Thoughts from County Native and Arlington Public Library Director, Diane Kresh
Several weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending the weekly lunch of the Kiwanis Club of Arlington, which was honoring a staff member of Arlington Public Library for her community service. Mariela Aguilar’s selection by Kiwanis was, remarkably, the second time her life has intersected with the organization. As a young woman she came to the United States from Costa Rica to attend college in Florida. While she had lined up a campus job to offset school expenses, her slim finances did not allow for housing. The local Kiwanis club came through for Mariela with a small (but oh so significant) scholarship. She has never forgotten their generosity.
Kiwanis. Rotary. Lions. Optimists. Club names and symbols on signposts that greeted highway travelers at the limits of American’s cities and towns or blazed across Little League hats and jerseys on the Arlington ball fields of my brother Michael’s youth. Until I received the lunch invitation, I had more or less forgotten about them—except for driving past the seasonal Christmas tree stand or stumbling over the box to collect used eyeglasses at Central Library.
Another watermark on the continuum of volunteerism that uniquely characterizes America (and was so admired by Alexis de Tocqueville he dubbed us a “nation of joiners”), these clubs were begun by businessmen in the early part of the last century (Rotary is the granddaddy of them all, launching in 1905 and taking its name from the weekly “rotation” among the original conveners) in the industrial North and Midwest (Indianapolis, Chicago, Buffalo), likely on a tide of Social Darwinism.
Their members were businessmen (women were not admitted to Rotary, for example, until the 1980s); their passion service (“Service above Self”-Rotary), especially service to young people (“Friend of Youth”-Optimists); and their stated purpose, according to a Rotary wiki article, “to bring together business and professional leaders to provide humanitarian service, encourage high ethical standards in all vocations, and help build goodwill and peace in the world.” Today’s clubs are not only gender friendly but gender- preference friendly, their meetings apolitical, nonreligious, and open to anyone of any culture, race, and creed.
So whether the project be sponsorship of youth sports teams, writing letters to service men and women, administering eye exams in the public schools, organizing food drives, raising money to immunize children, and yes, selling trees at Christmas, this network of now international service clubs stands as proud testament to the value of community and the promise inherent in caring for one another.
Service clubs and their members are as necessary to the health and welfare of a community as public safety and roads maintenance. Beacons of civic engagement, their creed boldly declared through deed—to give a little means to give a lot to those most in need and least able to do for themselves, those hammered by hard times and harder luck, victims of abuse, neglect, and ignorance. In a few weeks, a former community organizer will take the oath of office as the 44th president of the United States. As the late great Chicagoan Studs Terkel, a proud heir of de Tocqueville’s, observed, “the community in action […] accomplishes more than any individual does, no matter how strong he may be.”