Jaycees facing decline

Carroll's last chapter closing as group loses members nationwide

August 05, 2008|By Arin Gencer | Arin Gencer,Sun Reporter

Barbara Keith joined the Mount Airy Jaycees six years ago, and in only a year she became president of the group. She threw herself into planning social events to go along with the organization's traditional activities: the spring and fall yard sales, the Thanksgiving baskets, the Christmas party for underprivileged children, the Easter egg hunt.

But a dwindling membership is prompting the chapter - Carroll County's last - to disband.

"We wanted to close ourselves down," Keith said, explaining the decision earlier this summer. "It was just hard to get the members."

The local group's experience mirrors a national phenomenon for the United States Junior Chamber, as the Jaycees are officially known. Like many other clubs and organizations that once flourished with full rosters, the Jaycees have faced thinning ranks, officers say.

"We have been on a decline," said Denice O'Neil, president of the national organization. "Our numbers clearly show that."

That nationwide drop began around the late 1980s, O'Neil said. Today, there are about 32,000 Jaycees in the United States, she said, down from 35,000 last year. The group, which seeks to develop leadership skills through community service, experiences a decline of about 12 to 15 percent annually, she added.

In Maryland, there will be 15 chapters with fewer than 700 members total once the Mount Airy group closes, said Lucia Marshall, the state organization's president. That's a far cry from the peak in 1979: 124 chapters and more than 5,500 members, she said.

Marshall said various reasons for the shrinking numbers have been suggested, including the changing economy, the rise of one-parent and two-working-parent households and even a move away from the organization's past involvement in political activity. The Jaycees also seem to have lost the kind of national coverage they once regularly had, making their presence and purpose perhaps less known to younger generations.

But the primary reason appears to be a lack of time.

"In today's world, we are busy people," O'Neil said. "We're pulled in a lot of different directions."

The Jaycees are not the only civic group that has lost members. For instance, Masonic membership, which peaked at more than 4 million in 1959, had dropped to 1.5 million by last year, according to an organization official. Membership in the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks dropped by nearly 40 percent from 1980 to 2004, an Elks official has said.

The Mount Airy Jaycees, which was founded in 1974 and at times had up to 27 members, have felt the effect of people having little time.

"We can only give so much as one individual," said Darlene Kelly, a Jaycee for about five years.Most Jaycee projects are "labor intensive," and a core group of people tends to carry the weight, said Jean Keltner, who served as community vice president.

"It gets to be hard," said Keltner, whose husband, Curtis, was treasurer. She recalled watching the folding of the Westminster chapter, as the Mount Airy Jaycees pushed to maintain the 20 members required to keep things going.

"We fought for a long time," Keltner said. She contended with her own time constraints, with three children and her return to school.

Yet Keltner and others in Mount Airy also said they believe the Jaycees should adjust some of their requirements, including the 20-member stipulation and the age limit of 40.

"They put a lot of constraints on us with the age group," Keltner said.

Although several former Jaycees continue to help at various events, Keith said, they no longer officially count toward the chapter's numbers.

O'Neil said a minority of the country's membership would agree with changing the age restriction to allow for older Jaycees. The Junior Chamber was intended as a young persons' organization, she said, and the differences in needs between the current younger and older membership are already difficult gaps to fill, she said.

To combat the waning numbers, O'Neil said, the organization has been working to show how it fits in today's world and what it has to offer.

"We're not only community service," O'Neil said. "We do provide leadership training and skills that people can take home and use professionally and personally."

The Junior Chamber has sought to emphasize those skills to companies, so they see the benefit of sending employees to the group's conventions - which feature professional speakers - and of having them join, O'Neil said.

In 2004, the U.S. Junior Chamber also lowered the age threshold to 18 - younger than Maryland's age 21 - in an attempt to draw the college crowd, O'Neil said.

In Carroll, the Jaycees are in the process of resurrecting the Westminster chapter, after interest - and the potential for new, 20-something members - was raised this year, Marshall said.

She said she hopes that a Westminster chapter will be back in operation by the end of the year.

Keith and others said they are considering joining the local Lions Club, which has agreed to take on some of the Jaycees' major projects. The Lions, too, have experienced membership loss over the past couple of decades, though their numbers nudged upward in 2007 for the first time in several years, a spokesman with the international office said.

But whether through an organization or on their own, the Mount Airy Jaycees said, their commitment to service won't go the way of their chapter.

"I'm definitely going to be volunteering," Kelly said. "It's been a great experience. I wouldn't take it back for the world."

Keltner said she's keeping an eye on the Jaycees' possible return to Carroll.

"I'd jump back on the Jaycee bandwagon," she said. "I wasn't quite ready to be booted off. ... It's too good of an organization to just let die by the wayside."


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