Local service clubs forced to scale back efforts

Economy, dip in membership take their toll

By Tyler Graf, Columbian county government reporter

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RIDGEFIELD — In a storage room at the Clark County Fairgrounds, George Espinosa surveys the haphazardly jumbled collection of household sundries, then grumbles: "Meager, meager, meager."

The six-year member of the Ridgefield Lions Club sifts through the donations for the club's "super sale" and sees little to pique his interest. It's been a tough year for donations.

Among the unsorted bric-a-brac are two plastic Christmas trees, a few tables, and a pair of firefighter boots. Espinosa points to the boots and says, "We'd have better luck standing on a street corner with one of these," in reference to the popular "Fill the Boot" fundraiser fire departments hold annually.

After a successful 37-year run, the club's "super auction" has come to an unceremonious end this year, the victim, Espinosa theorizes, of an unrepentant economic funk. Because donations have been subpar over the past couple of years, the Lions Club will replace the auction with a sale of donated goods. The sale will be held at the Ridgefield Community Center in April.

But gone will be the auctioneer, with his fleet-of-tongue chant, or the top-notch swag. In recent years, the auction sold everything from tractors to high-quality tools to boats. One year, there were three cars up for auction, including a Jaguar.

But last year, that changed. Donations were more akin to what you'd find at a garage sale than an auction, Espinosa said. So the auction has turned into a garage sale.

"It's become continuously more difficult in the past few years," Espinosa said. "As the economic conditions in the community recede, people have to hold on to more and more, I guess."

Net proceeds from the 2012 auction were a third of what they were in 2011, dropping from $12,000 to $8,000, he said.

The auction took hundreds of man hours to put together, said Steve Seymour, a 30-year member of the Ridgefield Lions Club. Eventually, all the time proved fruitless. As a fundraiser for the club's various charities -- such as food banks, youth exchange programs and the Boy Scouts -- the return on the club's investment was below what organizers wanted.

"It was something that took more hours than we were getting from it," Seymour said. "It was a crapshoot."

The Lions Club is not alone among social clubs looking to regain some of their lost relevancy. The clubs' struggles to combat budget shortfalls, aging membership and general apathy are reflected in their cutbacks.

Espinosa is also the administrator of the Dollars Corner Moose Lodge, and he's seen membership in the club decline.

He's heard the same thing from other administrators. At a recent meeting of Moose Lodge administrators from Washington, Oregon and Idaho, the lamentation was the same: Too few new members; too little in the way of donations.

The Moose Lodge has gone so far as temporarily eliminating initiation fees. That will end at the end of the month.

At the American Legion Salmon Creek Post, paid memberships have dropped from around 600 to 320 in the past eight years.

The American Legion is the country's largest wartime veterans organization, with more than 2.4 million members nationwide. But at the American Legion's Salmon Creek Post, a disproportionate percentage of its members are old-timers. New blood is hard to stir up.

Phil Yasson, a member of the post, said the American Legion has had to contend with the unfortunate: Aging members dying, and no one to fill their spots. Among potential newer members, younger vets who served in Afghanistan or Iraq, there's a lack of interest.

"Sometimes people will sign up to join," he said, "but they never show up."

That's why outreach is essential, Yasson said. Because social clubs are typically made up of older people, it's essential for them to bolster outreach to grab interest among younger people.

What that means isn't exactly clear, but the Salmon Creek American Legion Post will take the tactic to heart and will hold a spaghetti feed on April 27 specifically as a way to drum up new interest.

But despite the drop in membership, the American Legion is still making money and serving its members, Yasson said, providing resources to wartime veterans. Bingo nights, he said, remain a big draw.

For Espinosa and the Lions Club, outreach can be measured in dollars and cents. If donations pick up in the future -- along with new membership, so there are more people to pick up donated items -- the super auction may return.

And if it does, there likely won't be anymore Jaguars for sale, but there probably won't be any plastic Christmas trees, either.

Tyler Graf: 360-735-4517; http://www.twitter.com/col_smallcities;tyler.graf@columbian.com