By Tom Holmes
Forest Park resident Bill Gerst is 38 years old, young by service club member standards. He joined Kiwanis three years ago, because he was attracted by the opportunity to serve.
"I attended my first Kiwanis meeting at the suggestion from a friend," he recalled, "and I did not know what to expect. Out of curiosity I wanted to see if it was some secret society that wore funny hats and had elaborate handshakes. By the end of the meeting I realized Kiwanis was an organization that did more than just hand out peanuts."
Past president Jerry Lordan listed the ways Kiwanians serve besides "handing out peanuts." "Kiwanis," he said, "is a global organization [600,000 members worldwide] of volunteers changing the world for the better one child and one community at a time. Here in Forest Park we support youth soccer, scouts, youth baseball, youth softball, juvenile literacy, adolescent leadership training, all school picnic, youth music and the historical society."
Rodger Brayden, Forest Park's head librarian has been a member of Kiwanis for four years. When asked if his organization's objectives included socializing, he replied, "Emphatically, Kiwanis is a service organization. Kiwanis focuses exclusively on helping children. Members donate their time and efforts without asking for anything in return except the satisfaction of knowing that children benefit from their efforts."
Mary Win Conner put an exclamation mark after Brayden's statement by declaring, "No one belongs to Kiwanis to build their resume."
Dr. Austin D'Souza has been a member of the Lions Club for 37 years and is District Governor of District 1A, Chicagoland Lions Clubs International, which itself has 75 clubs. His wife Terry is currently First Vice District Governor and will follow her husband as the Governor of District 1A next year.
Like Kiwanis the focus of the Lions Club is purely service. "We work together to build stronger communities," Austin D'Souza explained. "We assist the blind and visually impaired, collect eyeglasses for the less fortunate, give hearing aids the hearing impaired, participate in the Special Olympics, assist in disaster relief, raise awareness of health care issues and work with youth. Ours is a local focus with a global impact."
Joe Byrnes, a past commander of American Legion/VFW Post 7181 in Forest Park, pointed out that his group is very much a service organization as well. Byrnes said that over the years the VFW has lobbied Congress to increase benefits for veterans and put pressure on legislators and the Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA) to decrease the time veterans had to wait to receive benefits.
He added that the VFW acts in many informal ways as well. Members who know both how the system works and some key people in the DVA have what he called a "foot in the door" to expedite the connection of veterans to the services they need.
Byrnes lamented the decline in the VFW's membership saying that they stopped putting flags out on veterans' grave a few years ago, because they didn't have enough people to decorate the graves of up to 200 vets in the area. He said that since the Vietnam War only a "trickle" of veterans have joined.
The same is true to one degree or another for all of the service organization which are left in town. The Fraternal Order of Eagles used to own the big neoclassical three story building on the north side of Madison St. a few doors east of Desplaines Ave. Nick Dorich said that in the 1930s they would fill the building with hundreds of members. Now there rolls list maybe 25 and only five of them are active ... and getting older. The same kind of thing is true for the Knights of Columbus.
If you look up toward the top of that building that the Eagles used to own, you will see the word Masonic carved into the stone facing. The Masons sold the building and left town years ago. So did Rotary and the Moose Lodge.
The Lions with 19 members and Kiwanis with 20 to 30 seem to be the healthiest of the service organizations. Connor attributes the health of Kiwanis to a concerted effort on the part of organization to recruit younger members.
The decline of service organizations in town parallels the downward trajectory of the churches here. The Presbyterian and Methodist congregations are gone. St. Paul's Lutheran is gone and St. Peter's is down to 12 congregants.
D'Souza said, "When I joined Lionism 37 years ago, we were a more locally focused group of people from our communities. Many local business members were our club members including the mayor and commissioners. As the years passed, local business members left us. Now Lions are all over the world with 1.34 million members. In China we are the only humanitarian group recognized by Chinese Government to serve communities."
The service organizations in town are largely off our radar screens. Sometimes it's because they don't seek publicity or notoriety for the good they do. And sometimes it's because they are in fact disappearing.