- Associated Press - Saturday, February 18, 2017

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - The Italian Workmen’s Club, a staple of the old Greenbush neighborhood, was dying out.

A club that stood the test of time for more than 100 years saw its membership aging and declining, but a recent uptick in younger members elevated the club from surviving to thriving, the Wisconsin State Journal (https://bit.ly/2lD901v ) reported.

“Ten years ago when I was president we were at about 100 members,” Frank Alfano said.

Now the club has a base membership of 170 and is growing at a rate of about 12 to 15 percent per year, according to current president David Rizzo.

“For several years we were replacing those who passed on or had to leave for jobs or whatever situation,” he said. “But we’ve now actually grown. We’re doing more than replacing, we’re probably up 10 to 15 members (in 2016.)”

IWC was founded in 1912 as a mutual aid society to financially support members in times of misfortune such as an injury that prevented the member from working.

In order to join, potential members need to be at least an eighth Italian or be married to an Italian woman and be approved by the current members.

The 2016 membership boom followed Festa Italia in early June which attracted several new younger members as well as a few older men.

“Our youngest member is 21 and our oldest member is 91,” Rizzo said. “We have a 70 year range. Our average age is about 59 right now and it’s getting slightly younger.”

Rizzo and Alfano weren’t sure why there is a sudden interest for younger men to join the club, particularly since the generation between the youngest members and many of the older members didn’t show the same interest.

“It seems like it just skipped a generation,” Rizzo said. “Maybe it’s because (younger people) have more access through the internet and Ancestry.com stuff, but (now) there is a genuine interest in where their family comes from.”

One of those younger members is 28-year-old Jason Mugnaini who has been a club member for a few months.

He sees the club as an opportunity to connect both with his Italian roots and with the community.

“It’s exciting to be a part of something like that, a civic club, a community of peers to keep your heritage alive and continue to push being an Italian American and understanding what that means and where that community comes from,” Mugnaini said.

Another newer member, 39-year-old Vincent Fedeli -former member of an Italian club in New Orleans before moving to Madison about 18 months ago- sees the club as an opportunity to connect with others in a familial way.

He said that in our society, where everyone is always traveling or moving around, it’s hard to stay connected with family or heritage and the club fills that space.

“Our generation, we want to know where we come from,” Fedeli said. “And there’s a comforting feeling being in that club. It reminds me of my family members…my family is scattered all over the country, but it’s nice to be at the Italian club to feel like I’m with family.”

A feeling of family is one thing that keeps the women in the Italian American Women’s Club (IAWC) so close as well.

“They’re family,” Phyllis DeGioia, IAWC president, said. “A completely different family than your immediate family, but there’s a willingness to help someone in these clubs. Whether it’s someone I’ve been sitting next to at meetings for a decade or I just met two years ago - it’s family.”

The IAWC has always had a smaller membership than the IWC even though members don’t have to be Italian to join.

Currently, the IAWC has 50 members.

DeGioia said she has seen the membership in IWC continue to rise and she isn’t sure why IAWC hasn’t seen the same influx of younger members, but she’s happy to see that younger people are interested in their culture.

Her father was born into the era of “no Irish or Italian need apply” which pushed him and his siblings away from aspects of their Italian culture, she said.

Now there appears to be a resurgence of pride in heritage which is spurring younger people to learn more about where they come from, but other organizations are not seeing the kind of interest IWC is experiencing.

Founder and president of the Celtic Cultural Center (CCC), Dineen Grow, said that her organization has tried to reach out to younger people and garner their membership with little success.

The problem is trying to figure out what will pique their interest, she said.

“We try to bring in music that would appeal to the group, but it’s a problem and it’s something that we struggle with (as) we age out and there aren’t people left to leave it to,” Grow said.

CCC, which was founded in 1993, currently has a core group of about 200 members.

Ironically, Sons of Norway_Idun Lodge in Madison is named after the Norse goddess of youth and also has difficulty attracting younger members.

The Idun Lodge currently has 130 members, but used to have a lot more, according to co-president Mary Bennett.

___

Information from: Wisconsin State Journal, https://www.madison.com/wsj


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