The Hay River Lions Club is no more.
The service club came to an end in March, after existing in the community since 1974.
Sisters Pat Burnstad and Shari Burnstad were both involved with the Lions for the past decade.
“Every year our membership would go down,” said Shari. “So we said, that’s it, we can’t do it anymore. I thought by the time I’m 70 I should be able to do a bit less.”
At its peak membership, the club had 30 to 35 members, but that had declined to nine by the time of its dissolution.
The Lions Club is the largest international service club in the world, at 1.4 million members. Globally, it focuses on raising funds for health initiatives and support during emergencies and disasters.
The Hay River branch focused on raising funds where they were needed, such as health programs, sport clubs, youth programs and its largest initiative, Relay for Life. In three editions organized by the Hay River Lions, the fundraiser for the Canadian Cancer Society collected more than $400,000.
Shari Burnstad said the Lions’ success internationally did not guarantee anything for the local branch.
“Most of the places the Lions are successful are poor places,” she explained. “They need someone to step in and start programs because their governments can’t afford to do it. There are lots of active members, but not so much in North America. Here it’s dwindling but internationally it’s increasing.”
The same fate has been true for other service clubs in Hay River. The Lions Club is following in the footsteps of the Kiwanis Club and the Knights of Columbus.
Doug Swallow is a past grand knight of the Knights of Columbus in Hay River.
“We couldn’t get enough people who wanted to take leadership roles,” he said. “It was the same four people running it for 25 years.”
The Knights were known for their Lobster-Do, an annual dinner for the community. They also donated to children’s programs, such as Aboriginal Head Start and other preschool initiatives.
Swallow said the problem is a difference in generations.
“We should take cellphones away,” he laughed, when asked what the solution is for local service clubs. “Our generation messed up somehow in empowering our kids with the desire to volunteer.”
Swallow added that, with a decline in volunteer clubs, the community could become more isolated.
Pat Burnstad agreed, saying the decline in the number of local clubs will likely show in Hay River’s social atmosphere.
“When we first came, it was the service clubs that did all the parties and dances. There was something happening most weekends,” she said. “Now there’s not really any of that anymore. It’s made the town quieter.”
Gary Hoffman, president of the Hay River Elks Club, feels the same way.
“There’s so much difference in technology that’s come in,” he said. “Young people are really busy. The world has changed. People don’t volunteer the way they used to.”
The Hay River Elks have seen their numbers decline – from 58 original members when Hoffman joined in 1969, to only 10 core members currently – but he remains positive about the future of the club.
“We make it clear that the commitment is very low,” he said. “You can do as much or as little as you like.”
Hoffman said, with this approach, the club has actually been able to recruit a few members in recent years.
“There’s no magic formula,” he said. “It’s just a matter of what people are interested in doing.”
Theresa is the current treasurer of the Catholic Women’s League.
She agreed that offering prospective volunteers an open door is the best policy.
“We don’t ask our members for a huge commitment,” she said. “We just ask that members help when they can. We know that with young families it’s not always possible to commit your time, so we keep it open and tell our members they can help as they can.”
Theresa Swallow joined the league with the draw of the spiritual aspect of the club.
“I was a busy young mom with a new business,” she said. “I just needed something that was my thing, and I got to meet a lot of neat women at the same time.”
The Burnstads will miss their involvement in the Lions Club for similar reasons.
“If we could have gotten families involved, people would grow up being part of something and it could have continued through their adult lives,” said Pat. “They would see that it’s fun, that they’re having a good time and helping somebody at the same time.”
With the Lions Club in the past, the Burnstad sisters will continue to volunteer in an unofficial capacity.
Still, Shari said it is sad to see the end of an era.
“When we look back at all that we did, it’s like holy smokes,” she said. “It was a good feeling to know we made a difference.”