Prince George service clubs once had hundreds of members each and their combined efforts transformed the city.
Now many of those clubs are on life support, down to only a handful of members and wondering what they have to do to bring back members.
The Elks, the Eagles, the Lions, the Kinsmen, they're all endangered species, and it appears there's no easy fix to make their populations healthy again.
"Service clubs are dying, let's face it," said Pete Peters, a 50-year member of the Prince George Elks. "In the last 30 years, we've lost two-thirds of our membership across Canada and that's true of all service clubs. The only ones that probably will survive after about another 20 years are the ones connected with a religion, like the Knights of Columbus and the Masons, and the Rotary, which is a business club."
Peters believes it's an issue of age, changing values and location.
"We're still active but our membership is aging, the younger generation is not really interested," he said. "In a smaller community a service club is always part of the social structure and in a larger city you're not, unless you're like our Calgary club, which has a golf course."
As recently as 15 years ago, the three Prince George Lions clubs each had about 60 members. Now the three clubs combined have 34 members and the three are in the process of amalgamating.
"All the service clubs are in the same boat and If we don't start getting members, they're going to disappear," said Somerled (Mac) MacDonald, 83, past-president of the Prince George Central Lions Club of Prince George, which is down to just seven members.
"When I came up here [n the 1960s] you basically had two forms of entertainment, one was to belong to a service club, the other was to go down to the beer parlour on a Saturday night. There wasn't anything else, now they have a lot of other things to do."
The Lions used to be second only to the Rotary clubs in total membership in the city. MacDonald remembers the fun he had working the food booths from early morning to midnight every day at the Prince George Exhibition, but the Lions are now too few in number to make that possible. It's a far cry from the days when there was a wait list to get into the club.
MacDonald isn't buying the excuses he hears to not join a service club.
"People say, 'I'm busy.' Well we were busy too," he said. "All of us worked, and if you had your own business you worked long hours, so we were as busy then as people are today, except they're in things for themselves today. All the clubs are having a problem with a lack of numbers and getting younger people in."
The Lions still provide hearing aids, eyeglasses, wheelchairs, hospital medical equipment and travel expenses for people in need of out-of-town medical attention,and they fund cadet groups and offer scholarships each year for high school students.
Small towns seem to fair better at attracting members. The Quesnel Lions Club is actually in a growth phase, with more than 40 members, and MacDonald says his group plans to put branch clubs in Mackenzie, McBride, Fort St. James and Vanderhoof, which will remain part of the Prince George club.
The three Rotary Clubs of Prince George -- Nechako, Yellowhead and Downtown -- are more business oriented and have traditionally been more successful in attracting people. But there's been a noticeable graying of the ranks in recent years. Nechako has 46 members (down from 97 members at its high), Yellowhead has 61 and the Downtown club has 57 members. The entire 5040 district, which covers the western half of B.C., is down to 1,560 members from about 2,100 in 2006.
"I think all service clubs are hurting at the moment," said Nechako Rotary member Ron Neukomm, past-governor of District 5040.
"There's a lot of distractions for people, they're too busy sitting on their computers at home. Rotary gets a lot of requests for funding for things and raising money is getting harder too. At one time there was fairly good money available from gaming and that has all but disappeared. But the fact we still have three clubs here shows there is still a core of people making a difference in their community."
Rotary has long focused on building facilities that encourage people to be active, including developing the Rotary skateboard park, Citizen Field baseball diamond, and the Cottonwood Island Park bridge. The huge expanse of Rotary Soccer Field and its construction in the early '90s stands as Rotary's most prominent city development.
"The soccer fields were really a home run," said Neukomm. "Every time I walk or drive by there it's so nice to see the young people out there using that facility. It certainly is an icon for our city. It's a good feeling to see something like that getting used so well."
Young people are the lifeblood of Rotary International's high school-based Interact (for 12-18-year-olds) and Rotaract (for 18-30-year-olds), which focus on career planning while utilizing Rotary's ties to the local business community. Interact is available at College Heights secondary school and in Quesnel and Burns Lake. The Rotary Youth Leadership Awards leadership training program for 14 to 30-year-olds offers workshops, camps and seminars sponsored by Rotary and has been attracting record numbers lately in northern B.C.
"It really fits for the kids to pick their own agendas so that helps them get the value out of it," said Lorne Calder, Rotary's assistant district governor .
"They do two projects [in Interact] a year, one community-based and one internationally-based and that gives the kids that volunteerism built in to them and it helps them get into university."
Calder said the local Rotary clubs are seeing more young professionals coming into the mix and they have added vitality to annual events like the Operation Rednose designated driver program, the Taste of India dinner, and the Big Blue Ball prostate cancer fundraiser. Although Rotary clubs in Vanderhoof and Fort St. James have folded, satellite clubs are starting up in those cities.
"Of all the service clubs we're probably doing better most other service clubs on getting people out and engaged to the Rotary cycle, it may have declined a couple years ago but it's on the upside," said Calder.
"We do know a number of the other service clubs have been declining at a much more rapid pace and don't seem to have a formula for rejuvenating them back. We may have to look at combining forces, because we don't want to lose that service piece in the north."
Prince George is known around the province as the volunteer capital of B.C. A 2004 study found 62 per cent of the population engaged in some form of voluntary activity, as compared to the national average of 45 per cent. That bodes well for events like the 2015 Canada Winter Games, which will need as any as 4,500 volunteers, but the city's service clubs are still suffering.
Mike McGuire, past-president of the Kinsmen Club of Prince George, which has just eight members, says the shift away from service club activities has a lot to do with the corporations taking on their own fundraising initiatives to help worthy causes. Those projects depend on the involvement of employees and their willingness to give volunteer time and energy outside of working hours.
"Instead of lot of these companies encouraging employees to join service clubs, and a lot of them used to, now they encourage to do it within their own [workplace] for the corporation's image," said McGuire.
Partnered with Girl Guides of Canada, the Kinsmen built their own building -- the Community Complex -- on city land on Kinsmen Road, then donated it back to the city, from which the club leases the property. McGuire says having control over the building can be a double-edged sword. It requires a part-time manager to operate the facility but it also brings in a steady stream of revenue from three monthly tenants and community groups that rent the gymnasium for weddings, dances or sporting activities.
The Kin Centre three-arena project, built in the early '70s and now being rebuilt for the 2015 Canada Winter Games, stands as the Kinsmen's greatest gift to the city in their 46 years in Prince George. The first rink was built entirely with donated money, and the club contributed significantly to construction of the other two, as well as helped build some of the city's parks.
"There's so much history around here, we may not have our name on it, but we put a lot of resources into it," said McGuire.
From its earliest days in 1920, the Kinsmen was a male-only organization in Canada and the Kinettes were the women's branch of the club. That barrier officially fell in 1994 with the inception of the Kin Club of Quesnel, which began taking in male and female members. With the advent of online dating services and social networking through computers, the role of service clubs in helping people form relationships has significantly diminished.
"Forty years ago you didn't join Lavalife, some guy invited you over to dinner and set you up with a friend of his wife, and you got your job by getting to know people in service clubs, which were all encompassing," said McGuire. "Now it's all fragmented, done without any soul."
For the Prince George Elks, the club which introduced the May Queen pageant and soapbox derby, now both long gone, there's been a shift in focus away from formal business meetings. The emphasis now is on getting new members involved in informal dinners and activities like the May Day Parade, an annual event for 85 years.
The club now has 65 members, down from about 600 when the club was thriving in the mid-1970s. Back then there were enough members to tackle major fundraising projects like the Elksentre arena in the Hart area, South Fort George playground on Ingledew Street, and several costly hospital enhancements. The Elks were exclusively male until 1995, when a group of women in New York won a court case to become members. Prince George still has a branch of the women-only Royal Purple organization.
With an aging membership and no signs that trend will be reversed, the Elks sold its lodge downtown about 10 years ago and moved into the Royal Canadian Legion Hall until it closed last year. The club now operates out of a rented office on Fourth Avenue.
The Elks have been serving Prince George for 87 years and Nancie Krushelnicki, exalted ruler of the Prince George Elks, says the club still serves a valuable purpose, whether it's to buy someone a wheelchair or fund a trip to Vancouver to see a doctor.
"We want to do more social activities because there still is a demand for couples to go out and have an evening of social events, whether it's to go play cards, to listen to great music or to have a dance, there needs to be an opportunity for our members as well as for community people," said Krushelnicki.
The Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal (men-only) organization, has four councils in Prince George, having added five members over the past year. The Knights' Sacred Heart 8927 council now has 131 members, while its 51-year-old Prince George council, based at St. Mary's Church, has grown to more than 100 members.
"We're pretty healthy because it's faith-based, you have to be at least 18 years old and a practicing Catholic to become a member," said John Hodgson, grand knight of the 131-member strong 8927 council.
The club supports charities such as the St. Vincent de Paul Society, Friends of Children, Sprit of the North Healthcare Foundation, Prince George Crisis Pregnancy Centre, and the Wheelchair Foundation. An offshoot of the club, the Knights Society, runs the Columbus Community Centre on Domano Boulevard that can be rented for social functions and the society engages members in selling tickets for annual car and truck fundraising raffles.
The Kiwanis Club has found a way to appeal to the younger generation and has doubled its membership from a low of just 15 members a few years ago. Like Rotary, its membership is more business-oriented and that's helped Kiwanis survive. The club regularly brings in guest speakers who seem to have their pulse on the city and that creates ideas for club projects like the annual roadside ditch cleanup and fundraisers for children and families.
"It was an older group when I first started and it was fading and it's now a lot younger and a lot more vibrant with a whole new energy," said Kiwanis Club president Boyanne Young.
"I'm also a member of the Fraternal Order of Eagles ladies auxiliary and have been for 40 years, since my dad was president and got us in there. They do some really good stuff but they're having a struggle mostly because they don't change and they haven't become relevant with young people today. They're not looking to bake cakes for 30 years. Keeping up that energy level all the time so we don't lose them is maybe why we're growing in our club."