Elizabeth Blackwell 2014-09-10 06:47:10
What makes someone a Lion? Often, the motivation is deeply personal, a life-changing event or experience. Several Lions—both veterans and newbies—share what led them to Lions and continues to inspire their service. Dreams of Democracy It’s a long way from Iran to California. Leave it to a blind entrepreneur who had to flee his native land because of his democratic activism to embrace Lions for their civic engagement and as a lever to push for change in the world. Born in Iran, Arman Soltani lost his sight and much of his hearing when he was 2 years old. Desperate to improve his prospects, his parents immigrated to northern California in search of better schooling. Soltani had his first encounter with Lions in high school. “I wanted to go to a wrestling camp in Minnesota, but we didn’t have a lot of money,” he says. “My dad told me to pray.” Soltani did more than pray; he rang up a Lion in San Rafael and said he’d been told they helped blind people. “Well, come to our meeting, and we’ll listen to what you have to say,” the Lion told him. Soltani made his pitch. “Afterward, they gave my mom a check for $800—the full amount,” he says. Soltani went on to start his own mortgage and printing businesses, which allowed him to be financially independent. “I’ve had to be a business owner since I was 18 because people wouldn’t hire me at the level I wanted to be paid,” he says. In the summer of 2001, he visited Iran for a month—on the urging of his mother, who hoped he’d find a suitable girl to marry—and it changed his life. “I was pretty cocky,” says Soltani, 38. “I was a blind guy, but I felt like I could do anything. And everyone I met in Iran was so unsatisfied with their life.” When he came back to the United States, Soltani was determined to help bring democracy to Iran, and he wrote a model constitution for activists to use. In 2007, he returned to Iran and stayed for two years. “Most Iranians are very sophisticated and educated,” he says. “There is so much potential. My whole life I’d wanted to focus on human rights, and everything seemed to be pushing me in that direction.” In 2009, when the Iranian government cracked down on pro-democracy protestors, Soltani was forced to flee the country in secret, narrowly escaping with the help of Kurdish smugglers. He recounts the story in an audiobook, “Fire in the Darkness,” which he is selling to help fund his pro-democracy initiatives. (Order at www.fireinthedarkness.com). Soltani and his wife Margory moved to Discovery Bay two years ago, drawn by the community’s boating and watersport- friendly lifestyle; Soltani is an avid water skier and river rafter. Joining the town’s Lions club was a no-brainer. “My biggest passion in life is to help people, and that’s what the Lions are about,” he says. Noting that there are no Lions clubs in Iran, he hopes to translate the Lions charter into Farsi. “I’m a dreamer,” Soltani says. “No matter what challenges or disabilities you have, there’s always a way to adapt. I believe you can make big changes—as long as you’re willing to work hard to get there.” Remembering a Role Model Regina Evans became the first legally blind president of the Shallotte Lions Club in North Carolina last year. When she presides over a meeting, she is reminded of the traditional role of Lions, the part they played in her life and her motivation to give back in kind. When she fingers the lion necklace she wears, she is reminded of the one particular Lion who mentored her as a Lion and steadied her during a health crisis but unexpectedly passed away. Evans lost most of her sight as a baby after contracting measles and pneumonia. To her, that was a setback, not a tragedy. She grew up trying to avoid being defined by her disability. Her life followed the routine course of school, work and marriage. She attended and then worked at a state school for the blind. She married, had a daughter and moved to South Carolina in 1993 for her husband’s job. “It was a big adjustment for me, to start over,” she says. She got a job with the South Carolina Independent Living Council, where she helped people with a variety of disabilities to become more self-sufficient. Inspired by her own life experiences, she also developed a sensitivity program to teach others how to interact with people who are visually impaired. Lesson Number One: “Don’t grab my arm—ask me if I need help.” Evans, 56, still has happy memories of the Christmas parties held by the Lions in her hometown of Whiteville. “They invited all the visually-impaired children in our area, and it made us feel very special,” she says. Evans became an associate member of the Georgetown club 10 years ago and not long after, she met Carl Applewhite of the Conway Lions Club. She proudly describes him as “a true Lion.” The two clicked immediately. “He believed in service and everything Lionism stands for, and he was the reason I decided to stay,” she says. In 2007, her family moved back to North Carolina to be closer to relatives, and two years later, Evans was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her friend Applewhite provided moral support throughout her illness, and after her recovery, she decided to join the Shallotte Lions Club. But just as Evans’ health was improving, Applewhite’s took a turn for the worse. When Evans was asked to serve as president, she said she would do it only if Applewhite agreed to come induct her. He agreed, but sadly, died of lung disease only a few months later. Evans wears a lion necklace Applewhite planned to give her at the induction ceremony, as well as a small plaque engraved with a portion of his intended speech: “Madame Lion President Regina, I’m so proud of you. Call on me, I’ll be there looking over your shoulder.” “It has been challenging,” says Evans, “but I have to be the best Lion I can be, for Carl. I don’t let barriers stand in my way; I’ve knocked down plenty in my life.” Like many clubs, the Shallotte Lions are facing an aging membership, so attracting new, younger members is at the top of Evans’ to-do list. But her main priority, and the reason she wants those new members, is so the club can donate more to eye research: “That’s where my heart is, and it’s what Lionism stands for.” Secretary Don Eggert says Evans has given all of the Shallotte Lions a better understanding of what it means to be visually impaired. “She’s an inspiration,” he says. “She has not let her disability slow her down, and her passion for Lionism and ‘We Care’ attitude show at every meeting.” In her day-to-day life, Evans exemplifies the message she is so eager for others to understand: that every blind person is a unique individual. “We want respect,” she says. “I may not be able to do something the way you would, but I can do it my way. If I can do nothing more than educate the community about Lionism and get them to understand what it means to serve the visually impaired, then I’ve had a successful year.” Son’s Ordeal Motivates Parents When his son, Daniel, 8, was sick with leukemia, Keith Wright often slept overnight in a chair in his hospital room. This was 1972, before living quarters were available for parents of severely ill children. Sadly, it also was before the availability of bone marrow transplants. Daniel was sick for three years. “He was a typical boy– very active,” recalls Wright. In their grief over his death, Keith and Virgie Wright banded together with several other parents they had met at the hospital and to serve children with life-threatening illnesses founded in 1979 the state’s first Ronald McDonald House and just the 10th overall. Years later, Wright became a Lion partly to promote support for the 375 Ronald McDonald Houses worldwide. To establish the House, he often drove two hours or more one way after work to drum up support from Lions, Jaycees, Rotarians and church groups. Then his grief was raw and fresh. Today, a 79-year-old retiree, he can talk about his son matter-of-factly. But the desire to make the burden a little lighter for those who experienced what he did remains strong, and he continues to serve as an ambassador for the Houses, regularly speaking before groups and picking up bags of pop tabs. He stays active “because I lost my son,” he explains. Establishing the House was not easy. The bank from which he eventually secured a line of credit had no idea what a Ronald McDonald House was. With support from McDonalds, the families eventually scraped together $90,000 and converted an old fraternity at the University of Minnesota into an eight-bedroom living quarters. Today, the Ronald McDonald House on Oak Street contains 48 large apartments and a fully accredited K-12 school, the state’s only one-room schoolhouse. At 75,000-square-feet, the residence is the size of a Marriott and just as comfortable and clean. Wright can quickly tick off the statistics that show the value of the House. The average cost for a bone marrow transplant exceeds $300,000. The average stay for a family is 215 days. The House has a 95 percent occupancy rate. Home when children become critically ill is where the health care is. “Are you a parent? Parents don’t leave their kids,” says Wright, a Nisswa Lion and a former manager in the furniture industry. More than 50 Lions clubs have supported the Oak Street residence and the other two Ronald McDonald residences in the area. Nearly a dozen Lions clubs take part in the Cook for Kids program, where volunteers prepare a meal, serve it and then clean up. A caravan of Aitkin Lions recently drove hours to cook for the nearly 250 people at the House. Tragedies often destroy marriages and irreparably wound people. Service gave the Wrights a way to cope. “It didn’t tear us apart. It made us stronger,” says Wright. –Jay Copp Staking a Place in the Community When Adam Zakroczymski Jr. accepted a job offer and moved to Antioch, Illinois, in 1986, he and his wife knew no one. They were total strangers. How do you fit in and make friends? Follow the sound of the roar and keep going. As the Zakroczymskis explored the small town of 7,000, they noticed that its best, family-friendly amenities— including a swimming pool and a large park—had been built using funds raised by Lions. “They were the prime movers getting things done,” Zakroczymski says. Joining the Antioch club, as he did in 1990, “was an opportunity to become a part of this community, meeting and helping people.” Since then, there has barely been a year when Zakroczymski, now 68, hasn’t served on the board or been involved with projects such as a playground, a sports park named in honor of deceased club member Tim Osmond and scholarships for high school students. At Thanksgiving and Christmas, club members deliver 75 food baskets to families in need. “They’re substantial,” says Zakroczymski proudly. “We need strong guys to carry them.” Zakroczymski’s out-of-the-box thinking was the key to one of the club’s most successful fundraisers: a personalized Monopoly board game (which he first saw advertised in the LION). The club sold naming rights to streets, railroads and other features on the “Game of Antioch” board, and the bidding quickly got heated. “By the first afternoon, all the major streets were sold,” Zakroczymski remembers. “Businesses were paying $1,500 to get their name on a corner square.” The Monopoly fundraiser and the proceeds of a wild-game dinner and auction raised $20,000 for a local wetlands sanctuary, named in honor of past club president William E. Brook. This year Zakroczymski became the first three-time president in the club’s history. In recognition of his service, he has been named a Melvin Jones Fellow and received the President’s Award for Leadership and Excellence in 2012. “He’s extremely positive and upbeat, and he’s always encouraging others,” says Chuck Cermak, a past president and Zakroczymski’s sponsor. “His caring for this community is one of the driving forces behind our club.” Zakroczymski has also brought Lionism to the next generation, encouraging his son Adam (nicknamed “Zak Three”) to join as soon as he turned 18. “They stuck me on the board right away,” laughs Adam Zakroczymski III. He was elected president when he was 25, the youngest president in the club’s history. Now a 32-year-old father of two, he runs an environmental-testing business in Antioch with his father. The two Zaks may joke about who will serve the most terms as president, but “it’s not about the guy at the helm,” says the younger Zakroczymski. “It’s about the crew that helps steer the ship.” The population of Antioch has doubled since Zakrocymski Jr. moved to town, and all those new residents are reaping the benefits of the Lions’ hard work. “It’s been a hell of a ride,” he says, “and I wouldn’t change these years for anything. The Lions are here to help our community, and we have.” Safe Harbor in Minnesota Scratch a club and find a Lion with a story that tells why he’s passionate about Lions and the club’s projects. The Coon Rapids Lions Club has at least two such members. One’s story is ordinary yet meaningful and resonant. The other’s story is extraordinary–something very much out of the ordinary occurred that left a lifelong mark and commitment. When Lyle Goff was laid off from his job 10 years ago, his wife told him he was not allowed to sit on the couch and feel sorry for himself. The Goffs had been on the receiving end of Lions generosity through fundraisers the Coon Rapids Club ran with school and community groups, and Goff realized it was time to step up and do his part. “Becoming a member meant becoming part of the fabric of our town,” he says. “If I hadn’t joined, I would not have developed so many long-lasting friendships with our club members, our civic leaders and just everyday people who live here.” The club, which recently celebrated its 60th anniversary, has been on an upswing, thanks to a move to recruit more empty nesters—people who, like Goff, are looking for a productive way to fill their time. For the last four years, the club has held a free lunch event in a popular park, handing out up to 300 pulled pork sandwiches while talking up Lions. “Nobody’s going to promote us better than ourselves,” says Goff, 51, now president. The club also takes part in “Hooked on Fishing, Not Drugs,” a popular annual event along the Mississippi River that includes hands-on demonstrations about water safety, sport fishing and knot-tying. The Coon Rapids Lions collect and refurbish used fishing gear to donate at the event. The fishing event is of special interest to fellow Lion Al Meyer, 68, a retired carpenter, a longtime fisherman and a witness as a boy to a tragic drowning. As an 8-year-old farm boy, Meyer was at the local beach when he heard a commotion. A crowd gathered. “The parents were screaming. It was like a shooting, a car accident,” recalls Meyer. “The mother was pounding on his chest, trying to get the life back in him. But he was blue.” The boy, perhaps 3, had been on a boat and slipped off. Water safety is better today, but still terribly lacking. “Every time I fish I see a kid jumping around a boat, not wearing a properly fitted jacket or not wearing one at all,” says Meyer, shaking his head. “It’s such a preventable thing. It’s almost easier than wearing a seat belt.” The Lions’ fishing event includes precise, patient instruction on water safety. “My life is pretty much used up,” says Meyer. “But if we can save one life, especially a child’s, it’s all worth it.”
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