Robert Lacourse wasn't exactly a young guy when he joined the Lincoln Lions Club 18 years ago. But at the age of 52, Lacourse says he was at a stage in his life when he finally had the time to devote to a local group of service-minded men and women who were doing volunteer work to support the community and help those in need.
The Lions, he says, fit the bill perfectly.
“I knew the Lions were doing great things so I decided to join,” says Lacourse, now 70, and president of the 60-year-old Lincoln club. “The Lions Club has been the perfect vehicle, for me peronally, to get out in the community and really help people.”
Lions Clubs International is the world's largest service club organization with 1.35 million members in more than 46,000 clubs worldwide. Lions club members are active in community projects in more than 206 countries and geographic areas.
Since 1968, the Lions Clubs International Foundation has awarded more than $700 million in grants to support Lions humanitarian community projects around the world.
Melvin Jones, a Chicago businessman, founded Lions Clubs International in 1917. Jones had a vision for an organization whose members would focus their skills and abilities on community service.
Although Lions clubs members are well known for supporting vision and eye care programs, their giving and volunteering extends to supporting all types of charitable causes. The Lions' motto is “We Serve.” Lions club programs include everything from sight conservation to diabetes awareness to youth outreach to environmental issues.
“I love it,” says Lacourse, who joined the Lincoln Lions Club in 1993. “When you consider everything the Lions have done over the past 95 years, especially our work to improve sight and prevent blindness, you can't help but feel proud to be part of such a great organization.”
When Lacourse join the Lincoln club, which was chartered in 1952, it had just reorganized following a period of inactivity in the late 1980s. Lacourse became president of the club in 1995 and was elected a second time to the position last year.
Today, the club has about 30 members and is strong as ever. For the past 14 years it's main fundraiser has been a golf tournament at Kirkbrae Country Club.
“It's a good little club,” Lacourse says.
And for a “little” club it does a lot of work. Last year, Lacourse's Lions collected nearly 3,000 pairs of second-hand eyeglasses dropped off in Lions-sponsored collection boxes throughout the community. The glasses are sent to a Lions eyeglass recycling center where they are cleaned and classified by prescription before being distributed to needy people throughout the world.
Rhode Island Roars
There are 34 clubs in Rhode Island Lions District 42 comprising 1,411 members, according to Rosa Branco, a member of the Cumberland Lions Club and District 42 2nd vice district governor.
“Internationally, we have 1.35 million members and we're growing,” says Branco. “Over the past four years, District 42 alone has seen an increase in membership with more than 200 new members.”
While many service club organizations continue to see a decline in members, 2010-2011 marked the first time in nearly 20 years that the Lions recorded four straight years of membership increase internationally. In the past four years, the Lions chartered more than 1,600 new clubs and increased membership by more than 50,000.
“I think a big part of that is the economy,” says Branco. “Things are so bad that more and more people want to help and the Lions are really on the front lines in terms of providing service to their communities and to those in need around the world.”
The Cumberland Lions Club, led by President Adraio Costa, boasts 70 members and is one ofthe most active clubs in Northern Rhode Island. This October, the club will celebrates its 60th anniversary.
The club does everything from sending supplies to troops overseas to collecting food for local food pantries to landscaping and beautification projects. Like most Lions clubs, Cumberland members go into the schools and community to conduct free eye screening tests as well as provide free exams and glasses to low-income, uninsured children.
The club awards two $750 scholarships to high school students annually and, over the years, has helped repair a home damaged by fire and assisted financially to help make a another home handicapped accessible.
“Whatever needs to be done, we do,” says Branco, a club member since 2004 and its president back in 2007.
Before she joined, Branco's husband had been a Lion for 20 years. “When he was president, I used to help him. I liked it so much I decided to join,” she says.
Branco liked it so much she soon found herself a member of the Rhode Island Lions Distict 42 cabinet first as cabinet secretary in 2008 and now as 2nd vice district governor.
In fact, four of the five officers that make up the Rhode Island Lions District 42 cabinet are all from Northern Rhode Island, including Branco from Cumberland; District Governor Francine Murphy-Brillon of Lincoln; Cabinet Treasurer Robert P. Andrade of Pawtucket; and Cabinet Secretary Dot Cardon of Burrillville.
“We are small in area but big on service, dedication and a willingness to show that we know what Lionism means,” says Murphy-Brillon. “Through technology we belong to a global village. Thhrough Lions clubs we belong to a global family. I believe we make a difference because we serve both our communities and each other.”
The Gift of Vision
In 1925, Lions Clubs International (LCI) received a challenge from Helen Keller who asked the organization to “become knights of the blind in the crusade against darkness.” LCI took up her challenge and since then, the Lions have gained worldwide recognition for their work to improve sight and prevent blindness.
For nearly 100 years, the Lions have worked on projects designed to prevent blindness, restore eyesight and improve eye care for hundreds of millions of people worldwide.
Over the years, Lions have taken part in sight projects that have:
• Helped halt the spread of trachoma in Ethiopia by providing 10 million doses of the sight-saving drug azithromycin annually.
• Improved eye care for 100 million people by training more than 650,000 eye care professionals and building 315 eye hospitals.
• Distributed more than 147 million treatments for river blindness.
• Provided nearly 8 million cataract surgeries.
• Saved the sight of more than 14 million children by providing eye screenings, glasses and other treatments through Sight for Kids.
• Vaccinated 41 million children in Africa against measles – a leading cause of childhood blindness.
Since 1990, Lions have raised $415 million through two SightFirst fundraising campaigns.
Andrade, president of the 26-member Pawtucket Lions Club, estimates that his club has provided free eyeglasses to more than 400 children in need over the past eight years.
Several times a year, club members visit Pawtucket schools to conduct free eye screenings to 200-plus kids. Students who fail the eye screening are given a note explaining the screening and how to apply for financial help. The help is based on the financial needs of the family. When it can, the club allocates money for the eye examination and glasses for the needy individuals.
Motivated by philanthropy and steeped in tradition, the Pawtucket Lions Club, which was chartered in 1924, has “a strong commitment to the Pawtucket community and beyond,” says Andrade, a Lion since 1984.
Last year, he says, more than $15,000 was disbursed to non-profit organizations in the Pawtucket area, including the Boys & Girls Club of Pawtucket, RI Lions Cancer In Children, Slater Mill, Woodlawn Baptist Food Pantry, St. Leo’s Food Pantry, Holy Family Church Food Pantry, Gateway Health Care, Children’s Shelter of Blackstone Valley, Wish Come True, St. Matthews Holy Trinity, and St. John the Baptist Church.
In a few months, the club will planning its 23rd Annual Sharing Celebration which is the club's major fundraising event. As part of the event, one lucky person will win $10,000 from the drawing.
“Whenever a Lions club gets together, problems get smaller and communities get better,” Andrade says. “Lions help where help is needed – in our own communities and around the world – with unmatched integrity and energy.”
Burrillville Lions Club President Terrence Whittemore and his wife, Ann Marie Cardon, are the husband-and-wife-driving force behind the 42-member Burrillville club, which is known as one of the most active Lions clubs in the district. Chartered in 1947, the Burrillville Lions will be celebrating the club's 65th anniversary this April.
The Burrillville Lions are well known for their co-sponsorship of the town's popular “Adopt A Duck” race, which benefits the Rhode Children’s Cancer Fund and Lions Club Sight Foundation, as well as the annual swim program at Spring Lake Beach, a program the Lions have headed for 65 years. Because of the Lions, tens of thousands of local children have learned to swim.
Last year, 97 people registered for the Lions'a annual Earth Day Clean Up and helped pick up over 35 tires, miscellaneous car parts, bicycles, and over one and a half tons of litter. At its annual scholarship breakfast last year, funds from the breakfast and donations to the Donald Mehrtens Scholarship Fund enabled the club to provide six $500 scholarships to graduating seniors from Burrillville.
“My grandfather was a Lion all his life and I joined because I wanted to carry on the family tradition,” says Whittemore. “It's a great organization and one of the best kept secrets when it comes to service clubs. In the Lions you help people in your own backyard as well as those living in Third-World countries.”
One of the oldest Lions clubs in the state is the Woonsocket Lions Club, chartered on Feb. 18, 1926. Today, there are 18 active members in the club, which is headed by President Nancy Phillips. Past notable members include the late Andrew P. Palmer, former publisher of the Woonsocket Call, and Bishop Louis Edward Gelineau, who while a Lions member in another club, was a close friend of the Woonsocket club and frequently attended its meetings.
Despite its small membership, the Woonsocket Lions know how to raise money and typically donates between $10,000 to $20,000 a year to various charitable organizations, projects and individulas, according to club Secretary Pat Joyce, a Woonsocket Lion since 1973.
The Woonsocket club has done everything from donate scoreboards to local athletic fields to providing cash to the Police Department's annual toy drive to collecting used eyeglasses for distribution in Third World countries. The club's main fundraiser is its doughboy booth at the city's annual Autumnfest celebration. Last year, the Lions booth raised $15,000.
The club also provides annual scholarships and is a frequent contributor to the Because He Lives Soup Kitchen. Last year, the Woonsocket Lions co-sponsored the YWCA Northern Rhode Island's Race Against Racism, a 5K run/walk held to unite people of all races and eliminate racism.
“I must have made 500 friends through the Lions Club,” says Joyce, who was president of the club from 1998-99 and its treasurer for 15 years.
“For me, being a Lions club member is rewarding on two levels - I've been able to meet some great people and develop some deep friendships and I've also been able to help my community and the people who live there,” he says.
As for 70-year-old Lacourse, president of the Lincoln Lions, nothing has been as rewarding to him as the look on a needy child's face who is finally able to see clearly thanks to a new pair of eyeglasses.
“Making a difference like that is when it's all worthwhile,” he says.