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Local clubs provide 'social capital' that support communities

Published: Tuesday, June 25, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT
Caption
(Sandy Bressner - sbressner@shawmedia.com)
Stan Inglehart, a member of Kiwanis Club of Geneva and race director for the inaugural Swedish Days soapbox derby, positions a car during a check-in period prior to the race. The Kiwanis’ volunteer support in its community represents important social capital, as defined by Harvard professor Robert Putnum. When people develop social connectedness and work together, it strengthens their communities and improves its quality of life.

When Dan Hoefler served on the Batavia Historic Preservation Commission, he always bought a Corvette raffle ticket from Community Development Director Jerry Swanson for the Batavia Rotary’s fundraiser.

Whenever he sold Hoefler a ticket, Swanson always invited him to a meeting. When Hoefler was getting ready to retire, he took Swanson up on his invitation, ultimately joining the club and serving as president.

“I knew the Rotary was always involved in community events,” Hoefler said. “I knew individuals who were members of the club, and I joined. It was a personal invitation and familiarity with the club.”

Kane County has many civic, social and service clubs contributing to the social capital of the region.

Despite its name, you don’t have to live in Batavia to belong to its Rotary Club. Its membership of 40 includes retired judge Dick Larson of Sugar Grove and Kane County Sheriff Pat Perez, Hoefler said.

Rotary’s historical mission is to eradicate the crippling disease polio. But locally, the Rotary raises money and donates to local causes – LivingWell Cancer Resource Center in Geneva, the Batavia Fireworks Fund, literacy efforts and the Batavia Riverwalk renovation, Hoefler said.

Yet, it serves a greater purpose than that, as part of the community’s “social capital” so named by Harvard professor of public policy Robert Putnam in his 2000 book, “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.”

The title comes from the revelation that although bowling is a popular sport, more people tend to bowl alone rather than in organized leagues. Putnam’s research found that fewer Americans joined organizations or engaged in other social or civic activities. 

Putnam’s follow-up work, “Better Together: Restoring the American Community,” encourages social connectedness because working together strengthens communities.

Hoefler said he had never thought of joining Rotary as building “social capital” – not in those words exactly. But he said he could see the value in Putnam’s conclusions.

“It’s people working together,” Hoefler said. “Almost every individual in Rotary is accomplished in some way, in their field and in their experiences. When you combine goals with other people in their fields, that provides a nucleus to do good for the entire community. That is how I would view that.”

• • •

It’s not always easy to attract members and get people involved in a club. Memberships wax and wane as new members join and existing members leave.

When the economy takes a downturn, some said that is when they most notice membership loss.

“We did an analysis, and we had a drop, we were down 20 to 30 people,” said Lynn Andrae, membership chairwoman of the North Aurora Mothers Club. “We wondered, ‘What are we not doing?’ ”

As it turned out, their analysis showed moms were going to work because their husbands either had lost their jobs or had their work cut back.

But it also was that people were just overcommitting to competing interests, Andrae said.

“Moms and dads were both working ... and also doing things on the side,” Andrae said. “It was not anything we were not doing ... It’s family first and social opportunity second. They had to prioritize. ... I just don’t honestly think people had time for community work.”

With the club’s membership back to about 60 with 10 new members, Andrae said members figured out that people will not join a club and volunteer if they can’t give it their all.

The club had to counter that idea to encourage membership, she said, such as asking members to commit to a couple of activities, not five, and still make a difference in the community.

“People come to a club for social reasons, and they want to make a difference – that’s why I came in – and we try to offer both,” Andrae said. “We offer so many social activities that integrate the whole family, not just moms.”

Among the mothers club’s events are a free community dinner in January to encourage people to meet each other, and an annual gala to raise money to distribute to the community.

The last gala raised $18,000 that was put back into the community through grants to organizations such as Hesed House and local school programs, she said.

The pasta dinner was especially successful, Andrae said, as more than 200 people came out on an icy night for spaghetti and fellowship.

“It’s a great club,” Andrae said. “You don’t have to be a mom to join, and we partner with the Lions Club of North Aurora. ... If you want to help, we can find ways for you to help.”

• • •

What Andrae’s and other clubs do is on the list of 150 activities listed on the Better Together website, www.bettertogether.org, giving ideas on how to improve communities by building social capital.

The website is part of The Saguaro Seminar: Civic Engagement in America, an initiative of Putnam’s at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

One of the most important aspects of a successful club in attracting members is the personal invitation – and sometimes not even to join, but to help out on a project.

The Elburn Lions Club, one of the largest clubs of its kind in the area at just shy of 200 members, attracted its incoming president, Dave Broz of Elburn, in just that way.

“How I got involved was Jeff Miller, a neighbor, asked me to help in setting up one of the fundraising events on a Saturday morning,” Broz said. “Here I’m going down to the park setting up fencing in the rain with Jeff and Joe Kryszak. ... We got soaked to the bone, and we’re cracking jokes. It was the most fun I’ve had in the rain in a long time.”

The Elburn Lions own Lions Park and have been an active force for community service in a small town, beyond its historical mission to prevent blindness, Broz said. But its members are receptive to just about any good idea someone suggests. Broz said that openness and the high visibility for its service projects are factors Broz said contribute to the group’s success.

“We have a lot of talent and people who really care about giving back to the community,” Broz said. “The sheer number of members is not as important as who is in your club. That is our biggest strength. To a fault, everyone is there to help out. And that really never goes out of style.”

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