Marla J. Holt 2015-10-14 19:31:15
As you enter La Crescent, a narrow strip of a town in far southeastern Minnesota bordered by the rolling Mississippi River to the east and bluffs filled with dense apple orchards to the west, not much distinguishes it from most small towns in the state, particularly on a cool, gray early morning when the trees haven’t yet leafed out and the water isn’t sparkling in the sun. But these first observations belie the warmth of the community there. After just a few hours in La Crescent, the pride of its residents in the surrounding natural beauty and the town’s neighborliness is evident. Known for Applefest, the annual festival that brings nearly 10,000 visitors to the area each September to celebrate the harvest, La Crescent, with a population of about 4,900, is the designated Apple Capital of Minnesota. In the mid-1800s, it was home to John Harris, a successful orchardist who developed trees that could withstand Minnesota’s harsh winters. He planted the seeds that led to apple growing becoming La Crescent’s longest-standing industry. Today, about 80 percent of the varieties grown here are sold in Minnesota. Indeed, mention La Crescent to most anyone in the region and you’ll hear, “They have good apples there.” The apples give the community a strong sense of identity—streets are named after varieties like McIntosh, Fireside and Haralson, and you can drive the Hiawatha Apple Blossom Scenic Byway along the bluffs to take in commanding views of the Mississippi River valley. But good apples could refer to La Crescent’s residents as much as to the fruit, as this is a town with a penchant for being good neighbors—evidenced by its thriving Lions club. Until recently, the La Crescent Lions Club struggled a bit with an aging membership made up of mostly retirees. In the past few years, however, the club has successfully grown its ranks, mostly simply by personally inviting friends and neighbors to join and also by flexibly adapting the club to the needs of the next generation. Its current roster of 54 Lions includes 23 women and at least a dozen members under the age of 45. “I don’t know that younger people have the mindset of ‘I’m looking to join a service club,’ per se,” says Eileen Krenz, a past club president and current president of La Crescent’s Chamber of Commerce. “If you ask people to do a particular task together with friends, like planting trees, or cleaning up the highway, or flipping pancakes at a fundraiser, and they have fun and see how it benefits their town, they’re more likely to join because of that personal connection.” The influx of new members is a welcome change for the club’s more senior members, says past club president Larry Stryker, 68, a retired vice president of engineering. “The new members are bringing enthusiasm and energy,” he says, noting that the multigenerational mix in the club is proving beneficial, as longtime members mentor those with less experience and encourage them to take on leadership roles. Those in line to assume the club’s presidency in the next several years are all newer members, having joined the club within the past five years. Although he may not have known it at the time, Stryker was instrumental in sparking the increase in his club’s membership. He is the district coordinator of the Lions Global Leadership Team, which deals with member recruitment and retention, among other issues. He and other Lions in the district gathered younger members to provide feedback on why they joined the organization and what might be preventing others from joining. At that initial meeting, four of the seven attendees were from La Crescent including Summer Thorson, 36, first vice president of the club and a member since 2010. Thorson, the owner of Thorson Graphics, and Stacie Salo, a Lion from Rochester, went on to present their findings at the regional Lions Fall Forum in 2013. They caught the attention of Past International Director Brian Sheehan of Minnesota, which led to an invitation to speak about how to recruit and retain younger members at the USA/Canada Lions Leadership Forum in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in September 2014. “The forum was so inspiring,” says Thorson, who also heads up La Crescent’s active Leo club, which currently boasts 20 members in grades 7–12. “The positive response we got from the audience at our talk really helped us see that we’re on the right path here in La Crescent.” Many in the club note Thorson’s efforts in recruiting new members as a turning point for the club. “She really has a way with gently prompting others to join, inviting them to get involved in projects and setting an example as a leader in our community,” Stryker says. The club is discovering that recruitment can have a domino effect, says Chad Ready, who joined in 2014 at Thorson’s invitation and who has since invited others in his social circle to become Lions. “Our friends, or others in our age range, need to see us out and about volunteering in the community,” says Ready, 35, a court safety supervisor for the Winona County Courthouse. “When you bring in someone new, you’re not only gaining access to that person, but also to their network.” The club has embraced different ways of communicating with its members, using texting, social media, newsletters, and phone calls to keep people apprised of what’s going on. The club also is flexible about participation requirements. “We want people to be a part of our club because it’s fun, not because we have rigid rules about the hours you have to put in,” says 2014-15 President Gale Bruessel, 55, the assistant to the executive director of a healthcare provider for seniors. “We encourage spouses and kids to help at work projects and fundraisers, but we also understand that family or career obligations often come first.” In Puerto Rico, Thorson and Salo stressed that to sustain Lions clubs, it’s important to keep current traditions going (with older members sharing their knowledge and expertise) while creating new traditions. Also key is respecting the concerns and ideas of younger Lions, who, while joining the club out of a desire to serve their community, also see it as a way to network with other business professionals and to become part of a larger social group. “Younger people don’t always want to come to a long meeting at the Legion Hall, especially after a day at work,” Thorson says. “So why not mix it up a bit? Invite people out for drinks, to a golf outing or to a picnic.” The La Crescent Lions Club has taken this advice to heart, encouraging its newest members (and becoming more attractive to potential members in the meantime) through its willingness to ditch projects that don’t necessarily appeal to younger members and to try out new fundraising ideas and service projects that increase its visibility in the community. “Our goal is to get younger Lions involved right away to make them feel a part of the club,” Stryker says. “Membership isn’t just about having the numbers; it’s about inviting people to the table. If you are closed-off with a ‘this is the way we’ve always done it’ mentality, people don’t want to stick around.” The La Crescent club definitely doesn’t have that feel, says Scott Stuber, 42, who joined in 2014. “This is a great group of people,” says Stuber, who works in customer service and sales for CenturyLink. “We’re successful because we have a supportive and welcoming leadership team.” As interests ebb and flow, it’s critical to keep projects fresh, says Ryan Henry, who joined Lions in his 20s in 2007. “We used to sell calendars as a way to raise money, but when enough people in our club said we weren’t interested in doing that anymore, our leadership team listened and phased that project out,” says Henry, 33, editor of the Houston County News. Born of those conversations was the idea to host an annual family-friendly softball tournament to replace the lost income stream. Younger Lions took the reins and organized the first Big Wood Softball Tournament in May 2014, featuring six local teams playing with wooden bats donated by Miken Sports in nearby Caledonia. The event, attended by an estimated 100 people, raised almost $2,000 for the Lions. The club is hoping to attract 8 to 12 teams to this year’s tournament, with a fundraising goal of $2,500. Bruessel, who says she had no idea how to run a softball tournament when the event was proposed, had no trouble agreeing to it, given the enthusiasm of newer members. “It’s been wonderful to see them taking the lead,” she says. “They have new perspectives, and it gives us confidence in the future of our club.” It’s easy to see the Lions’ influence around town. The club, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, has planted more than 2,200 trees in La Crescent. They also helped finance a new park shelter at Old Hickory Park. It’s an attractive, sturdy structure with picnic areas and restrooms in a park that is used by the community for everything from soccer matches to graduation parties. “I joined Lions to get my hands dirty locally and to see the benefits for our community,” says First Vice President Angel Klankowski, 38, who joined in 2011. “We’re making our home a better place, and who wouldn’t want to be a part of carrying on that tradition?” Thorson agrees. “I’m hoping they wheel me in to help out when I’m 96,” she says. (Opposite) Summer Thorson and other La Crescent Lions have planted more than 2,200 trees.
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