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Landlocked lobster

A venue move, the creation of a committee to attract marquee speakers, and the inception of a communitywide lobster festival raised the Rotary Club of Grove's profile. The club also embraced the use of red badges for new members to encourage engagement. Service projects, mixer attendance, and other tasks allow rookies to earn a blue badge.

Every summer, Grove, population 6,700, hosts nearly 100,000 visitors, who are drawn to the Grand Lake o’ the Cherokees for its waterskiing and world-class bass fishing. Like the small town, which boasts a botanical garden and a museum of pioneer life, the Rotary Club of Grove punches above its weight. Its level of volunteerism and its financial contributions to schools and charities have made Rotary the club in Grove.

Photo courtesy Rotary Club of Grove, Oklahoma

Rotary Club of Grove, Oklahoma

Chartered: 1946

Members in 2018: 180

Members in 2008: 80

For many years, the Rotary Club of Grove met at a beloved greasy spoon 6 miles from the city center. Once a week Rotarians “could either have fried chicken or they could have fried chicken. Either-or,” jokes Ivan Devitt, a club past president and Grove’s vice mayor. In 2011, they decided it was time for a change. That move augured a boom time for the club.

“We bounced around three different places before finding the right venue,” a spacious church recreation center where meals are catered by local restaurateurs, says Don Wasson, a club member and past governor of District 6110. Around the same time, a member recommended the club put on a lobster fundraiser. Skeptics insisted that “people aren’t going to pay $60 to come to a lobster dinner,” says Devitt. “But as it turned out, they did” – in droves. 

That first year, more than 300 people showed up – twice as many as expected, says membership chair Jerry Ruzicka. The $35,000 in net proceeds – for a club that had an annual budget of $20,000 – was donated to the local YMCA. “They were in danger of closing,” Ruzicka says. “Now they have 600 regular members, a new building, and they don’t need our financial help anymore.” 

The entire city gets involved in LobsterFest: Numerous volunteers help cook and serve meals. The event allows the club to disburse about $130,000 a year to about 40 charities. And what attendees learn about the club has paid off in new members. 

The club uses the red badge system to identify new members. Even though it’s a small town, people don’t necessarily know one another, says Ruzicka, who implemented the red badge idea about three years ago. “It lets everybody know you’re a special person who needs to be met and invited to join the different things we’re doing in the club.” The extra attention paid to new members “has pretty much locked our back door” to retain them, says Wasson. 

Club members participate in the community in a number of ways, such as volunteering at the botanical garden, the humane society, and an advocacy group for children. Rotarians have also renovated playgrounds, repaired the concrete steps of a women’s shelter, and filled backpacks with food to be handed out to families in need.

The club abandoned a system of having every Rotarian take a turn lining up speakers for meetings. A committee now handles guest programming, and speakers have included well-known university athletics coaches, state governors, and a former U.S. senator – prime catches for a small-town club. “Those kinds of programs make people want to come to your meeting,” Ruzicka says. When executives of local charities address the gatherings, the edict is “no politics, no religion, no requests for money,” he adds. “They know we’re giving back everywhere, so they’re willing to share their story” with a team that keeps its plate full.

— Brad Webber

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