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East County Friday, Feb. 22, 2019 11 months ago

Call of the Future

The Sertoma Club of Greater Sarasota adapted to attract new members while keeping its community service intact.
by: Eric Snider Contributor

In 2014, as it approached its 60th year, the Sertoma Club of Greater Sarasota came to a point of reckoning. With an aging membership and a hidebound structure that required mandatory dues and weekly luncheon attendance, the club had to decide if growth was part of its future.

Its service component — to aid those in the community impacted speech and language challenges, especially ages birth to 18 — was in good shape. But moving forward, how would they attract new members? It wasn’t as if millennials were bum-rushing Wednesday lunches held at Cafe Baci.

Under the leadership of then-President Tim Self, the club launched a visionary initiative: a focus group of about 20 of its younger members, along with potential new members. Jake Hartvigsen, 54, the current club secretary who becomes club president July 1, took part. 

“They were smart enough to say, ‘OK, if you look at what’s happening with service organizations around the country — they’re aging. What are we going to do to ensure we have a club that’s built for the future?’” he recalls. “They asked us our perceptions of the club, what we liked and didn’t like, what things they could do to get us involved and keep us engaged.”

Club leadership listened. And acted. They introduced a less expensive, pay-as-you-go dues alternative that did not mandate weekly attendance at luncheons. They introduced new social gatherings — like a karaoke night — that appealed to a younger crowd. And they established fresh events, chief among them My Hometown Fest, which debuted in 2015 and draws close to 2,500 people each year. 

The family-friendly gathering, slated for Saturday, March 25, at Nathan Benderson Park, features samples of food and craft beer from local restaurants and breweries, as well as live music and activities for kids. My Hometown Fest has quickly become one of the club’s two signature fundraising events, along with the annual golf tournament held in November.  

My Hometown Fest features live music as well as food, craft beer and kids activities.

Sertoma Sarasota’s forward-thinking approach has paid off in the larger sense as well. Its 95 members include more women and millennials, says Past President and board Chairman Michael Schuchat, who is 34. Hartvigsen, an attorney who lives in Lakewood Ranch, said he recognizes the ongoing challenges faced by clubs like Sertoma (Service to Mankind), Kiwanis, Rotary and Lions.

“This type of club is difficult in today’s age with everyone being as busy as they are, the speed of life, with everyone stuck to their phones,” Schuchat says. “However, I think we’ve done a good job blending the older membership with a good set of young people. You’re always going to have people who want to be actively involved in community service rather than simply write a check to a large charity. I think it’s something more people should consider — to find a balance in their life, and to give back.”

Meanwhile, the Sertoma Club of Greater Sarasota’s core purpose continues as it has for six decades. A spin-off organization called Sertoma Kids runs speech and hearing therapy clinics for children from birth to age 18. Three paid professionals conduct sessions at the Sarasota YMCA on Euclid Avenue, Children First on Orange Avenue and, starting last year, at Visible Men Academy, a school for at-risk boys in Bradenton. 

Sertoma Kids Speech Therapy is a speech and language program hosted at the Frank G. Berlin, Sr. Branch of the Sarasota YMCA.

Because the club wants to make its services accessible, it charges zero to $55 an hour, based on the client’s ability to pay. 

“We try to bring them in at an early age,” Hartvigsen says, “because early intervention is important. If we can help kids gain those communication skills at a young age, they have a much better outlook.”

The club has also funded systems for the hearing impaired at Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall and Florida Studio Theatre, and awarded grants to other organizations for speech and hearing therapy. Although the Sertoma Club of Greater Sarasota and Sertoma Kids are closely affiliated, they are separate nonprofits and conduct their own fundraising. They combine their revenue — $75,000 to $90,000 a year, Hartvigsen says — to pay for their service offerings. 

The Sarasota group helped found Sertoma chapters in Bradenton in 1957 and Venice in 1976, so it’s been a while since a new one has formed. Although membership is open with any chapter, Hartvigsen says his club has its eye on the possibility of a new chapter— in Lakewood Ranch. 

“With all the growth there,” he says, “it seems like a natural fit.”

The Sarasota chapter helped fund a hearing screening van that travels the state providing free screening to adults and children.


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