Alaskan Rotarians see membership hike while uniting to build park

The Rotary Club of Eagle River Area in Alaska experienced a 50 percent increase in membership after building a playground designed for children with disabilities to play alongside their classmates.

Former club president Tonya Gamble says the club is always looking for ways to increase membership, but it wasn’t until they took on the park project that the club saw its membership rise from 29 to 43 members. Rotary members helped raise funds and assemble the park equipment.

“When children get together and play, they realize they have more in common than differences,” Gamble says. “That concept is what the community really liked.”

Club members sent fundraising letters to local businesses, held a community meeting, spoke at the chamber of commerce, and had their project featured in the local newspaper. “With this project, we had such good PR in the community that we had people coming to us,” Gamble says.

The project resulted from a suggestion made by club member Seth Kelley, who was also the executive director of FOCUS Inc., a local nonprofit that provides services to the families of children and adults with disabilities. The parents of his clients had expressed their desire for a playground that their children could also use. The playground area in the local park had just one set of swings and a couple of other playground pieces that had been hand-me-downs.

Thomas Wilder was one of those people who responded to the publicity. After retiring and settling down in Eagle River in 2008, he started looking for a place where he could make a difference among friends.

“The Eagle River Area club clearly had a lot going on. My friends were always talking about service projects, firesides, and other activities that appealed to me,” Wilder says. “But what sealed the deal [of joining the club] was the ability to immediately get involved in a big, worthy, and tangible project.”

The idea to build the first all-inclusive playground in the state came out of the club’s five-year plan, which Gamble says was essential in determining their club’s overall goals. Finding what members deemed a “signature community project” would help the club fulfill its goal of working to build healthy communities.

As a new member, Wilder says he enjoyed having an immediate effect on the community. In addition to helping construct the playground, he secured a grant that helped pay for it.

“It’s bigger than myself, something that makes a positive impact,” Wilder adds.

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