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It starts with a mission.

Each service organization has one, from providing assistance for child welfare or helping nurses obtain their education, to enhancing the lives of veterans.

For the Sauk Prairie Optimists, the mission is making a difference in the lives of children.

“There’s always more need than there is resources,” said Vicki Gullickson, president of the Sauk Prairie Optimists. “We try to do the things that will cover the most kids, and impact the most kids in the community.”

In one month, impacting the lives of the most kids may mean recognizing student middle level leaders in the Sauk Prairie School District by inviting the students and their families to an Optimist meeting for recognition. In another month, that means holding a ceremony to thank retiring teachers or visiting schools to congratulate students on a successful school year.

“We go to all the schools, hand out stickers and pencils, and tell the kids we’re proud of you and have a good summer,” said Dale Gullickson, former president of the Sauk Prairie Optimists. “Students, you can see the smile on their faces when people are there thanking them for having a wonderful school year, even high schoolers. We enjoy doing it and I think they enjoy being recognized for their hard work.”

The Reedsburg Lions follow a motto of “We Serve” by serving both the community as a whole, and individuals in the community who need assistance.

They sponsor little league teams, give out scholarships to graduating seniors, contribute money for new parks and a splash pad, and place a major focus on assisting individuals who are having issues with sight.

“Screening young kids for vision issues, donating used glasses, providing leader dogs for the blind, cornea transplants,” said Reedsburg Lions Secretary Mike Gargano. “We run a Pony Express type situation, where if a cornea is in Madison and needs to go somewhere else a Lions member will transport it from Madison to another point, where a different member will pick it up and transport it to another point, and continue that way until it reaches its destination.”

Scholarships, parks, and any other activity has a cost though, so to pay for the Mauston American Legion’s mission of providing services and assistance to veterans in the region, the Legion holds a variety of fundraising activities.

“We have a fish fry, steak fries, we rent out the hall for wedding receptions,” Mauston American Legion Post 81 Commander Bill Bomber said. “If you want to sponsor Badger Boys and Girls State or give out a scholarship to Mauston High School students… or put in a scoreboard out at a baseball diamond, you have to pay for it.”

In Wisconsin Dells, the Rotary club recently put in playground equipment at Captain Bob’s Park, an ADA accessible kayak dock on the Wisconsin River, sponsored campers at Easter Seals Camp Wawbeek, and provided about $6,000 for scholarships.

To pay for their projects, Dr. Dave Clemens, past president of the Rotary, said the organization holds a gathering of about 150 people each year at Trappers Turn called the Spring Fling. The group raises anywhere from $8,000 to $13,000 each year from the event, and a similar amount each year from a food tent at Who-Zha-Wa.

Holding fundraising activities, staffing tents at festivals, or the Mauston American Legion raising flagpoles at the cemetery and fire department require active members, and members who are physically able to perform tasks. Unfortunately for these organizations, finding members who fit those parameters is becoming increasingly difficult.

Sluggish growth

Mauston’s American Legion boasts about 170 members. About 35 of those members are Bomber describes as active.

“Once you join you stay with it, so we have members in Las Vegas, Nebraska, and so on,” Bomber said. “But the guys I call active, these guys, when you ring their doorbell, they’re there to help.”

According to Bomber, the average age of a Legion member in Post 81 is about 70. That number is slowly going up. The more numerous WWII and Korean War era members, and even some Vietnam era members, are passing away while Persian Gulf and Iraq War veterans begin to join the Legion, albeit at a slower rate.

The Reedsburg Lions face a similar problem. They are younger, with an average age in the late 50s for their 63 members, but are having trouble attracting the newer generations.

“The young ones, they’re busy with their kids and activities,” Gargano said. “The older ones are usually snowbirds, so they’re gone for the winter.”

Bomber echoes the sentiment.

“It’s difficult for young people to take an active role while they still have kids,” Bomber said. “Once they become empty nesters, they start looking for things to do, and then they join.”

The dichotomy between the activities of the younger and older members can challenge the organizations’ mission. Each of the service organizations are more active in the winter than in the summer, but younger members or potential members often have kids in school during the winter with after school activities, while the older members are either gone for the winter or have difficulty physically with performing tasks.

“There is always a challenge for every service organization to keep up membership and get younger people to come in,” Vicki Gullickson said. “If you get too old, of course the 99-year old member can’t help with fundraising and some of the things. They come, but can’t participate as much.”

The majority of the Sauk Prairie Optimists 45 active members are around retirement age, according to Vicki Gullickson.

“It runs the gamut, we have some younger members, but a lot are older,” Vicki Gullickson said. “We just lost one of our founding members at 100, but up until last year he kept attending meetings.

Although the Optimists membership has remained relatively steady over the last ten years, Dale Gullickson said it is a struggle to keep numbers from dropping.

“Sauk Prairie is a wonderful community, there are lots of opportunities for people to contribute, and we like to think we’re one of those opportunities,” Dale Gullickson said. “It’s hard because everyone is very busy… sometimes life interferes, it’s just part of the deal. What we strive for and what we hope for is we can hold steady, and as those situations happen we can get new people in place.”

Growing without growing older

While most service organizations struggle to attract new members, the Wisconsin Dells Rotary Club’s 32 members has an average age in the mid to low 40s. According to Clemens, membership in the organization is steadily growing.

Clemens credits the groups atmosphere and culture for the Rotary’s growth.

“There’s a lot of business people, more women as about 50% of our members, and they’re taking leadership,” Clemens said. “We tease each other and have fun… we have a lot of social things and meet at different restaurants just to have fun.”

Clemens said a tactic the group employs to entice new members is the promise participation does not take a lot of time, and even when members are spending their time at a meeting, they are networking because of the type of members in the group.

“We don’t demand much attention… our meetings aren’t mandatory,” Clemens said. “At the meetings there’s promoting your business, making sure you know and trust people.”

The Rotary attracts new members through word of mouth, with “people who know people inviting other people,” according to Clemens. However, Clemens also said the Rotary’s history in the Dells helps to inspire new people to join.

“We’ve been around since 1958 in Wisconsin Dells, with a long, good history around town,” Clemens said. “People know that (the Rotary) is something worth being a part of.”

Like the Rotary, the Optimists, Legion, and Lions try to recruit through word of mouth, with varying levels of success.

Vicki and Dale Gullickson joined the Optimists when a former Optimist member invited Vicki Gullickson to a meeting. Now, they try to draw in new members with the promise of fun and a sense of personal satisfaction from assisting the community.

“We try to make our meetings information and fun, with speakers coming in to talk about various issues but also social events, a Christmas party, a Halloween party, and a picnic in the summer,” Dale Gullickson said. “A lot of this stuff goes in the paper, people see what we do, and if they’re at all interested they come to a meeting and see what it’s like. They enjoy it and tell other people, and neighbors and friends say ‘come and see if you like it.’”

The Gullicksons say the “sales pitch” for new members is joining the group is rewarding.

“Those things should make all of us feel good, there should be a personal satisfaction with those contributions,” Vicki Gullickson said. “Investing in our future, getting to see our students and what the future of our community is, it’s all about the kids.”

The Reedsburg Lions take a similar tack.

“We try to make any activities we do visible, get a photo, get in the paper,” Gargano said. “It’s all about visibility, and though we aren’t going to run ads, we try to get out the word.”

While the Mauston American Legion also uses “getting to know people” as a means of finding new members, once the members join the Legion attempts to boost retention by giving those members a sense of responsibility.

“Putting them in leadership positions, giving them something to do or in charge of an event,” Bomber said. “Right now we have a young finance chair, (we’re) trying to make young officers… we want them to take ownership in what we’re doing.”

Joining up

Some organizations, like the American Legion, restrict membership to veterans who served during certain enrollment dates set by Congress. Others, like the Rotary, had requirements that an individual is invited to the group, and only allowed one member per profession, but dropped those requirements as they faced a dearth of members.

Now, however, joining a service organization is easy. It usually requires filling out a form, taking a pledge, and showing up to a meeting. None of the organizations has restrictions on joining multiple organizations, with numerous members serving in both the Lions and Legion, or Rotary and Optimists.

The Mauston American Legion meets at 7 p.m. the first Wednesday of each month at the Legion Hall, 1055 E. State St., Mauston. Individuals interested in becoming a member can stop by at the meeting to join.

The Reedsburg Lions meet Mondays a couple times each month at the Reedsburg Country Club in the summer and at the Voyageur Inn during the winter. To become a member, email reedsburglions@gmail.com or talk to a member at Butterfest in June.

The Sauk Prairie Optimists meet from 7-8 a.m. Wednesday each week at the Blue Spoon Café, 550 Water St., Prairie du Sac, with the first meeting of each month at noon. Meetings are open to the public, and individuals wanting to join the Optimists can do so by going to a meeting.

The Wisconsin Dells Rotary meets at noon every Thursday, except the first Thursday of each month, at Spring Brook Resort, 242 Lake Shore Dr., Wisconsin Dells. Interested individuals can join the Rotary by attending a meeting. Reservations are required by calling 608-408-8941.

Reach Christopher Jardine on Twitter @ChrisJJardine or contact him at 608-432-6591.

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