Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

For decades, the fraternal organizations, lodges and service clubs that once dominated civic life have been rowing against the current. Their efforts at recruiting among Baby-boomers, Gen Xers, Millennials and Gen Zers is like pulling teeth for the shrinking roster of community activists who were such joiners in the post-World War II period.

My recent chats with doers of good works from the Optimist Club of Arlington, the Kiwanis Club of Arlington and the Woman’s Club of Arlington show they’re struggling not only against the “Bowling Alone” trends among youth who prefer fellowship online.

The pandemic has also crimped the style, if not the generosity, of the luncheon groups (and their international bodies) that do so much for needy students, the food insecure, youth athletes and Christmas tree buyers.

The North Arlington Kiwanis, which usually lunches at Knights of Columbus, have been meeting by Zoom, said stalwart Edd Nolen. The current membership of 48 is tiny compared with the 140 he recalls in 1994. “My first awareness of the Kiwanis was my dad’s activities in my hometown in Alabama,” Nolen remembers. “That’s how a small town like Arlington functioned — if you didn’t belong to the Kiwanis or the Lions, you were not going to go anywhere in that community. I sense the same thing around here.”

But today’s Kiwanis have had to discontinue their annual pig roast after the workload became too heavy. “The decline in community spirit is because people are busier today and doing things in a different way with the Internet, emailing and texting,” Nolen adds. “Now people may help with a food drive but then move onto something else, without real long-range commitment.”

The Woman’s Club of Arlington, said president Deneise Boyd, has been “fairly steady with 23 active members,” down from 120 at its peak after World War II. The club with its own building on South Buchanan St. has continued its outreach, but has confined meetings to Zoom (not all members participate). “Keeping our members engaged has been a goal,” she said.

Longtime member Sandy Newton said the Woman’s Club “has been fortunate that other organizations have sought us for use of our parking lot for dancing, acting, flea markets and food distribution for Barcroft families. This month a `Bike Garden’ will be installed for families. It was only in August that some of our renters returned with strict social distancing. We are hoping to attract more members by being relevant in their lives through activities that might draw them in.”

The local Optimist Club, which recently resumed in-person (but socially distanced) lunches at Washington Golf and Country Club, has 41 members, probably half what it attracted in the 1950s or 60s, said member Frank O’Leary, the retired Arlington County treasurer. The group’s “socializing strategy has been unsuccessful, because no one wants to physically get together,” he said. “So much of this is out of date” in that young people don’t “hang out physically but in chat rooms, and they have a far larger set of people with whom they’re interacting.”

It isn’t just service clubs that suffer, O’Leary added. “Any organization I’ve been in has the same problems — today’s veterans do not join the VFW or go to the hall. The formula doesn’t work because of changes in society. It may be the twilight of these sorts of organizations.”

My self-effacing high school classmate Kathy Sibert beamed (behind her facemask) at the Oct. 13 “virtual Facebook” ribbon-cutting for the “Sibert House” apartment building for those transitioning from homelessness.
Having retired in January after 11 years helming the Arlington Street People’s Assistance Network, Sibert spoke in front of the blue awning that now bears her name at 1124 N. Kennebec Street.

“We’ve moved over 350 people” from the temporary shelter “to homes, with a 95 percent rate of keeping them housed,” she said, thanking donors, county board members and the nonprofit’s board. “Now there’s a safe, quiet place for Arlington’s most vulnerable to succeed.”