City’s civic clubs make big mark

VERGENNES — Civic organizations make a big impact in the Little City, where five secular nonprofit clubs collectively have an annual membership of more than 1,300 and make annual charitable donations of almost $150,000.
According to Vergennes Mayor Michael Daniels, the Addison County Eagles, American Legion Post 14, the Vergennes Lions Club, the city’s Masonic Lodge, and the Vergennes Rotary club do more than donate money to charity. Daniels said they are integral parts of the city’s fabric.
“They do a lot of the city,” Daniels said. “The groups are active in the community, and I think that’s what helps provide the whole atmosphere, the face of Vergennes … We’re a warm community, a place to visit.”
Still, a look at the charitable activities of the groups can provide some measure of how much they collectively mean to Vergennes and its surrounding towns.
“It’s just great that these organizations are as strong as they are and so well-attended and make so many donations to … well-deserving individuals,” Daniels said.
Daniels, for one, is grateful for what the organizations accomplish.
“They don’t toot their own horns. They just do what they do,” Daniels said. “They should be thanked for what they do.”
In part because it draws members from all over Addison County, the Eagles club is the largest based in the city, with about 480 members, and roughly 210 more in its ladies auxiliary.
Longtime club secretary Tom McGrath, who is also heavily involved in the club’s national organization, said the Eagles do not have a set annual budget for charitable giving, but typically annually donate in the “$35,000 range” to local and wider causes.
“We really don’t have a set budget. We just go on the need,” McGrath said.
Locally, the Eagles give away about $7,500 a year in scholarships to graduating high school seniors, one to a student not affiliated with the club and the rest to relatives of members.
Other typical area donations include those to Bristol’s Three-Day Stampede, the proceeds of which go to the fight against cystic fibrosis; Camp Ta-Kum-Ta; the Vergennes Youth Fishing Derby; and the Vergennes Champs Swim Team. The club also splits the annual $7,000 cost of the Vergennes Independence Day fireworks display with American Legion Post 14.
“We do pretty well on the local level,” McGrath said. “It might be a small donation, but we spread it out.”
The county club also gives to a national Eagles program that sends packages of goodies to local troops serving abroad, and donates to the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
Another national effort is one led by McGrath: The Eagles intend to raise $5 million toward the University of Iowa’s Diabetes Research Center. The Addison County Eagles have come up with more than $3,400 a year, or $5 per member, in each of the past three years for that cause.
The Eagles have also made major gifts in the past, including to Porter Hospital and the Vergennes Opera House. The club also allows its New Haven Road building to be used by groups like the Red Cross and the Visiting Nurses Association, and for more than 30 years the club served as the regular gathering point for area seniors for both meals and entertainment, a function now fulfilled by the new senior center off Monkton Road.
“We did that since 1979,” McGrath said.
The club’s catering and function-hosting efforts and sales in its member lounge fund the vast majority of its charitable work, McGrath said, and while the club has a charity committee to review requests, members make the final call.
“Everything is brought to the floor of the membership meeting,” McGrath said.
American Legion Post 14 Service Officer John Mitchell said that the veterans’ group fulfills its central mission, and then goes beyond.
“It’s an organization whose primary purpose is to take care of military veterans and their families,” said Mitchell, a U.S. Navy veteran. “But it does so much more than that by reaching out into the community with assistance of all types.”
Post 14 is the city’s second-largest nonprofit, with around 475 members, and has the largest charitable budget, having spent almost $70,000 in the past 12 months.
A fifth of that money goes toward scholarships for high school seniors, and those gifts are supported by an endowment earmarked for that purpose. Mitchell said Post 14 has been setting money aside for a long time for that purpose, and interest funds the scholarships.
The next biggest single expense is $10,000 of annual support for Vermont’s largest Memorial Day parade, and the club also splits the $7,000 cost of the city’s Independence Day fireworks with the Eagles.
Post 14 gives away another $40,000 in what Mitchell called “general contributions,” including to local schools; sports teams, including, of course, the Addison County Legion baseball squad; the Bixby Library; students’ history trips, including travels abroad; and scouting.
Periodically, Post 14 will take on larger pledges: It has in the past given $60,000 to Elderly Services Inc. and $50,000 each to Porter Hospital and to the Bixby for special projects.
There are no endowments for these gifts. Post 14 raises funds by hosting an annual Christmas party, realizing profits from sales in the members’ lounge, and catering events such as weddings and other special occasions,
“The rest of the money comes from what I would call general operations,” Mitchell said.
Post 14’s executive committee decides on smaller donations, while the organization’s entire membership votes on larger gifts.
“It’s a collaborative process,” Mitchell said.
With 83 members, the Vergennes Lions Club is Vermont’s largest, according to newly chosen club “King Lion” Kitty Oxholm. Oxholm added that in an era where some civic organizations have struggled to attract and keep members, the city club’s membership numbers are strong.
“Probably that’s around as high as it’s ever been,” she said.
In 2011, the Lions gave away about $30,000, while Oxholm said the budgeted 2012 target stands at $28,480, virtually all of which will be felt locally when donated.
“Everything we raise in the community we give back to the community,” she said.
 In the course of the year, the Lions stage a number of fundraisers, while three are critical: A Memorial Day vehicle raffle (the most recent raised $7,240); an summer auction of donated goods, services and items (last year’s took in roughly $7,000); and the club’s traditional chicken barbecue on Vergennes Day (it generated about $2,300 in 2011).
Oxholm said the Lions focus their donations into four major efforts:
•  Help for those with vision or hearing loss. Gifts include donations to a camp for the hearing impaired and to the Vermont Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired.
•  Aid to the elderly, which includes donations to Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects holiday work, food shelves and local individuals.
•  Support for area youth, including for Bixby Library literacy initiatives, the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Vergennes, and team sports.
•  Work to build community, including youth peace poster and speaking contests.
Oxholm said it was easy for her to choose the Lions as her club.
“It always seemed as if they did so much good and had so much fun doing it,” she said.
Dorchester Lodge No. 1 of the Order of Masons holds the distinction of being the oldest civic organization in Vergennes — its founding extends back to 1791, three years after the city was chartered.
Technically, according to lodge secretary Johnny Hardin, the organization has about 70 members. But many have retired to Southern states, while about 20 remain in the Vergennes area. About a dozen are mainstays of the lodge, although all pay dues faithfully.
“The ones that are active are a good bunch,” Hardin said.
Hardin said how much charitable work the Masons do each depends on the requests it gets, but formal donations typically can approach $2,500.
Much of that is spent on two or three $500 scholarships for local students, money which the Masons try to get directly into the students’ hands to allow it to be spent on books, rather than simply reducing their aid amounts from colleges.
“Our focus is mainly on education,” Hardin said.
The Masons also spread their giving budget around.
“We contribute to a number of different organizations, and to people who have lost members of the family,” said Robert Fuller, a past Master and longtime secretary of the Dorchester Lodge.
Typically, Hardin said, the Masons give money to families and individuals with unexpected medical bills, and give holiday fruit baskets to widows and elders “to lift their spirits.”
Funding for their charitable work comes from parking cars at Field Days, and from renting the basement of their lodge to the program for younger members of the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Vergennes.
Because their lodge is bought and paid for, Hardin said the Masons can also offer the club a bit of a rent break, and the lodge tries to help out the youth organization in other ways.
“We donate snacks to them, and other stuff throughout the year,” he said.
Donation decisions are made on a democratic basis.
“Everybody in the lodge has a vote on it,” Hardin said.
Of course, the words Rotary and Rubber Ducky are inseparable in Vergennes.
Before every Vergennes Day, members of the 75-year-old Vergennes Rotary Club sell enough Rubber Duckies to race over the Vergennes Otter Creek falls, both to individuals and businesses, to float six $750 scholarships to Vergennes Union High School seniors.
Of course, Rotary president Susan Burdick said the club and its 22 members do much more than persuade folks to gamble on yellow bath toys.
“Rotary’s motto is ‘Service above self,’” Burdick said.
The club donates “a little over $10,000 a year,” she said, to a variety of organizations, including the Addison County Humane Society, to which the club made a multi-year pledge of $250 per year; Project Independence; the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Vergennes; local food shelves; and donations to families in need during the holidays.
Most, but not all, donations benefit area nonprofits and individuals, but Burdick said the club also supports a major initiative of its international parent organization.
“Rotary’s mission is to eradicate polio worldwide,” she said.
The club has also been known to take on major local projects: The Vergennes Rotary pledged and raised the $30,000 to pay for the roof on the city green’s bandstand.
As well as the Vergennes Day duckies, Rotary holds a number of annual fundraisers, two of which are significant enough to raise “a few thousand dollars,” according to Burdick. Those are the organization’s Valentine’s Day dinner and silent auction and its Casino Night, which American Legion Post 14 volunteers host.
Donation decisions have been made by the local Rotary’s executive board, which Burdick said has recently decided to re-evaluate the process.
But she does not expect the club’s guiding donation principal to change.
“We try to donate our money to organizations that take care of the most people,” Burdick said.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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