Service clubs in Southwestern Ontario are adapting to new ways to fundraise and support their communities nine months into the pandemic.
From Lions to Kinsmen to Optimists, community groups are working to meet increased demand amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the challenges associated with safely putting on events and fundraisers.
Recently, the Port Stanley Lions Club rallied to purchase microphones and amplifiers for teachers at Kettle Creek elementary school, an unexpected donation that wouldn’t be needed in an average year.
“As a local service club, these are the types of things we like to do,” said Dave Marr, the Port Stanley Lions Club president.
Principal Esther Wendel-Caraher said the 18 amplifiers have been a “lifesaver” for teachers who were straining their voices to project through a mask and face shield, and still be heard at the back of a classroom.
“The Lions, bless their souls, they’ve been so supportive,” she said. “We’re a lot more audible now. It’s a game-changer.”
Marr said the pandemic has “brought other things to the forefront.”
Beyond increasing their annual donation to the local food bank this holiday, the Lions will be installing a light display along Kettle Creek to boost local spirits.
“We’re lucky. It’s a small village. It’s a normal thing, when people are in need, you lend a hand,” Marr said.
Tim Natyshak, co-governor of Kin Canada’s Southwestern Ontario district, said the 87 Kinsmen, Kinette and Kin clubs in his region have shifted their focus because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“The impact has been fairly substantial on our clubs,” he said. “We’ve taken this to kind of reset and … concentrating not on raising funds but on giving back to the community.”
This holiday, his clubs are planning things like drive-by parades, takeout dinners and contactless food drives. “We’ve been really good at adapting,” Natyshak said.
For Optimist Clubs in the region, the pandemic has brought an opportunity to develop novel ways to meet and fundraise on digital platforms.
“We’re Optimists. We are creative and we rise to the challenge,” said Ruth Quenneville, past governor for the Southwestern Ontario Optimists. “It’s amazing what has come out of this.”
Similar to other organizations, most Optimist clubs still are planning drive-by food collections or parades for the holidays.
The switch to online webinars and digital raffles and auctions also has helped boost Optimists’ online presence, which Quenneville said will be beneficial in the long-term in increasing the clubs’ reach.
“If it wasn’t for social media, I think we’d be dead in the water,” she said.
Many clubs in Quenneville’s region have partnered with Jackpot City in St. Thomas, a gaming centre still offering drive-in bingo, which distributes a percentage of revenue to 85 charities each month. The amount they’re receiving has increased during the past months.
But it hasn’t been all positive. Since the pandemic hit, Quenneville said membership in her region dropped from about 2,200 to 1,900. “That’s pretty devastating over a district.”
Tracy Huxley, international vice-president for the Optimist’s North-East and Great Lakes Region, which includes parts of the U.S., views the ingenuity forced by the pandemic as a positive and an opportunity to attract new members.
“Our hands were forced to make these changes, but let’s keep them because they are for the good,” she said. “Those clubs that were willing to change the way they operate, look at their comfy slippers and realize, that works but we could do something that works better, they flew when the pandemic hit.”
Huxley said the switch to digital has allowed local clubs to better connect with their international counterparts, often inspiring them to look at initiatives that support those in other countries.
Although Optimist Club membership has been on the decline since the mid-90s, Huxley said it would be wrong to dismiss today’s younger generation as disinterested in volunteerism.
“They are looking for ways to be involved in their community, but what they’re looking for is a different model than we did in the 50s, 60s and 70s,” she said, adding younger people can bring different skills and perspectives to the table.
Despite the pandemic causing a spike in those needing a helping hand, Huxley said service clubs and communities have risen to the challenge.
“There are the people who are struggling and there are people who want to help,” she said. “Optimists are really finding their place and are really needed now more than before. We’ve kind of been doing it in the shadows, and this is our time to shine.”
Max Martin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, London Free Press