Despair settles over Optimists' annual feast Club membership has dwindled

July 19, 1993|By Amy P. Ingram | Amy P. Ingram,Contributing Writer

As 150 people picked at crabs and shared memories at the Optimist Club feast Saturday, the club's president presented a decidedly pessimistic view of the 40-year-old organization's future.

For Gus Lundquist, it was a day of reflection and a day of acceptance -- perhaps the Brooklyn Park Optimist Club's last annual crab feast. The club, he said, is falling apart, a victim of years of waning interest.

A decade ago, the club boasted 60 to 70 members, but today membership has dwindled to only eight. Mr. Lundquist, a retired Brooklyn Park High School social studies teacher and a club member for more than 20 years, said the Optimist Club has lost its young blood.

"We have to have people to survive," he said. "We have the older gang to set up the programs. We just need the youth to implement them."

Today, he fears the club that once sponsored about 2,000 youths a year in scouts, in sports and in schools likely will disband and relinquish its charter.

Most of the members now are in their 50s and 60s and say they need help to keep the club going. But efforts to recruit members, especially younger ones, have failed.

Members blame the troubled economy, unstable family structures and the flight of businesses from neighborhoods to malls and strip shopping centers.

Saturday's crab feast, at the 4100 Club on Edison Street in Brooklyn Park, drew former club members, community activists and politicians. Many of them spoke of the club's hard times.

But Theodore J. Sophocleus, the former county councilman and club president, who once coached a Brooklyn Park football team sponsored by the Optimists, held out hope that the club would survive.

"We are a coaching club as well as a sponsoring club. That's why our motto was 'Friend of Boy,' now 'Friend of Youth,' " he said. "It's been a successful program and will continue to be one. It's just a stagnant time now."

Mr. Sophocleus says he measures the success of the club by the number of youths who come back as adults to say thanks.

"We are here for our youth," Mr. Lundquist said. "That's what we're in business for -- to help our future generations. That's why we're Optimists." He said the revenue from the crab feast, about $4,000, will go into the community. Each member of the club will donate a portion of the funds to a favorite charity.

Don Lebowitc, past president and still an active member, is also saddened by the lack of interest among the today's youth.

"You just can't get people to be active today," he said. "All the parents are working now, and kids just want to sit in front of the television."

But George Mills, a member for more than 30 years, remains determined to keep the club alive.

"There's still a hard core here. I have enough affection alone to make sure this thing stays alive," he said. "This is not the last show. Come back in a year from now and we'll still be here."

But, he added, "Without young people to develop the programs, it's not going to work."

Mr. Mills said other Optimist organizations nationwide have suffered similar woes because of diminished interest.

"It's not just here; it's a national thing," he said. "A lot of the communities we used to service now have county funds and their own sports programs and teams."

The club is now spreading the focus of its community involvement to senior concerns and the environment. Mr. Lundquist, for example, visits senior centers and nursing homes frequently to demonstrate the latest in hearing-loss equipment.

His latest project is helping the Maryland Food Bank. Next week, he will take to the radio airwaves to ask the gardeners of the Brooklyn Park and Linthicum areas to donate some of their garden produce to help the hungry.

He says it could be his last community act for a while if participation doesn't increase. "Don't send flowers," he said. "Just send youth."

Those interested in the Optimists may call 859-3106.

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