In a small office space on the second floor of the Aspen Eagles Club, treasurer Susan Saghatoleslami read from a cardstock history book of sorts.
On each page, stories from the local service club dating from 1899 to 1985 were detailed, including rowdy initiation ceremonies that had something to do with riding a goat and trips to the Aspen hospital to help give haircuts to the patients.
Saghatoleslami, an Aspen native who has been an Eagles member for over 10 years, has been working her way through the book in hopes of better understanding the club’s roots and preserving its past for future generations.
“When you read through this, you can see the longtime Aspen local names whose great-grandkids and relatives still live in this valley today,” Saghatoleslami said. “It’s really cool to see,”
Organizations like the Fraternal Order of Eagles and the Order of Elks have been an integral thread of America’s social fabric since the 1800s.
For decades, members of these social, civic and charitable groups have gathered across the country. But in the mid- to late-1900s, sociologists and political scientists found membership across the nation to be in decline for a multitude of reasons, including greater suburbanization, movement of women into the workforce, the civil rights revolution and the rise of television and other technologies.
Over the past several decades, social and civic activities like attending club meetings have declined by over 50% according to Robert Putnam, a political scientist and author of “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.” He sees this disconnect trend as detrimental to our health, physical and mental, and to our democracy.
However, as technology continues to advance and reshape the way Americans interact with each other on a day-to-day basis, these longtime participation-based organizations are seeing some membership comeback by connecting with more people through savvier websites and stronger social media presences. Yet, at the same, they are competing with more and more avenues for people to get involved in their communities, whether digitally or face to face.
In Aspen, many of the staple social and civic groups acknowledge this digital crux and the increasing average age of their memberships, but they don’t seem stressed.
For many local group leaders, the future of their organizations depends on the same mantras they’ve embodied all along: staying rooted in tradition, connecting with the larger community and giving back to those in need.
“Our social media is being social,” Saghatoleslami said. “Our motto is ‘people helping people,’ and I think we will always hold a place in the community because of our charitable contributions and volunteerism, and because we’re a strong community ourselves.”
MEMBERSHIP IN ASPEN
Like the local Eagles club, the Aspen Elks Lodge also has a long local history. Established in 1891, the lodge moved a few times before securing its current location on the corner of East Hyman Avenue and South Galena Street in 1904.
And like Saghatoleslami, many members are focused on using the lodge’s traditions as selling points for new inductees.
“Our priority isn’t to have higher membership numbers, but to appeal to higher quality, service-oriented members who can help us be more effective as a lodge in supporting the community,” said Michael Faas, an Aspen Elk.
Since its inception over 150 years ago, the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks has aimed to give back to individual communities and society as a whole, especially by supporting children and veterans.
Faas said he is working with other Aspen Elks members to redevelop the lodge’s website so it includes more information on the organization’s key charitable missions and events by adding things like member bios and its paper newsletters online.
The lodge also is working with a public relations agency to get more information out to the media and community stakeholders about what Aspen Elks does to give back.
“The idea is to use the new website to help bring more people together in person, not for it to replace any part of the lodge,” Faas said. “We just want to get better information to people more accurately and quickly.”
Unlike other lodges across the U.S., Faas said the Aspen Elks hasn’t taken any major membership hits. The local lodge boasts over 900 members and relies on those members to recruit more high-quality people to join by simply being out in the community.
Faas said the average age of the Aspen Elks members is higher than the lodge would like — evident on a recent night at the lodge where he seemed to be one of just a few people younger than 50 — but feels that the in-person volunteerism offers something to younger generations that the internet alone can’t.
“You can’t really help people online, you need to be there for them in person,” Faas said. “We’re a real community that’s bonded together to improve the larger community. … This is a place where anytime you come here good things happen.”
Saghatoleslami also is working on beefing up the Aspen Eagles’ online presence. She’s taking digital marketing and website design courses through Colorado Mountain College, and hopes to get an online platform for members to make donations to charities live soon.
But like Faas, Saghatoleslami said the local club hasn’t had trouble with its membership. As of November, it claimed over 300 members of all ages and hosts multiple events at its East Bleeker Street location nearly every night of the week.
“There are always things to do and people love to come just to play games,” Saghatoleslami said, noting that the club has a shuffleboard, ping pong table, foosball, darts and the oldest pool table in the state. “It’s a fun crowd with really good camaraderie.”
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
While there are circles where Aspen’s older generations gather to do good, there also are similar circles for its younger generations, like the Aspen Young Professionals Association.
A 15-year-old nonprofit dedicated to supporting Aspen’s burgeoning leaders through networking, career development and promoting community involvement, AYPA is more of a social business group than a charitable one.
But according to Reilly Thimons, AYPA president, the organization is pushing to get its members more involved in giving back to the community, and often collaborates with groups like the Elks and Rotary Club of Aspen to do so.
As a result, the small group can serve as a sort of springboard to the more established Aspen membership organizations.
“A lot of our members self-select out of AYPA and find other avenues to stay involved in the community,” Thimons said. “They spend time with us, grow their leadership skills and connections, then continue to evolve into different roles elsewhere.”
Take Thimons’ boss, Chris Bendon, for example. He was a member of AYPA until he said he “40-ed” out and joined the Rotary Club of Aspen.
Bendon said young professionals join AYPA for any number of reasons, and that he was drawn to the group as a way to meet like-minded people close to his age.
After growing his connections and presenting at the Rotary Club of Aspen’s weekly meetings, he recognized a lot of the city’s longstanding leaders and was inspired to become a member.
“I had been on the (AYPA) board for a number of years and felt like I needed to make room for other folks to move up in leadership,” Bendon said. “AYPA was an avenue to create a foundation here (in Aspen), grow connections and leadership capacity to become a more vested member of the community.”
Similar to the Elks or Eagles, Rotary International clubs are centered on service above self and have encouraged members to do more for others for more than 110 years, which has a pull for younger people like Thimons.
When asked about how digital networking has affected younger generations’ desire to join groups like Rotary, Thimons said she feels that in some ways its made it harder for people to commit to one organization with so many options and opportunities available, but also cropped up as a tool for good.
“It’s a very interesting crux,” Thimons said. “I can see how it can be uncomfortable to get into that (digital networking) space, but it can be so effective in reaching people and doesn’t take a lot of effort.”
Deb Breen, an Aspen Rotarian on the membership engagement committee, expressed similar thoughts, noting that the level of commitment to a group like Rotary is much different than being a part of a group on Facebook.
“It’s easy to log in and check a few things, but this is a deeper commitment,” Breen said of Rotary. “You have to show up and if you’re not there people will notice and will miss you.”
Breen joined Rotary in her 20s and said while she didn’t have as many digital networking options to be a part of, she feels the online communities today won’t replace in-person organizations but instead serve in tandem with them.
That’s why, with Breen’s help, Rotary Club of Aspen has made a push to improve their digital presence, like many of the other area organizations.
“We’ve definitely looked at how we can be more transparent about what we do and how becoming a member works,” Breen said, noting that many people don’t fully understand what service clubs like Rotary do.
“Rotary helps you not just be in the community but to be a part of it and to make a difference. There’s a personal touch you can’t get on LinkedIn or Facebook.”
At the most recent Rotary of Aspen morning meeting at the Mountain Chalet, that personal touch was evident. Nearly a dozen members put money into a “happy bucks” jar and shared positive things that happened to them or within the community that week.
After about 15 minutes, the jar was bursting with bills slated to support the Aspen Homeless Shelter.
At the Aspen Elks on a recent evening, this personal touch also was evident as veteran services committee members discussed the logistics of sending more than 50 care packages to Colorado military officers serving in Afghanistan in one room, then moved to another to share dinner and drinks; at the Aspen Eagles, it was evident after one step inside of the front door, as the club celebrated the initiation of over 30 new members.
In all three Aspen service circles, those personal moments seemed to be what kept members coming back, regardless of age.
“In Aspen there’s a lot of talk about building a closer-knit community, which is right here,” said Alyssa Barclay, a recently sworn-in Aspen Eagle. “I see places like this as a refuge and a chance to build more local connections.”