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Fraternal orders recruiting newer, younger members
Down at the Lodge

Mention of the Moose or Elks lodge can bring to mind a time when men wore oversized hats for an evening at the club. But today, these organizations do more than provide sanctuary for harried dads.

Today's lodges include families and are more involved in their communities than ever before, said Glen Castlebury, a spokesperson and member of the Austin Elks chapter. And nearly 45 fraternal organizations raised more than $15 million in hurricane relief donations nationwide, according to the National Fraternal Congress of America. Although many of the goals of fraternal organizations have stayed the same, organizations are reaching out to newer, and often younger, members.

Fraternal support
There are more than 100 fraternal benefit societies operating in the U.S., said Brian Vanicek, president of Slovanska Podporujici Jednota Statu Texas (SPJST)--the Slavonic Benevolent Order of the State of Texas.

"All fraternal benefit societies have individual membership and volunteering programs serving a variety of interests, including church support, educational grants and scholarships, preservation of ethnic heritage, a focus on outdoor activities or the promotion of a particular industry or interest," Vanicek said.

Fraternal organizations offer services ranging from insurance and summer camps to education and nature centers.

"To non-members, SPJST is a concept that is sometimes easily misunderstood," Vanicek said. "To some, it's strictly an insurance company; to others, it's a social club; and, finally, to others, it's a cultural preservation society."

College freshman Joshua Siptak has been an active member of SPJST since he was five and has taken advantage of the opportunities the organization has to offer.

"[SPJST] offers great leadership opportunities," Siptak said. "As a little kid I enjoyed going and making friends; and as I got older, I got to be a leader. Recently, I just got done being the state king for the youth group. We got to travel to different places promoting the organization and reaching out to those who don't know about the organization."

Siptak also received two scholarships from the fraternal organization that are helping him pay his way at the University of Texas at Austin.

Gradual decline
Membership is relatively easy. While some groups, like SPJST, require members to purchase a life insurance plan to join, others, like the Elks are simpler.

"There are basically three requirements for membership," Castlebury said of the Elks. "You must be 21 years old, must be an American citizen and you must profess a belief in God."

Non-members within the community still have access to each group's facilities that are often made available to nonprofit organizations at no charge, Castlebury said.

"In Austin Lodge 201, they gave away over $30,000 in property rentals [in 2005] to Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, conservation groups and for benefits and fundraising for victims of disasters," he said.

Despite the best of intentions, memberships have been declining for a decade and a half.

"There's been a slow decline in the membership statewide," Castlebury said. "Nationally, it tracks what has been with all of the organizations over the last 10 to 15 years. It's not great, but there has been a slow, steady decline."

Most of the lodges and service organization offices tend to be located downtown in many cities, Castlebury added.

"One of the most seeming, or apparent, explanations is the declining of downtowns [and shift of residents to] suburbia," Castlebury said. "As the world spreads out into suburbia, the lodges haven't necessarily spread out with them."

The few lodges that have moved out to the suburbs, like the Richardson branch of the Elks Lodge, have thrived, Castlebury said.

And with the revitalization efforts of downtown cities in Texas, like Austin and Houston, Castlebury expects the lodge memberships to rebound.

"In Austin, the membership reflects the gentrification of the neighborhood and tracks what's happening downtown," Castlebury said.

As a new, younger crowd has moved back to downtown, the Austin Elks Lodge has added to its ranks.

"The average age [of members] in Austin has been well in excess of 50 for several years," Castlebury said. "With the influx of young people living and working in the downtown area, I know they personally have averaged about 35."

Branching out
Initially founded to help immigrant families adjust, the face of SPJST has changed, Vanicek said. By expanding their base, SPJST also has expanded membership.

"Our membership has been growing consistently over the last six years," Vanicek said. "A lot of organizations have been going the other way, but the ones in Texas have been bucking that national trend."

Although founded to cater to the Czech community in Texas, SPJST embraces anyone who walks through their doors, Vanicek said.

In the last few years, SPJST has added a lot of Hispanic members in cities like Pearsall, Hondo and Harlingen, he added.

Although the SPJST lodges promote and celebrate Czech heritage month in October, being Czech is not what the organization is about, Vanicek said.

"It's all based on the fundamental idea of doing good to each other; [it] starts with local lodges and extends to communities and the state," he said. "By doing little things, it all adds up."

Those little things have added up to several youth programs, including seven regional summer camps throughout the state. The camps hosted nearly 500 kids in 2005, and other youth events featuring arts and crafts, public speaking classes and talent competitions bring in 300 to 500 kids per year.

The Elks also organize summer camps for children with disabilities and are one of the nation's top scholarship givers, second only to federal government loans, Castlebury said.

Getting the word out
The exodus of city residents to the suburbs has left fraternal lodges trying to come up with a new plan to reach out to their communities.

"You have to define and redefine what is your community," Castlebury said. "If you're an Elks Lodge in Houston, you're never going to be big enough to serve all of Houston. You're only going to be big enough to serve your area, and in which case, you are probably going to be known only in your community."

Fraternal organizations tend to be more well-known in smaller communities, Vanicek said.

"In many small towns, we are the community center; [we host] weddings, anniversaries, Christmas parties," he said.

"For my wife and I, our first dance was in a lodge hall in an SPJST building in Lodge 80 in Holland, Texas."

SPJST hopes to increase membership by 5 percent per year, and the group plans to accomplish this by actively involving local officials in community events.

"[We're] inviting members of city councils, the mayor, staff and local public officials to come out to events and see what it's all about," Vanicek said. "[And] school boards to let them know that, hey, you have access to these organizations."

But increasing exposure and membership isn't what these organizations are all about, Castlebury said.

"We like numbers and we like recognition, but even the small [group] can make mighty contributions to its immediate surroundings and community," he said.

Ann Holdsworth