A few weeks ago our Apex Club received a letter informing us that the fountain in the town’s main square was to be demolished shortly. The council wanted to let us know because decades ago our Club, along with some of the other service organisations in town, had raised the funds to build this elaborate fountain for the community. It set me thinking about the things in our towns that we take for granted, how they got there, who remembers how and why, and who’s making sure that these things aren’t forgotten.
Apex was formed in Geelong in 1931, it was three young men who wanted to make a contribution to their community in the face of the Great Depression. Apex grew quickly throughout Australia, particularly in rural areas, you’d be hard pressed to travel through the small towns in our country without finding an Apex park. Once established, the clubs set about working to improve their local communities in ways that only they as locals could.
When I first joined Apex I was informed by an older member, bearing in mind that in those days members were retired at age 40, that we were there to fill in the gaps. . What we did was see the problems that bureaucracies could not and find solutions that they would not. This philosophy was repeated by thousands of local clubs across the nation, and collectively it was organisations like ours who changed the country. Apex bought the first guide dog trainers to Australia in 1957, started Australian research into Autism in 1968, helped to create the Foundation 41 Research Unit in 1972, funded SIDS research in the early 1980s, along with dozens of other achievements. Other service organisations have similar stories to tell.
But just as important as our collective national efforts were the things these clubs gave to their local communities. Not just the parks and monuments, but the help that they gave to people who didn’t have somewhere else to turn. Over the years our club has chopped firewood for widows, provided holidays for institutionalised orphans, thrown Christmas parties for new migrants, helped maintain accommodation for the homeless and provided equipment for everyone from the local rescue squad to a school for the disabled. While we are lucky today that our social services are so much better resourced than in the past, I worry that it has an impact on our commitment to our local communities when so many people look firstly to different levels of government to solve problems that are within our own abilities to deal with.
There is a well understood psychological effect that people regard things more highly when they have had to make some effort to obtain them, when we work hard to achieve something we appreciate it and care for it much more than if it is simply given to us. This isn’t just the case for individuals but for communities as well, many of the things we value the most are those that were achieved despite a lack of outside assistance. How do we engage people in building their communities’ civic resources when the process is owned by local councils or government departments? How can we make a disengaged community value the programs and infrastructure that is then provided for them?
Thanks to a combination of drought and maintenance problems our fountain hasn’t run very often over the past few years, but it’s the redevelopment of the open space in the CBD that has consigned it to demolition, it no longer fits the Council’s plans for how this space should be presented and used. So the gift that these service clubs made to our town will shortly be removed, and no doubt with it part of the memory of their contribution.
This is being repeated throughout small towns in Australia, community assets which were built by local volunteers are being dismantled by councils that no longer want to maintain them, and sadly in many cases the organisations that contributed these things to their community are no longer around to have a say. In many small towns the service clubs were a big part of the social fabric of the community, they created bonds between the families involved, provided services and support for others and helped to build a culture of civic participation. I remember when I travelled throughout the countryside as a child there would be signs at the entrance to every town proudly displaying the list of local clubs and where and when they met, for the benefit of travelling members and for new residents looking to connect with people.
Sadly those signs are few and far between these days, as are the clubs they represented. The decline in participation hasn’t just affected our organisation, similar stories are told by Rotary, Lions, the Country Women’s Association and other service clubs. As the clubs fade, the halls, parks, monuments and memories of their contribution also tend to be neglected. I think that we are losing a lot more than fountains and swing sets though, we are losing some of our sense of self reliance and of community ownership.