Ben Steelman is one of my favorite people on the planet. We share mutual passions for books, film, artists, cats, underdogs, and people who are authentically themselves without apology. Anyone who has the pleasure of getting to know Ben will learn very quickly he is deeply committed to, and very proud of, the work of the local Lions Club.
A couple of weeks ago Ben invited me to a meeting. I admit: I can’t say no to Ben. Also, I was intrigued.
“So how was it?” Jock asked over dinner.
“Well, they opened with the Pledge of Allegiance and then everyone sang ‘Home on the Range.’”
“You’re kidding,” Jock responded.
I shook my head and grinned. “I think I’m in love. It was pretty darn wonderful.”
Jock took a gulp of beer. “Well, it sounds like you had a pretty good day.”
I grinned. “I haven’t had that much fun in a long time. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t all singing. They conducted a lot of club business. They have a bunch of vision screenings and clinics coming up. They talked about their plans, communicating with nearby clubs and had a report from the regional convention—you know, usual club business. It was actually pretty impressive all they have planned.”
“So are you going back?”
“Well, they did give me a membership application, and did I mention they sang ‘Home on the Range’?”
“You did.” He chuckled and sipped his beer. “Where the deer and the antelope roam…” he sang and raised his glass in salute.
Lions Club International was founded in 1917 by Melvin Jones. It was not until Helen Keller gave a speech to the Lions in 1925 and challenged them to be “Knights of the Blind” that they began to focus their service efforts toward vision-related activities.
“Will you not help me hasten the day when there shall be no preventable blindness; no little deaf, blind child untaught; no blind man or woman unaided?” she pled. “I appeal to you, Lions, you who have your sight, your hearing, you who are strong and brave and kind. Will you not constitute yourselves Knights of the Blind in this crusade against darkness?”
Almost every time I have met someone with the Lions Club, they reference that speech. I can understand why. It is incredibly moving, and like Keller herself, hard to deny. The mission touched hearts of people around the world; currently, Lions International boasts a membership in the 1.4 million range.
But what does that mean? What do they actually do? Well in our community the Lions collect broken and discarded glasses, fix them and distribute them to people who need glasses and can’t afford to get a new prescription.
We have a collection box for them at the bookstore. One of the unexpected consequences is that word has spread among people in need that they can get glasses from the box. It is not unusual for me to arrive at the store and find someone combing through and trying on glasses to see what works. It has sort of cut out the middle man. But it is a very-short term fix to a bigger problem. When someone needs a real prescription and glasses, grabbing cast-offs out of a box will only go so far.
Enter the Lions again: Besides refurbishing and distributing glasses, they also conduct vision screenings and clinics. They have a program for people without insurance or money for medical expenses to pay just $10 for a trip to an optometrist. They will receive a full exam and get a prescription for glasses.
During the lunch meeting I attended, locations and planning for the upcoming screenings were important topics of conversation. Dr. Warwick of Seashore Eye Associates pointed out that part of a full eye exam provides information about overall health and could be an early indicator of issues that need to be addressed further. Heads nodded in agreement as she spoke. (Readers who know someone in need of real medical care for their eyes, but cannot afford it, can contact the Lions for help!)
In addition to clinics, screenings, doctor’s care and glasses (as if that wasn’t enough), our local Lions work with the larger North Carolina Lions organization to provide white canes to the visually impaired, and when needed, guide dogs for people.
Also, they host folks at Camp Dogwood. Founded in 1967, the 65-acre wooded camp is on the shore of Lake Norman. For 10 weeks every summer, Camp Dogwood hosts week-long overnight camp sessions for blind and visually impaired people. There is a long list of things I naively assumed would not be part of life if one is blind. The Lions and Camp Dogwood are determined to prove most of that list wrong. They offer a nature trail with a guide rope, miniature golf, boating, tubing, and swimming in Lake Norman, a touchable art gallery (awesome!), horseshoes, and a library with Braille, audio books, and computers with adaptive software. The club not only contributes to Camp Dogwood directly but helps people attend who normally wouldn’t be able due to financial constraints.
Though the international work is remarkable, and includes an effort to address tropical diseases that attack vision (like river blindness), and eye surgery in areas without access to ophthalmologists, the local work done in our community is the inspiring story. All the fun of the meeting aside, it is serious business they accomplish.
Anyone who stuck his or her head into the back room of McAlister’s Deli in the time leading up to the meeting would see a room full of lovely people, eating salads and catching up about their grandkids. It wouldn’t be immediately apparent how their work is almost heroic. In fact, I don’t know if they know it. Many members belonged to other Lions Clubs in previous cities and joined our club when they retired here.
They bring insight, experience and hope to join forces with our stalwart members. And they greet everybody with a smile, because the Lions do bring kindness. It’s not an attitude of “there are too many people who want our help,” rather, “how can we reach more people to help?”
The local club was founded in 1922. After one afternoon with these men and women, I can’t imagine how different our community would be without 94 years of their service and lion-sized hearts.