In 2006, Brown, co-owner of WideNet, a Web site development company, was hired by the Anniston Rotary Club to redesign the club's Web site. He was then invited to address the club members about the redesign, and later invited to join the club.
"I saw all of these people that I admired in one room, and that made a lasting impression," he said. "They were not only successful in business and known in the community, but were also good-hearted and of the highest character. That was something I wanted to be a part of."
In July, Brown will become the 95th president of the Anniston Rotary Club. Formed in the director's room of Anniston National Bank in the fall of 1917, Anniston Rotary is one of the oldest service organizations in the state. At 30 years old, Brown will become the youngest president in the group's history.
But for all the business contacts he's made, Brown's voice gains an extra enthusiasm when talking about the numerous groups that Rotary helps, from the Salvation Army and Interfaith Ministries to Children's Hospital of Birmingham, for which Rotary recently raised thousands of dollars through its annual Bids for Kids event.
"I don't think most people know all that Rotary does," he said, "and that's mostly because the people who are in Rotary simply aren't looking for the attention."
The same could be said of most civic organizations. Their names are familiar — Rotary, Kiwanis, Shriners, Masons, American Legion, Elks — and their symbols decorate small-town welcome signs. But their membership rolls are declining — a trend that could have a devastating effect on charities that rely on the monies raised by civic organizations.
These groups are about more than country club lunches and business networking. They have quietly raised thousands of dollars locally and millions internationally to battle blindness, feed the hungry, cure crippling diseases and shelter the needy.
"Without service organizations, there would be no middle class," said Anna-Marie Moorer, 28, who is a member of both the Junior League of Anniston-Calhoun County and Anniston Kiwanis. "There would be an even greater divide between those who have and those who do not."
The challenge becomes recruiting younger members. This current generation is often accused of being apathetic. Nonetheless, those who grew up in the '50s and '60s — when civic pride was never a matter of debate — see hope for the future.
"I believe this Generation Y is going to be the force that swings the pendulum back in the direction of volunteerism and the spirit of joining," says Lane Weatherbee, who became a Mason in 1967 and a Shriner in 1988. "We've all had a rough time of it — Masons, Shriners, Jaycees, Elks, Civitan. Getting new members is a problem.
"There is a movement within Masonry as well as other groups to get younger members, but doing that without jeopardizing our standards is the real challenge."
Contributions beyond money
Hundreds of people across Calhoun County depend on Interfaith Ministries: through its programs, children receive Christmas gifts and school supplies, the homebound receive nutritious meals, the elderly receive their medications.
As director of Interfaith Ministries, Martha Vandervoort never turns down an opportunity to speak to a local civic organization.
"These people already have a sense of civic duty and responsibility," she says. "These are good citizens who are willing to do something and that's not always so easy to find.
"Every time I speak to one of those groups, there is a direct response."
In every presentation — after lunch at the Anniston Country Club or over finger sandwiches in someone's living room — Vandervoort knows she's sending a message that will reach beyond those sitting in the meeting.
"Money is great," she says. "But spreading awareness within the community is what really brings about change. As for Interfaith, without these groups, we'd be lost."
But these groups can no longer afford to remain behind the scenes. While some members may enjoy anonymous giving, it can be a hurdle for attracting new members who have ill-conceived notions about what such groups accomplish.
For example, the local Junior League raised more than $25,000 for the community last year, and the Kiwanis Club donated more than $12,000 to help purchase school supplies for area children, Moorer says.
"And yet nobody hears about that," she says. "But everyone knows (Junior League) has a wonderful gift market … and (Kiwanis) makes great pancakes. But the organizations we help know what we stand for and that's what matters most. Still, we've got to get the word out."
Moorer joined Junior League because of the work the all-female group does for local women and children; she joined Kiwanis because of what they do for children in need.
But to many on the outside, service organizations seem to be more of a social networking opportunity — which is good, but is far from the whole picture.
"Where some, mostly older people, would join just to be with their friends and have a reason to eat lunch at the country club, people now want to know what they're going to get out of joining," Moorer says.
The mysterious Masons
When it comes to perception, perhaps few have a more muddled reputation than the Freemasons and Shriners.
Viewed by many as an ancient "secret society" and even a cult, Freemasons and Shriners have gained the dubious distinction of being mentioned in the latest Dan Brown conspiracy thriller, The Lost Symbol — not that it bothers Lane Weatherbee, a Mason since 1967 and a Shriner since 1988. And therein lies the first revelation: Masons and Shriners are essentially halves of a whole.
"To be a Shriner, one must first be a Mason," Weatherbee explains. "But not all Masons are Shriners."
Weatherbee laughs at the idea of either being a secret society. "We are a fraternity — simply the oldest and largest in existence," says Weatherbee, who attends both the Zamora Temple in Irondale and the East Alabama Shrine Club in Anniston. "Sure there are some secrets … but if we really were a secret society you wouldn't know any members, and we wouldn't run announcements in the newspapers. Plus, we're on TV so much, there's very little mystery at all."
Shriners, wearing their red fez hats and driving their tiny cars in parades, are easy to pick out of a crowd. But Weatherbee would rather talk about something else: the license plate featuring what Weatherbee calls the "editorial without words" — a picture of a Shriner carrying a pair of crutches in one hand and a little girl in the other. In 1994, a bill was passed that, through the sale of those license plates, generated more than $250,000 in Alabama to help burned and crippled children at the 22 Shriners Hospitals in the United States.
"Wipe away everything else, and that's what it means to be a Shriner," he says. "Helping the kids at no charge, helping them to lead a normal life — that's what we're really about."
Membership in decline
America is a nation of joiners, of volunteers. It's part of our national identity.
According to the Encyclopedia of Associations, the number of nonprofit organizations of national scope more than doubled between 1968 and 1997, from 10,299 to 22,901.
Calhoun County boasts dozens of such organizations, with membership reaching into the hundreds. And yet in the past decade, membership in organizations such as Rotary and Kiwanis, as well as fraternal organizations like the Shriners and Masons, has steadily declined, both locally and nationally.
And there appears to be no change in sight, says Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.
"Active involvement in clubs and other voluntary associations has collapsed at an astonishing rate," Putnam writes. "All this despite increases in education that has given us more skills, resources and interests that once motivated civic participation."
Putnam lists steady declines in memberships nationally, from peaks in 1940-45 through 1997:
• 4-H declined 26 percent.
• American Legion declined 47 percent.
• Elks declined 46 percent.
• Jaycees declined 15 percent.
• Kiwanis declined 58.
• Lions Club declined 58 percent.
• Masons declined 71 percent.
• Rotary declined 25 percent.
• Shriners declined 59 percent.
"It's hazardous to assume that trends over the next several decades will mirror those over the last several," Putnam writes. "Nevertheless … if the current rate of decline were to continue, clubs would become extinct in America within less than 20 years."
The downtown has been felt in Calhoun County. "There has been a huge fumbling in the passing of the torch from the older generation to the younger, and a lot of it has to do with the generation gap," says Moorer, a self-proclaimed Gen Y'er. "A lot of people in Junior League, for example, don't even know what Facebook is, and that's the main way I communicate.
"We've all got to rethink the way we communicate and share our message, or else no one's going to hear it."
The next generation
When she first joined the Anniston Lions Club two years ago, Marie Thompson admits that she knew very little about the club, save for its mission of collecting eyeglasses and battling blindness.
Now, as president of the 38-member club, the future is now.
"With the Lions Club, as with most organizations, there's so much going on beneath the surface that most people don't see," Thompson says. "It's sad how little people do know. But that's our fault because we're not getting the word out.
"We've got to get out to the high schools, because that's where our future leaders are coming from."
That means focusing on the youth, which virtually all clubs have begun doing by offering unique opportunities to high school and college-age students, while also becoming more visible on the Internet and through social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook.
For example, the Lions Club has started Leo Clubs at high schools and Campus Lions Clubs at college campuses, as well as Cyber Clubs that meet online. Rotary has youth programs for ages 30 and under, aimed at teaching leadership skills.
"We're actively seeking younger members so that Rotary remains vibrant," Brown says. "But not to the detriment of the club. Our tradition has been to have the most influential members of the community join … that hasn't changed and will not change."
Kiwanis offers numerous age-specific groups, such as Circle K International, a collegiate and community service group. Kiwanis University presents a series of workshops, conferences and online seminars. Key Club International focuses on teaching high school students, while the Builders Club aims to recruit kids in middle school.
On a national scale, Kiwanis has more youth members (320,000) than adults (260,000).
It's challenging enough to get middle school kids to pay attention during school, let alone hang around long after the final bell rings. But that is exactly what Dot Thomas, president of the Golden K Kiwanis (for retired Kiwanis members) helped to do.
On a Thursday night in December, 29 Oxford Middle School kids formed an assembly line, stuffing small toys into 150 Christmas stockings that were to be given to needy families by the Salvation Army. The kids were all members of the Kiwanis Builders Club.
"It's about kids helping kids," Thomas says. "What we're really doing is introducing volunteerism, teaching them the value of helping others and helping the community, while building their own self-esteem.
"With kids like these … all of our futures are safe."
Civic groups at a glanceRotary International
• Rotary International is the world's first service club organization, with more than 1.2 million members in 33,000 clubs worldwide.
• PolioPlus, the "most ambitious program in Rotary's history," is the volunteer arm of the global partnership dedicated to eradicating polio. For more than 20 years, Rotary has led the private sector in the global effort to rid the world of this crippling disease.
• In 1932, Rotarian Herbert J. Taylor created The Four-Way Test, a code of ethics adopted by Rotary 11 years later. The test, which has been translated into more than 100 languages, asks the following questions:
1.Is it the TRUTH?
2.Is it FAIR to all concerned?
3.Will it build GOODWILL and BETTER FRIENDSHIPS?
4.Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?
— www.rotary.orgKiwanis International
• Founded in 1915, Kiwanis includes about 8,000 clubs in 96 countries. There are more than 260,000 adult members, and approximately 320,000 youth.
• The name "Kiwanis" means "we trade" or "we share our talents." It was coined from an American Indian expression, "Nunc Kee-wanis."
• Members and clubs have contributed more than $80 million toward the global elimination of iodine deficiency disorders (IDD), the leading preventable cause of mental retardation. Kiwanis also sponsors nearly 150,000 service projects and has annually raised more than $107 million for those service projects
• Until 1988, the organization accepted only men as members. Currently women constitute about 22 percent of total members.
— www.kiwanis.orgLions Club International
• More than 1.3 million members in more than 45,000 clubs worldwide.
• Founded in 1917, Lions Clubs are best known for fighting blindness.
• Since 1968, the Lions Clubs International Foundation has awarded more than $660 million in grants to support humanitarian projects around the world.
• Lions Clubs recently brought 3,000 volunteers together to build a playground for children of all abilities in California, fed 60,000 people in a township in South Africa and sent a team of eye surgeons to Honduras to treat more than 100 adults and children.
• The Lions Club's Leo Program provides volunteer opportunities for young people. There are approximately 144,000 Leos and 5,700 Leo clubs in more than 140 countries worldwide.
— www.lionsclub.orgShriners International
• The fraternity of Freemasonry is the oldest, largest and most widely known fraternity in the world. It dates back hundreds of years to the time when stonemasons and other craftsmen gathered in shelter houses or lodges. Over the years, formal Masonic lodges emerged, with members bound together not by trade, but by a desire to be fraternal brothers.
• There are approximately 350,000 members from 191 temples (chapters) in the U.S., Canada, Mexico and the Republic of Panama.
• Shriners International supports Shriners Hospitals for Children, an international health care system of 22 hospitals.
• In order to become a Shriner, a man must first be a Mason.
— www.shrinershq.orgThe Associations of Junior Leagues International
• In 1901, Mary Harriman, a 19-year-old New York City debutante with a social conscience, founded the first Junior League. Moved by the suffering she saw around her, Harriman mobilized a group of 80 other young women — hence the name "Junior" League — to work to improve the squalid conditions in which immigrants were living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
• 292 Junior Leagues throughout Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom and the United States.
• During the 1980s, Junior Leagues in the U.S. gained recognition for advocacy efforts to improve the child welfare system. U.S. Leagues also helped gain passage of the first federal legislation to address domestic violence.
• Famous Junior League members include Eleanor Roosevelt, Sandra Day O'Connor, Barbara Bush, Nancy Reagan, Eudora Welty, Shirley Temple Black and Katharine Hepburn.