is a freelance writer based in Chicago.