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Morning meetings no more for Catonsville Sunrise Rotary Club

Hoping to halt a decline in membership, the Catonsville Sunrise Rotary Club will forgo weekly morning meetings for bimonthly evening meetings.

Rather than meeting at 7:25 a.m. Wednesdays at Café on the Grove, on the campus of Spring Grove State Hospital Center, the group will most likely meet every other Tuesday at Rolling Road Golf Club, located at 814 Hilltop Road.

The change was announced by Cal Oren, the group's president, during a July 12 evening forum at the club.

One bimonthly meeting will be a community forum with a featured speaker, while the other will be a business meeting where rotary members will plan their service projects, Oren said.

A charter member of the group, Oren became a Rotarian 10 years ago after attending an initial meeting and feeling like it "rang a bell" in him.

"There's a great fellowship," he said. "You make fantastic friends because you're meeting with like-minded people. It's not like all we do is service projects, but there's a broad level of community involvement."

But in the past two years, the club's membership has declined steadily — dropping from its usual 20-30 members to about a dozen, Oren said.

"We're down to the point where we really aren't interested in continuing if we can't bring more people in," he said on July 6. "Those of us who are in the club are happy that we're in the club, but you have to have a certain size before you have enough people to do things.

"You can't have every single member involved in every single activity. Nobody has that much time to give it," he said. "So you need to be able to have some people working on some projects and other people working on others, and that's not possible when you have a real small number."

One casualty is the club's September "Fall Into Fitness," a 5- and 10k fundraiser race held on the Community College of Baltimore County's Catonsville campus on South Rolling Road.

Oren said the event will be canceled this year, because the group does not have the manpower to staff it.

"Our intention is to do it next year, but we've got to build some numbers," he said. "It's always been a successful and growing event and we're sorry to have to take a year off, but we really didn't have much of a choice."

Oren said he thought finances could be a factor in the club's declining membership, noting that with membership dues, it costs about $1,000 per year to be a Rotarian.

The Sunrise Club is not the only local civic organization that has experienced membership woes.

In August 2010, the Rotary Club of Catonsville, which served the community for more than eight decades, decided to disband after its membership dropped to three people.

Low membership numbers were also to blame when the Arbutus Lions Club voted to disband in June of 2010.

Up until late last summer, Oren attributed his club's membership of more than 20 to the morning meetings.

The time appealed to working people, especially those with families, he said..

"They did meet the needs of the club membership for a decade, but things change," he said about the morning meetings.

Recently, Oren said, that after approaching current, former and potential members that they preferred meeting less frequently in the evenings for longer periods of time.

Already, at least a half dozen former members have committed to returning if the club changes its format.

Because the club got its "Sunrise" name from its preference to meet early in the day, Oren said the group will most likely change its name to the Catonsville Rotary Club since there is no longer another group.

A history of service

"Our members are among the best-informed citizens of Catonsville you'll ever meet, especially the ones that have been members for awhile, because we have (had) anybody and everybody you can name as a speaker at a meeting," Oren said.

Last week's meeting, for example, included a sit-down dinner, visits from a Larry King impersonator and Sandra Kurtinitis, president of the Community College of Baltimore County, and an update on county politics from Councilman Tom Quirk, who represents the 1st District that includes Catonsville and Arbutus.

Through the guest speakers Rotary attracts, members get to know "all the leadership and the movers and shakers in the community," Oren said

Over the past decade, the club has given away more than $250,000, much of it to local causes such as the Catonsville Emergency Food Ministries and the Children's Home, a local orphanage.

Each year, the group gives every third-grader in public schools in the southwest portion of Baltimore County, as well as those at a couple private and Baltimore City schools, a dictionary, Oren said.

Through a partnership with a sister Rotary club in Bani, a city in the Dominican Republic, the group has helped with classroom renovations and other needs at an orphanage the other club started.

Catonsville resident Brent Tolbert-Smith, a charter member of the club, wore a straw hat to last week's meeting that he bought during a visit to the group's sister club in the Dominican Republic.

Tolbert-Smith said he thinks Catonsville would lose "a lot of civic spirit and a connection to things that are broader than just the local community" should the Sunrise club's decline continue.

"Rotary is, I think, a very good organization because it both focuses on the (local) community and the international community," he said.

Though there are plenty of projects to do in Catonsville, Tolbert-Smith said a project such as the one in Bani "makes us see things better and enriches our experience to see how people live in other places.

"Even though, certainly, there's need here, there's even greater need in other places," he said. "We can't do it all, but it helps us get that on-the-ground feel for how other people live."

Tolbert-Smith said the recession was a factor in the declining membership.

"We had a big jump in members back when the economy was doing well, and then the economy went off a cliff and a lot of the new members, especially, found that they were overextended and had to put more time on their business, or maybe get a different business, which meant that they couldn't make morning meetings," he said.

Tolbert-Smith said he joined "to have a Catonsville connection."

"I have a farm in western Maryland and I'm at my farm every weekend. So without the Rotary club, I would miss out on a lot of the people and activities that happen in Catonsville," he said. "And so, if you live here, I think it's good for you, as well as others, to connect to the larger community."

Catonsville resident George Brookhart, a former president of the group, left about a year ago due to time conflicts with his real estate business.

Brookhart, who said he had advocated for a switch to the less-frequent evening meetings, said he will consider rejoining the club.

"This is a great location," he said about the golf club. "Because there are a lot of business people that come in here. It's a great location for Rotary, because that's what Rotary basically is — business people that meet and they get together and they do good for the community, not just locally, but internationally as well."

A national trend

Though internationally membership in Rotary clubs has remained steady, there was about an eight percent decline in the United States from 2000 to 2010, said Donna McDonald, division manager for membership development and research atRotary International.

Worldwide, the organization is active in 200 countries and geographical areas and has about 1.2 million members belonging to about 34,000 clubs, said Wayne Hearn, a media-relations specialist with the organization.

McDonald said conditions such as both parents working and overlapping work schedules have impacted the members, especially in the United States.

"There's just been a total change in both our social structure and our family structure, and our corporate structures, so it just makes it very difficult," she said. "Plus, you have a lot more competition for people's time outside of the workplace.

"I think there are a number of volunteer opportunities that are available to people whereas 20 years ago, Rotary might have been one of the prime ways of getting involved in one's community."

McDonald said there aren't any "magic answers" where it comes to increasing membership numbers.

"Any club needs to make sure that they are providing value to the member, in terms of what they want to get involved in, in terms of the weekly programs they provide, in terms of service projects," she said.

"They need to make sure that they're meeting the needs of the members and they need to make sure that they're remaining relevant to their community and to the potential members within that community."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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