'YOU DON'T KNOW WHAT YOU'VE GOT TILL IT'S GONE'
VERNON - When you visit a loved one in hospice, there’s a good chance the $7,000 bed he or she is lying in was paid for by the Vernon branch of the Royal Canadian Legion. It’s one of the ways annual poppy campaign proceeds are infused back into the community.
But that could come to an end due to a lack of active members, and the Vernon Legion is not alone. Other longstanding and seemingly indestructible service clubs that give just as much to local programs are also struggling to find willing volunteers.
Membership has been declining for years, Legion president Bill Balcaen says, with a core group of volunteers keeping things going as long as they could. Now, he and the other members of the executive board are all resigning as of April 30.
“We’re an aging group,” Balcaen says. “We’re all at an age where we’re just getting tired.”
If no one comes forward to sit on the board — and so far no one has — the Legion will be forced to close its doors, and that would have huge consequences for the community. With roughly 150 members, and less than a dozen who Balcaen actually considers active in the club, the Legion has quietly been fundraising in the neighbourhood of $60,000 to $70,000 a year for local organizations like the North Okanagan Hospice Society and many others.
“There’s definitely going to be a hole left if the Legion is not successful in getting new board members,” executive director for the Hospice Society Ruth Edwards says.
Not only does the Legion help with the cost of those expensive hospice beds, it also supports grief and bereavement programs, Edwards says.
“They really help us offset those costs. Without them, funds would need to be pursued elsewhere, and funds are never easy to get,” Edwards says.
The financial impact that clubs like the Legion have on local organizations — and there are many — is widespread, but perhaps not fully appreciated by the community. These are people who do what they do quietly, in the background, without asking for acknowledgement.
Hospice, for one, is supported by a number of other local clubs too, but that's a shrinking resource. If the Vernon Legion does close, it wouldn’t be the first to go, Edwards says.
“There have been other service clubs that have closed over the years,” she says. “It’s a shame because they are community members who serve their communities in very valuable ways.”
Many longstanding clubs like the Legion, Fraternal Order of Eagles, and Lions are all finding it difficult to recruit people to their organizations, particularly young or even middle-aged people who can carry on the charitable work they’ve been doing for decades.
“Like pretty much every other club, people are aging out,” Evelyn Torrance, a longtime member of the Vernon Eagles says.
She joined 35 years ago and says at that time, there were lots of middle-aged people, whereas now, the average is about 70.
“Now, we’re all getting up there too and there hasn’t been a group that’s followed in behind us,” she says.
The Eagles are fortunate to own their own building, a saving grace, Torrance says. They are still about 300 members strong, but like the Legion, a small, core group of people keeps things running and it's a lot of work.
“We keep trying all sorts of things to attract people. You’ve got to keep at it,” Torrance says.
YOUNGER PEOPLE NOT INTERESTED
The club recently launched its first Facebook page, and is encouraging people to check out its dinners, dances, meat draws and other events.
Another local service club, the Vernon Lions, recently formed a sub-group specifically targeted at attracting young people. President Ken Cain says the Leos are a junior club for members 18 and under, with the idea that they would eventually transition to the Lions Club.
“It’s critical at this point to recruit anybody but in the long term it would be great to get some young people in there,” Cain says. “It seems young people nowadays, their families are working, both parents are working. There’s not the ability now it seems to take on volunteering.”
He says the Lions — which raises money for college bursaries, prescription glasses, guide dogs, and Search and Rescue, to name a few — have dwindled from well over a 100 members to about 50, but he’s optimistic that younger community members will see the club’s value. He’s retiring as president this year, but says a young woman in her mid-30s is replacing him — a hopeful sign.
The value of all these clubs is hard to measure, but there are those who have tried. Twylla Genest, the manager of volunteer services at Nexus B.C., had an interesting idea several years ago.
“We contacted a number of our local non-profits because we know most keep statistics on their volunteer hours,” Genest says. “We took that information to Volunteer Canada and asked them, if you were to pay these volunteers, what would that amount be?”
$30 MILLION — PLUS
The low estimate? Just under $30 million in one year. That was only counting a select group of organizations, and Genest believes the figure could easily be doubled.
“We have this quiet workforce, an often unrecognized and under-appreciated workforce of volunteers that are supporting the community,” Genest says. “It’s this silent, quiet little group, the majority of which are not looking for huge accolades or great recognition. They just want to help.”
The Nexus B.C. volunteer services program is designed to connect volunteers with a variety of local agencies that need helpers. They recruit for volunteers in high schools, colleges and through advertisements, and have more than 250 agencies and events that use the service, Genest says. Although there are many dedicated volunteers, she says they have noticed a shortfall in people wanting to get involved in recent years.
“It’s probably a host of reasons. We’re an aging population and there’s lots of volunteer burnout,” she says. “I also find that the younger generation is just really busy.”
She sees firsthand just how much volunteer groups bring to the community and is saddened to see a club like the Legion facing closure.
“It’s true that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone,” she says.
To contact the Vernon Legion, call 250-545-3295 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the Vernon Eagles, call 250-542-3003.
To contact the Vernon Lions Club, click here.
— This story was updated at 10:13 a.m. March 13 to add contact information for the clubs.
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