Gathered in the basement of an Edina church on a recent evening, members of the newly formed Rotary Club of Minnesota Veterans each gave a brief introduction about themselves. After a few minutes, it was clear this club is already bucking any stereotype of a homogeneous Rotary club that meets over lunch.
“People think of Rotarians as all older white men, but that’s not what it’s about, especially with this club,” said Tom Gump, one of the club’s founders and the district governor-elect for Rotary clubs in central and southwestern Minnesota. Gump didn’t serve in the military, but he came up with the idea of a veterans’ club after hosting a dinner for 200 veterans in July.
“I’ve been in Rotary for many years and I’ve never figured out a way to bring a bunch of new people in until now,” said Gump. “This is really filling a niche for both veterans and nonveterans.”
The club was chartered in October. Already its membership has jumped to about 40 people, including men and women from their 20s to 90s. The last meeting included attorneys, physicians, engineers, financial advisers and retirees. Some had served in the military for a few years, some for decades.
For all of them, the new club offers a chance to continue practicing the selfless service instilled in them in the military. The club’s three pillars are service, camaraderie and peace.
According to Rotary International, the club is the only one in the world for veterans working to serve other veterans. Membership isn’t limited to those with military experience, but the group’s service projects will focus on assisting vets.
While there are many veteran-focused nonprofits and community groups, not all offer the community service opportunities veterans are looking for, said Paula Canter, a board member for Rotary Club of Minnesota Veterans (rotarymnveterans.org). Canter, 43, said she was looking for an inclusive group that worked to directly help other veterans. Canter served for 12 years in the Navy and National Guard.
In search of service-minded groups, she previously joined other Rotary clubs but they never felt like the right fit, she said. One was primarily for men over 60 and another was all young millennials. Other veterans groups also skew older, and those for younger vets are often nonprofits with specific niche goals, Canter said.
“I want this group to be strategic about our members and our goals,” she said. “We need to look at the demographics of veterans in Minnesota and focus on the needs of those demographics.”
Brittany Ritchie Sievers, a 36-year-old Army veteran, agreed. She said she wants the group to be diverse and offer a welcoming space for those of all ages. “It’s so nice to see different generations of vets, all with one goal of bettering the lives of other veterans,” she said.
Evening meetings a perk
Rotary clubs typically meet over breakfast or lunch, potentially excluding those with families or jobs that wouldn’t allow for breaks during those times. Gump and the club’s president, Gary White, both said it became much easier to recruit members once they mentioned the club meets in the evenings twice a month and is open to members from all over the metro area.
White spent 24 years in the Army Reserves and served six tours of duty in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan. He’d never been a part of Rotary before but was intrigued by the idea of a veteran-focused group.
“I think it’s important to do this through Rotary because, why reinvent the wheel? Rotary already has the structure in place for service work,” he said.
The model has already drawn the attention of several other cities. Gump has been in touch with Rotary leaders in Chicago, California, Texas and Georgia about starting similar groups. The directive from the president of Rotary International this year was to help expand membership by forming new theme-based clubs that bring together groups that already exist in the community. As the organization faces decreasing numbers and an aging membership, that’s becoming more and more critical, Gump said.
“It looks like this will take off in other cities,” he said. “Everyone is like, ‘Why didn’t we think of that?’ ”
The first few meetings of the club will focus on identifying short-term and long-term projects, and navigating the process of applying for grants.
“We are still at that planning stage,” White said. “But this is really taking off. Just being a part of something like this is really important. The values of the group fall right in line with what these servicemen and women did in the military.”
No matter what the group decides to do for a long-term service project — whether it’s helping to build a home for homeless vets or aiding in finding veterans stable jobs — each meeting will feature that core tenet that attracted members: camaraderie.
“Whatever we decide to do, we are going to enjoy it,” White said. “This is about coming together with and for each other.”
For Gump, the reaction from the community, coupled with the rapid growth of the club, has been a testament to the “underlying love for our veterans.
“I’m just excited to see what this club has done a year from now,” he said. “There’s so much passion here.”