Ellie McCain, a rising senior at Signal Mountain Middle/High School, sat among hundreds of older business leaders and retirees Thursday as the Chattanooga Downtown Rotary Club hosted the club's International president.
The 17-year-old may not yet meet qualifications for admission to the downtown club. But she is exactly the kind of person Rotary and other service clubs will need if they are to maintain their strength.
"Rotary has helped to nearly eliminate polio around the world. and I'd love to be part of a group with that big of a cause," McCain said. "We're still in high school, so we may not be able to do a lot, but we still want to make a difference."
McCain helped organize the Interact Club for Signal Mountain students last year and on Thursday the group was granted its charter from Rotary International President Kalyan Banerjee.
During his address to the 356-member downtown club, Banerjee said Rotarians need "a greening" of the club with approaches and ideas to attract younger members who often are eager to volunteer but have less time, money or interest in joining clubs than their parents.
"Seventy percent of our members are over the age of 50, and 40 percent are over the age of 60," Banerjee said about the 1.2 million-member Rotary International. "We need to shake off our darkening palate of gray and bring in shades of green, the color of growth and new life."
Rotary and other century-old service organizations have been losing U.S. membership in the past generation even as the once exclusively male clubs have expanded to include women and have moved beyond their American roots to include members from more than 200 countries around the globe.
Dane LaJoye, Lions International spokesman, said a growing number of Lions Clubs are adding family members to help parents work on volunteer efforts with their children and spouses.
"Americans today are volunteering as much as ever," LaJoye said. "But there are more demands on people's time and more opportunities to volunteer. We want to make it as easy and effective as possible to do this work through a Lions Club while building lifelong friendships and relationships."
While U.S. membership in the Lions Club is down, Lions International has added 539 clubs with 14,404 members in China.
Among Jaycees, which derive their name from the Junior Chambers of Commerce, U.S. membership has shrunk from more than 200,000 members in the late 1980s to fewer than 25,000 today, according to Jaycees Executive Director Joel Harper.
"In the past, many employers would pay the dues of their workers to belong to the Jaycees and other clubs, but these days most of those perks are gone," Harper said. "The demands on workers are also rising, so while people still want to volunteer and be involved, they often don't have the time to devote an hour or two a week to a luncheon club."
Kiwanis International membership has declined by nearly 12.5 percent in North America over just the past decade from 259,093 in 2001 to 226,929 last year.
Rotary membership worldwide is at the same level it was 15 years ago even though the world population has grown by more than 1 billion people.
The U.S. share of Rotary Club membership has declined in the past decade from 36 percent of all members in 2001 to 32 percent last year, according to Rotary International.
"There is no end to greatness of what Rotary has done, but we need to share that message and do so in the language of young people," Banerjee told his fellow Rotarians.
Since 1988, Rotary International and its partners in the Global Polio Eradication Initiative -- the World Health Organization, UNICEF and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention -- have worked to nearly wipe polio from the face of the earth.
Aided by more than $900 million of contributions from Rotarians around the globe, the polio fighting campaign has helped to cut the instances of polio worldwide from 1,352 in 2010 to 650 last year to only 55 so far this year.
"We are truly on the edge of ending polio," Banerjee said.