Editor’s note: Where We Belong is a Times Argus series that looks at local social clubs and service organizations that make a difference.
By KATHRYN EDDY
BARRE — It takes a lot of work to be a Lion in central Vermont.
The Barre Lions Club has been working in the area since 1938, and 2013 marks its 75th year; it is the fourth-largest club in Vermont. In 1925, Helen Keller challenged the Lions to become “knights of the blind in the crusade against darkness,” to which the Barre chapter has been dedicated since its inception.
With 1.35 million members, the Lions are the world’s largest service organization. Founded in 1917 by Melvin Jones, a Chicago businessman, Lions Clubs International is committed to serving communities and fostering fellowship, citizenship and ethicality among members.
A central Vermont member since 1978, Paul Plante is chairman of the Sight and Hearing Committee and oversees the club’s effort to subsidize the purchase of contacts, eyeglasses and refurbished hearing aids within a 10- to 15-mile radius around Barre. Vermont Lions Charities takes care of the areas in the state where no local club is present.
“My responsibility is to be a good steward to the funds that are generated through this club. I determine the need. We try to service as many people as we can, and, all in all, we usually don’t turn anyone away,” says Plante.
The club contributes up to $100 for glasses, and over the past several years the club has raised an average of $17,000 a year to put toward assisting hearing- and visually-impaired community members. Money is raised through donations, as well as specific fundraisers like the Haunters’ Guild haunted house every year at the Granite Museum, the Hundred Ball Raffle and selling Christmas trees every holiday season.
The club also donates to Central Vermont Medical Center for newborn hearing tests and cataract removal surgical equipment; supports the Vermont Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired; and donates to the Austine School for the Deaf in Brattleboro, building cabins for Austine’s summer camp and sponsoring local students and campers who attend.
“We concentrate our efforts in central Vermont, because the money comes from there,” says Plante.
Adds Allan Heath, former club president and a member since 1984, “One of the key things that is significant is that 98 percent of the dollars that we take in through fundraising and donations stays in this community. I say 98 percent because Austine is in Brattleboro.
“All of the charities that we donate to, we make sure our dollar is going to do the most good, and that’s very important. People like to know that the money is going to be put in the right place.”
Though the Barre Lions’ chief focus for charitable works is sight and hearing, their list of time and cash donations to various other charities is extensive, with many thank you letters coming in every year. Local schools receive scholarships and money for initiatives like Project Graduation and for the support of hearing-impaired students. Central Vermont Home Health and Hospice, Central Vermont Council on Aging, the Salvation Army, Boy and Girl Scouts, Vermont Foodbank and the Vermont Historical Society are just a few of the organizations in the area that receive annual support from the Barre Lions.
“We find the needs and appropriate funds,” says Tina Golon, current secretary and a member since 2011.
“It’s a great organization for me, because all I do is work, work, work — my whole life is trying to make money. It’s amazing how good I feel doing just two hours of community service. The gratification you get from helping others for free — it’s unbelievable,” she adds.
Tommy Walz, former club president and Vermont Lions vice governor, agrees.
“It was really moving during the flood efforts,” he says, speaking of the Barre Lions’ delivery of food and cleaning supplies to those in need within the two weeks after Tropical Storm Irene. “Especially when we were delivering food boxes, how absolutely grateful these people were. That’s an amazing feeling.”
Walz is one of nine club members, including Heath and Plante, who are Melvin Jones Fellows, an award the club bestows on members who have shown outstanding achievements as Lions. It is the highest award the club can give.
The Barre club has 63 members — a Stowe branch formed in 2007 brings the total to 83 — and the Lions get an average of five or six new members a year, their newest joining just last week.
“We are always looking for new members. New members equal new ideas. All ages are welcome,” says Golon.
“We want people that want to do it. The only requirements are: You have to be 18 and have a pulse,” adds Heath.
Current President and King Lion Rick Theken says that continuing the membership momentum is a top priority, as is informing the community of the Lions’ charitable endeavors, which in turn boosts membership.
“Clearly you have to be interested in serving your community,” says Walz. “Our motto says it all: ‘We serve.’ There’s no ritual, no secret handshakes or anything like that.”
“But we do have fun,” adds Plante.
Not quite a ritual but something the Lions do on a regular basis is at every meeting they give a toast: “Not above you, not beneath you, but always with you.”
The Barre Lions meet every Tuesday at the Hilltop Restaurant in Barre. The first Tuesday of each month is a dinner with a speaker at 6:15 p.m.; second Tuesday is lunch and a board meeting at 12:15 p.m.; and the remaining Tuesdays are lunches with speakers at 12:15 p.m.
“Our doors are open. Anyone is welcome to come,” says Theken.
Barre City Manager Steve Mackenzie was the most recent speaker at a Tuesday lunch discussing the Barre municipal budget. Speakers, according to the Barre Lions directory, are part of the effort of the Lions to provide a forum for open discussion of all matters of public interest.
For more information about the Lions visit their website, www.barrelions.com, the Barre Lions Facebook page, or contact President Rick Theken at firstname.lastname@example.org or 476-9002.
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