Elizabeth Blackwell 2013-08-13 12:54:18
President Palmer is urging clubs to add more women. A club in a small town in Wisconsin has long known that welcoming and empowering women as members pays multiple dividends. Wisconsin’s First City boasts the sign that leads into Abbotsford, population 2,100. Technically speaking, it’s true—if by “first” you mean alphabetically, not historically. That little inside joke offers a telling example of how the people of Abbotsford regard their hometown. They may face the same economic and demographic shifts that have challenged other small towns around the country, yet they have maintained a strong sense of civic pride, with the Lions in town playing a key role. “The Lions have a big impact,” says Jenny Jakel, executive vice president at the community-owned AbbyBank. “They do a lot of city improvements and support our students in the local schools. We frequently see them out at events, and people here are very supportive of them.” The brochure that the Lions in Abbotsford hand out to prospective members lists 25 different projects and charitable causes that they support, an impressive commitment for a 38-member club. Its work spans all aspects of Abbotsford life. Lions provide scholarships and recognition awards to high achievers at the local schools; they also sponsor family-friendly activities such as an annual Easter egg hunt and the local Boy Scout and Cub Scout troops. They have donated garbage cans and planted trees as part of an ongoing town-wide beautification project. The Abbotsford Lions also look beyond their own borders. They are active with the Eye Bank of Wisconsin, taking on shifts to drive donations across the state. They volunteer at the Wisconsin Lions Camp, which hosts children with visual and hearing impairments, cognitive disabilities and diabetes. As part of the Wisconsin Lions Foundation, they also have volunteered on screening missions to Mexico, Honduras and Nicaragua. Lions in Abbotsford don’t hesitate to explain why their club has been so successful: they enjoy service. They enjoy one another’s company. And they use the considerable talents of a segment of the population once absent from the club: women. Without women, the club may have withered and, and if not disbanded, certainly shrunk in influence and impact. With women, empowered within the club and often in charge, the Abbotsford Club has been able to maintain and even increase its service footprint. Many of the club members are married couples, who volunteer together and support each other when they take on leadership roles. The club is split evenly between male and female members. Over the past decade, about three out of four of the key officers have been women. When the Abbotsford Lions Club was founded in 1968, “it was mainly businessmen who played poker and drank beer after the meetings,” says Jim Schiferl, 75, a realestate broker and longtime club member. At the time, Abbotsford’s economy was dominated by dairy farming, and Highway 29, one of central Wisconsin’s main eastwest routes, ran through the middle of town, bringing traffic to the local hardware store, clothing shop and other businesses along Main Street. But over the decades, modernization took its toll. The highway was expanded and rebuilt to bypass Abbotsford. One by one, stores along Main Street shut down. Large agricultural corporations bought out the family farms, and Abbyland Foods, a meat-processing company, became one of the largest employers in town, attracting a sizeable immigrant, Latino workforce. The town evolved and changed, and Lions decided that staying the same was tantamount to surrender and failure. Women were quickly admitted in 1987 when Lions Clubs International changed its policy to accept them, and the club was reborn. “I battled for women to join from the very beginning,” recalls Schiferl, who had worked alongside his wife, Pauline, in the Jaycees. “The very first time I met an international director, I brought it up. The ladies had a very positive influence on our club. They communicate better than we guys do, and they know how to get people involved.” Pauline Schiferl, 73, a retired nurse, joined the club as soon as women were accepted. She was voted president soon after. “Before that, I had worked with my husband on projects, but it was nice to finally be able to share my own ideas,” she says. The Schiferls, who soon realized how helpful it was to have another Lion around the house, began to focus on recruiting more couples. The once male bastion became a more family-oriented gathering, more in tune with the times and with what people in town wanted. But club leaders soon came up against a common complaint: families didn’t want to take on the financial burden of double dues. So the club got the jump on Lions Clubs International and made a significant policy change. “We never charged much for our local club dues, but we decided to charge spouses half,” says Pauline. “When we need to cover expenses, we’d just ask people to put money in an administrative fund.” The club’s spouse discount was a key factor in its ability to attract both men and women, and the Abbotsford Lions strongly believed it should become general policy. “Whenever we went to an International Convention, we would bug the directors about it,” says Pauline. “When it finally passed [effective in 2007], we were elated.” Lessening the financial burden on families was just one way the club adapted its policies to attract new members. Five years ago, it was decided that in order to accommodate busy schedules dinner would no longer be part of regular meetings. “We’ve always had to work for members,” says Pauline. “They don’t fall into your lap. You can’t get complacent, and we’ve always been active on the state and district level, so we can find out what other clubs are doing.” Paula Reusch, the office coordinator for the Abbotsford- Colby Area Chamber of Commerce, joined four years ago, when she was 58. “I knew just about everybody in the club, and I was looking for a way to be more involved in community events,” she says. Reusch, who was president last year, admits that it is hard to recruit women members until—like her—their children are grown and out of the house. “We’re a very active club, and we have a lot going on. Some members don’t necessarily come to meetings, but we get a good turnout for events. When we really need them, we can count on them to come.” This being Wisconsin, the Abbotsford Club members can cook up a mean bratwurst, and the club’s brat fries, which are held two or three times a year, net up to $20,000 over three days. “When we get a turnout of less than 400 people, we ask ourselves, ‘What did we do wrong?’” laughs Reusch. The club is also known for its spring and fall brunches, which go well beyond the standard pancake breakfasts, serving up custom omelets and crepes. “We get a lot of people coming from other Lions clubs, and they tell us we’ve got one of the best breakfasts in the area,” says Reusch. Kathy Schraufnagel, 65, the club’s current secretary and a retired nurse, has lived in Abottsford for 30 years. She finally decided to join the club five years ago, after a visit to the Wisconsin Lions Camp. “My dad was a Lion, and I remember him talking about how great it was,” she says. “When I visited, I was amazed—everything was so impressive.” She believes that personal experiences like hers are what ultimately draw in new members: “You have to go out there and show them what we do for the community.” Bonita Weix, 56, a nurse and the club’s current president, also joined because of a firsthand experience with the Lions’ work. When her son joined the Cub Scouts—which is sponsored by the Lions—she became a liaison between the two groups. “It just made sense for me to join,” she says. “The values of both organizations are very similar. Both the Boy Scouts and the Lions are about serving your community and country. They both had the qualities I was looking for.” Weix’s husband, Jim, is also a Lion, and their son, who grew up helping out at brat fries and brunches, joined when he turned 18. “The majority of our members are husbands and wives,” says Weix. “We’re quite social, but we get our business done. When it comes to organization, our women are good at the details.” Such expertise comes in handy when it comes time for the Easter egg hunt, which Weix spearheads. The festive spring event attracts up to 250 children and involves filling 6,000 plastic eggs with candy. “My husband will do the bull work, but he doesn’t like that kind of organizing,” laughs Weix. When he takes over from her as president next year, she jokes, “It’s going to help him a lot to have me around!” Jim Schiferl says that drawing in more women like Weix—along with their families—is the key to the longterm success of the Abbotsford Lions. “Most clubs have projects involving children, so why wouldn’t we want their mothers as members?” he asks. “I’d like to see that happen. Women with families say they’re busy, but busy people are the ones who get things done.” For inspiration, Schiferl can look to Abbotsford itself, a place that could have gradually faded away, as so many rural towns have done. Instead, the past decade has been a time of revival and renewal. Thanks in part to a $12 million school district referendum, the town was able to build a new elementary school, remodel its existing middle and high school and construct a new city hall, public library, community center and emergency services building. “It’s something to see for a small town,” says Schraufnagel. Reed Welch, the district administrator for the local school district, has worked in the Abbotsford school system for three decades, long enough to see the town transform. “We don’t have a lot of farm kids anymore,” he says. “About 70 percent of our students quality for free or reduced lunches. But our kids do well, because the community is very supportive of education.” The Lions, he says, epitomize the can-do spirit of Abbotsford as a whole. “They’re very active, and they turn their proceeds back into the community,” he says. “They can be very proud of what they’ve done.”
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