For 100 years, what’s now known as the Meninak Club raised millions of dollars for charities and scholarships, taught financial literacy to underprivileged children, mentored students and colleagues and expanded members’ community awareness. Thursday they celebrate.
In 1919 a group of 29 Jacksonville men met at the old Seminole Hotel downtown to form a civic club.
They included a judge, doctor, pharmacist, dentist, architect, printer, senator, banker, ship builder, mortician, three attorneys and several business executives. Their goal was to improve the city’s spiritual, cultural and social climate.
Over the next 100 years, what’s now known as the Meninak Club raised millions of dollars for primarily youth-centered charities and scholarships, taught financial literacy to underprivileged children, mentored students and colleagues and expanded members’ community awareness through weekly meetings with guest speakers, among other things.
Thursday they celebrate the club’s centennial and look to the future.
"It’s something that has endured," said Kerry Varkonda, preisdent and an 11-year member. "I like the fact that it has lasted, sustained, over time."
The club has been "fairly low key" in past years, but Varkonda said he hopes its collective voice will be louder in the future.
"When you’re low key, people don’t know about you," he said.
TRUE AND HONORABLE
The club was chartered as the Kiwanis Club of Jacksonville, the city’s second civic organization affiliated with a national organization.
In the 1940s a dispute arose between the national office, which wanted a second club formed in Jacksonville, and the local affiliate, which did not. In 1950 the rift led to the Jacksonville club withdrawing from Kiwanis. The single, independent Meninak Club of Jacksonville was born in 1951.
"While the name had its origin in the combination of two Greek words meaning ’true’ and ’honorable,’ the basic thought behind the selection was ’Men in Action,’" according to the club website.
Women joined the action in 1990.
In 1953 Meninak went national, establishing clubs in Atlanta, Miami, Tampa and Orlando, but they disbanded after a few years because of lack of funding and executive supervision.
Among the early programs that benefited area charities were an annual high school football bowl game, which ran from 1932 to 1988, and the Ocean Marathon Swim, a 3.5-mile competition for members of the American Red Cross Volunteer Life Savings Corps at Jacksonville Beach that began in 1933 and continues today.
For many years the club also sponsored two social functions: "Ladies Night" and the "Toy Ball," where members donated Christmas toys to The Salvation Army for needy children. The events have since been replaced by two other fundraisers — the annual Meninak-Rotary Golf Tournament and the President's Ball — and club members still support The Salvation Army through donations and as volunteer bell-ringers for its Christmas red kettle campaign.
Member Jane Richeson Lanier’s father wrote the Meninak Creed after serving in World War II in the Pacific.
"I joined because of him and because of what we stand for," she said. "Every line of the creed is significant, but the lines that mean the most to me are: ’I believe in the dignity of man. I believe that each of us justifies his existence through faith in God and by service to his fellow men and that such service is best performed by giving of self as well as substance, heart as well as mind.’"
"The general feeling of every Meninak is that we all work together for the best in our home town, Jacksonville," Richeson Lanier said. "I think in many ways we do this in a quiet way and not seeking recognition. But on this occasion it is nice for us to be able to say that we have a proud and productive history of service that has changed the lives of our neighbors in Jacksonville."
GIVING TO THE COMMUNITY
The major planks in the club’s current giving platform are annual charity grants and college scholarships.
"Our focus is first and foremost on the betterment of Northeast Florida," said Diana Monell Fanning, a past president. "We have adapted to the changing needs and issues facing Jacksonville, but our success is always based on following our core principles."
Each year one charity gets $40,000 for a capital improvement project. Since Meninak’s inception, a total of $1.5 million has been distributed.
Recent grant recipients included Florida Baptist Children’s Home, the Safe Harbor Academy boys home, the Renaissance Jacksonville robotics program and Hope at Hand, a Jacksonville-based nonprofit that provides art and poetry sessions to vulnerable and at-risk youth.
Hope at Hand, which unsuccessfully applied for a Meninak grant several times and finally won in 2017, used the grant to help renovate its new building, said CEO Steffani Fletcher.
"As a small organization, funding can be hard to find," she said.
Interior and exterior lighting, paint, asphalt, insulation and bathrooms that comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act "may not sound exciting," she said, "but the instructional environment that we provide at-risk youth is very important to us. The new insulation decreased monthly electric bills. The exterior lighting increases safety. The new bathroom increases accessibility."
"Every single component of our Meninak award has … improved the service we provide youth," Fletcher said. "Many of the children and teens who attend our poetry lessons live in shelters or rehabilitation. The warmth of our building becomes a part of the Hope at Hand experience."
Since 1997 five $5,000 scholarships have been awarded each year to high school students in Youth Leadership Jacksonville, which is run by Leadership Jacksonville. The club has given out 115 scholarships totaling $575,000.
Jill Dame is CEO of Leadership Jacksonville and a Meninak member.
"For many recipients this money is the boost that it takes for their family to afford the many college expenses," she said. "The Meninak scholarship recipients represent the best of Northeast Florida’s young leaders."
Dame said she was proud of the club’s century-long history of giving.
"That is an incredible record of volunteerism and support," she said. "I am connected to the thread of 100 years of civic-minded people who value our community and take pride in lending help where none is available."
Over the years the club has built up an endowment of almost $1 million to sustain its giving. Members raised $150,000 for the fund this year alone, Varkonda said.
Though helping the community is its primary mission, the club also works to promote community understanding and reduce isolation. Varkonda said he fears such isolation is growing because of social media and "virtual friendships" it creates.
"In an era where we are hyperconnected electronically, but we are more isolated than ever with fewer collaborations with friends in person, Meninak and other civic organizations play a vital role in bringing people together in meaningful ways to serve those in need," he said.
Varkonda wants to expand an initiative called "fireside chats" begun by past club president Karen Mathis. The informal, evening events with tenured members and a handful of newer ones provide more time for "real conversation" and networking than is currently possible in the weekly lunch meeting format, he said.
Dame agreed that the club is not only a community supporter but a community builder.
"Meninak continues the long American tradition of bringing people together for the good of the community," she said. "Members find value in meeting regularly with others who are interested in learning more about the community and contributing to its betterment. Through service work they have an opportunity to come together to help others, making a difference for the community and building friendships."
Beth Reese Cravey: (904) 359-4109