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B-N Rotary Clubs Foster Friendship, Give Back — Even Remotely

Uptown Normal
The Normal Rotary Club canceled this year's Oktoberfest event at Medici in Uptown Normal. Service clubs say planning and executing fundraisers has been the most challenging part of going remote during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Community service clubs are in it for the people. Members socialize. They hold events in the community. They give to their neighbors through service projects. All of those thing are hard to pull off in a socially distanced way, but Bloomington-Normal rotary clubs are adapting.

Typically, Rotary club members meet over a meal—coffee or breakfast at a church or hotel. Dozens of people from all walks of life come together: retirees, working parents, young professionals looking for networking opportunities.

Those meetings are still happening—like many things, virtually—and with mixed reaction from club members.

Fred Hanh, president of Normal Rotary Club, said the remote format isn't for everyone.

"There are a number of folks within our club that are hampered by poor internet connections, or lack of technology necessary to bring them into a virtual meeting," Hanh said. "Some of them are finding, though, that when they're traveling, it gives them an opportunity to join in and participate wherever they are. So it's got some pluses and minuses."

About 40 people usually turn out for a regular meeting of Normal Rotary. Since the club has gone virtual, participation is about half that.

People float in and out, Hanh said, but some have kind of fallen through the cracks.

"We have difficulties with keeping in touch with members," he said. "Maybe they don't have email, maybe they are not on Facebook. But be that as it may, there are some that just don't feel comfortable in a virtual meeting. So those folks have sort of backed away. They're still enthusiastic and they want to be part of rotary, but they're taking a backseat ride until these things settle down."

That's not a problem unique to the club in Normal. Joe Mikulecky, president of Daybreak Rotary, said there are three or four members the club hasn't haven't seen very much of lately.

"We keep reaching out ... but there's extenuating circumstances in each of those cases," Mikulecky said. "Some are working more than one job. Many of our jobs have changed significantly."

Largely, though, Sunset club membership has stayed strong. Mikulecky said technological hiccups were minimal for their club. They've also been able to adapt meeting traditions.

"We're a very touchy-feely—sometimes huggy—kind of club," he said. "We've moved to virtual hugs."

Before the pandemic hit, Mikulecky said, the last person to walk through the door of the meeting was bombarded by a group hug. That looks a little bit different these days.

"I'll bring up an image each each week that just signify, 'There's your virtual hug,' whether it's a teddy bear, or something else that's appropriate," he said. "It's just a nice way to welcome somebody."

Mikulecky said the virtual format has actually opened some doors. When members were meeting in person, the club would usually host a speaker from the central Illinois community.

"But by Zoom, we can pull in anybody, anywhere," he said. "We're accustomed to pulling in somebody locally, whether it's not-for-profit or some organization. We can literally reach across the globe before we wanted to now."

For example, the group is currently working on a project to donate books to children in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Zoom presents the opportunity to meet Congolese people.

Credit Facebook
Facebook / Bloomington Rotary - Illinois
Rotary clubs are grappling with how to raise money during the COVID-19 pandemic. Most fundraisers aren't possible due to restrictions on crowd sizes. The events also require too much advanced planning to safely commit to during the pandemic.

What is trickier is finding service projects the clubs can safely plan and do.

Big annual fundraisers—like Oktoberfest, crawfish boils, and pork chop dinner—are all canceled or postponed until further notice. Most clubs are taking in-person meetings and events on a month-by-month basis. Some already have decided nothing will happen until at least January.

Some clubs also have money problems. Most are spending down reserves and unused member dues that would usually go to things like refreshments at in-person meetings. Mary Ann Webb, past president of Bloomington Rotary, said that money only stretches so far. They've also needed it to support members, in some cases.

"There were a couple of other people that dropped out because they lost their job, and we've been kind of trying to work with that to keep them in," Webb said. "We've got a pool of money."

Webb said the club is currently working on a project with the Salvation Army to provide supplies like plastic utensils and individual condiment packets—small COVID-19 mitigation supplies that can be really costly for a nonprofit. But Webb said the club is raring to get back in the community.

Credit Facebook
Facebook / Habitat for Humanity of McLean County
Bloomington-Normal rotary members band together to work on the Habitat for Humanity home on Washington Street. Members haven't been able to work on the site for months due to COVID-19, but the Walls family recently put the finishing touches on their new home.

"For us right now, we're trying to find some projects that can be hands on besides just giving dollars," she said.

That's been a struggle for other Rotary clubs, as well. All five Bloomington-Normal clubs teamed up to sponsor and volunteer to build a Habitat McLean County house. Given the threat of the coronavirus, members haven't been able to work on the site in months.

Fred Hanh with Normal Rotary said projects like that are a big draw for members, including himself.

"It's very difficult to wear a mask when you're doing heavy carpentry work," Hanh said. "It puts a crimp in my style because I just love getting out hammering and sawing, doing the same thing."

Hanh said until he can pick up that hammer and saw again, the focus will be on community outreach and figuring out what people need when in-person projects resume—or how Rotary can be helpful from behind a computer screen.

Correction: A previous version of this story identified Joe Mikulecky as president of Sunset Rotary. Mikulecky is with Daybreak Rotary. We regret the error.

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Dana Vollmer is a reporter with WGLT. Dana previously covered the state Capitol for NPR Illinois and Peoria for WCBU.