Many moons ago, the Otchipews, Native Americans living in what is now the Detroit area, had an expression: “Nunc Kee-wanis.” Broadly speaking, this translated as “we trade” or “we share our talents.” Today, that expression lives on in name and deed through the Kiwanis Club. Coining its name from that initial inspiration, the local and international chapters of Kiwanis give more than 12 million hours of service in their communities each year. “We Build,” the official motto of Kiwanis Clubs since 1921, captures the spirit in which more than 600,000 volunteers in over 80 countries contribute significantly to the lives of others.
Those numbers sound impressive, and they are. But the fact is, the Kiwanis Clubs always need more volunteers.
Ellen Gleason, president of the Kiwanis Club of Saugerties, says that “the more people we get, the more we can do, and the more we can give.” Another translation of “Nunc Kee-wanis” is “we make a noise,” but Gleason says that because the club doesn’t often “toot its own horn,” many people in the area aren’t really aware of the scope of the club’s activities.
Everyone knows about the annual Garlic Festival, and most know that the Kiwanis Club is behind it. That two-day celebration of ‘the stinking rose,’ held each fall, attracts about 50,000 attendees each year. The Kiwanis take the proceeds and put them right back into the community.
Most people know, too, that the Kiwanis sponsor the annual 4th of July fireworks show, their way of thanking the community who work with them throughout the year, and who are kind about dealing with the increased traffic that the Garlic Festival brings to town.
But fewer residents are aware of the many little ways the Kiwanis pitch in to make life better for a few people at a time.
The “Coats for Kids” program is one such example. Each year, the school nurses, who see which kids are coming to school without the proper winter gear, give the Kiwanis a list of sizes and types of coats with specific kids in mind, which they purchase at a discount from Burlington Coat Factory. The program is coordinated by long-time club member Alice Tipp, the first woman to join the Kiwanis Club of Saugerties when the organization opened its membership rolls to women in the 1980s.
The Kiwanis Club sends two underprivileged kids to camp each year, too, and reach out with a monetary donation to a few needy families who need heating oil and food for Christmas. They helped the family of a dying man with ALS, who ended up in hospice, unable to take care of his young children. A live tree was delivered to that family, adorned with envelopes containing donations.
This year the Kiwanis also participated in a special project proposed by the governor of Kiwanis International. He told the group about young girls in Africa being kidnapped and sold into slavery. These girls are so poverty-stricken they don’t even have clothes to wear, and so the Kiwanis asked for donations of pillowcases, new or gently-used, with which to make small dresses for the girls. A dressed girl looks like she has parents who care for her, and she is much less likely to be taken and abused when it appears she’s not so vulnerable. The Kiwanis spent many hours turning these pillowcases into dresses, able to donate some 108 of them to the children. Clothing is sent to poor areas of this country, too, like Appalachia.
Thanks to funds raised by the Kiwanis, worthwhile events can be a reality and contributions can be made to deserving groups and efforts. The Kiwanis Club of Saugerties gave $20,000 in scholarship funds to graduating seniors this year. Other beneficiaries include the Kiwanis Club Ice Arena, the Girl Scouts, the Boy Scouts, the Boy’s and Girl’s Clubs, Saugerties Area Council of Churches, the Saugerties Mum Festival, the Key Club, the Builders Club, the American Cancer Society, the American Legion, the Blue Kats, Children’s Annex, Diaz Ambulance, the Woodstock School of Art, and sponsoring of the Saugerties Christmas tree lighting.
Perception vs. Reality
If you ask the average person walking down the street who they think joins the Kiwanis Club, chances are you’ll hear some misconceptions. The club began back in 1915 as a social networking and service club for businessmen in the Detroit area, and the very success of the organization has made that image stick in some ways. Another perception of Kiwanis members is that they’re a group of senior citizens who have a lot of free time.
Wrong. The ‘buddy club’ of businessmen? Women now comprise about a quarter of Kiwanis membership worldwide. While the organization does benefit businesspeople, volunteers and members also come from outside those ranks.
Senior citizens? Some are. Some aren’t. Kiwanis volunteers don’t have to be people with lots of time on their hands – they can be a young mother who puts her kids on the school bus in the morning, and then decides to take an active role in her community by giving a few hours of her time in-between other obligations.
Club members say it doesn’t have to be a huge commitment — everyone decides their own level of involvement. Volunteers don’t even have to join the club, for that matter. The Kiwanis welcome any volunteer who wants to give a few hours here and there, helping with the Garlic Festival, maybe, or perhaps donating just a little of their time using skills they have that apply to some particular project.
Members pay a $100 membership fee to join. Brief weekly meetings are held at the Ice Rink, but attendance at these meetings is not mandatory. Presently the group is comprised of some 45 members, with about half of those making up the core group. People who do find the group through one means or another tend to stay with it, finding the rewards to be greater than they had anticipated. Volunteer chair Peg Nau says that of all the groups she’s ever been involved with, Kiwanis is by far her favorite.
Gleason joined the group after retiring from working for the state of New York for 36 years. After relocating to Saugerties, she checked out the Kiwanis club and found that until then, she’d never realized how much the organization did for the community. A member for six years or so now, she’s been the local president for a year and a half.
Susan Bolitzer joined the group five years ago after initially going to a meeting to request some help in funding the Esopus Creek Conservancy. Impressed with what she found, she stayed. The fact that her father had been an active Kiwanian of another generation also gives her a feeling of connection to his service of community.
Mike Campbell, chair of the Saugerties Area Chamber of Commerce, cites all the good that the organization does. He handled publicity for the Garlic Festival for 11 years before moving on to Chamber activities, and he says that the quality of the festival “speaks volumes” about the general excellence of what the Kiwanians do. Now that he’s in his new role with the Chamber of Commerce, and sees how closely the Kiwanis group works with them, he appreciates the organization more than ever.
The Kiwanis Club of Saugerties does not currently have their own website, although Gleason says they would like to have one (a volunteer opportunity for a web-savvy individual?) The Kiwanis may currently be contacted through the website for the Garlic Festival, www.hudsonvalleygarlic.com, or by leaving a voicemail at 246-3090.