If you looked “Kiwanian” up in the dictionary, Cathy Szymanski might well appear as an example. Effervescent and always willing to go the extra mile, past Pennsylvania District Governor Szymanski established seven Kiwanis clubs during her term. She continues to advocate for growth as the district chairwoman of Kiwanis International’s newly launched membership initiative, The Formula. Kiwanis magazine asked her about the challenges of opening clubs.
Kiwanis magazine: You are a dedicated Kiwanian who has spent a lot of time working to strengthen our organization. Why is Kiwanis service important to you? What does it mean to you?
Cathy Szymanski: Kiwanis has become a significant part of my husband's and my lives. The difference that is being made in communities — not just from money being donated, but more importantly the hands-on service that we provide — is significant. Whether it is reading to pre-schoolers, or throwing a pizza party for kids, this is something these children will always remember.
Another thing I’m proud of being affiliated with is our SLP programs. They are simply amazing. The K-Kids club I am an advisor for is in the poorest part of our county and the kids in this club just want to give back. There are 80 kids in the club and they all understand the idea of volunteering and how good it feels to give to others. The leadership skills that are developed and the mentorship that is given to all of our Service Leadership Program club members is astounding; we all hear over and over again how being in a SLPs made them who they are today.
KM: What motivated you to start opening clubs? I remember you once saying that you were hesitant about helping your first time. What caused you to think that this was a worthwhile thing to pursue?
CS: Many years ago when I was asked to help establish a new club, I was nervous—of being rejected, and of the thought of someone telling me “No,” or “You’re bothering me.” I quickly learned it was not at all like this, and in fact it was fun!
By opening clubs, I got to meet many new people. I learned a lot about the communities we were establishing the clubs in. People love to talk about their community and what is going on. Then when I heard what the clubs were doing after they were opened … talk about getting a warm and fuzzy feeling! There is nothing quite like the feeling you get when you realize you had something to do with that group helping a pre-school with learning opportunities, or a club that is having Easter egg hunts, 5K walks, food drives and so forth. I felt so humbled and beaming with pride that a new club was just what the community needed.
KM: Why do you personally continue to open clubs?
CS: I realize how important it is for Kiwanis to thrive. There are hundreds of communities that do not have the benefit of a Kiwanis club. I am going to do everything I can to correct that problem.
KM: What would/do you say to a club you are trying to persuade to sponsor a club? Why should they care about another community when they can improve their own?
CS: Sponsoring a new club is something to be proud of. We are not asking you babysit the club 24/7, we just want someone to help, advise and assist when needed.
I have found in most cases that when you sponsor a new club you typically will get new members for your own club, too. You also gain a lot of ideas for projects. The best part is that you can talk with people and hear their ideas of what they feel will make a difference in the community.
KM: Are there any personality traits that you think it is important for successful new club builders to have?
CS: One thing that people may not realize is that there are so many ways members can help. We don’t only need people to go door-to-door to sell Kiwanis. We also need people with good phone skills, good organizational skills and good letter writing skills. Putting together with a team to help move a new club along is very rewarding.
KM: Why do you think newly opened clubs tend to have higher rates of failure? How can we change this? What does this mean for people who choose to open clubs?
CS: Actually in my experience over the past couple of years I have noticed the newer clubs are growing. Much of that success comes from the mentoring that the new clubs are getting. Newer clubs also tend to be established around service and making a difference—the 3-2-1 (a ratio of three hours of service and two hours of fundraising to every one hour of meeting) philosophy is taking off.
So many of the newer Kiwanians respect what Kiwanis has done in the past; however, they would much rather be out volunteering and getting their hands dirty than sitting in meetings. They are seen in the community having fun with one another and building lasting friendships while volunteering. Some of our more established clubs, in contrast, are less open to change.
KM: Strengthening a club, let alone the entire organization, is something many Kiwanians feel is challenging. As we embark on this new membership initiative, how do you feel about our prospects for success?
CS: We will do this as a team, and together we will learn from our mistakes and celebrate our successes. And five years from now, together as a team we can take pride in knowing that the world is better because of the work of Kiwanis—and our involvement in creating a larger more impactful organization. We will finish strong!
— Courtney Meyer