Cliff Terry 2015-10-14 19:40:57
A breed apart, Sanibel Island Lions find service and island life quite compatible. Located three miles from Fort Myers on the mainland, Sanibel Island in Florida is an ideal catching ground for all sorts of fantastic shells. With folks carrying bags and buckets and bending over, the posture is popularly known as “The Sanibel Stoop.” The island also stands out for its “old Florida” appeal. New, intrusive condos are a rare species. Even the islands’ scattered “starter mansions” are shielded by native foliage. About 72 percent of Sanibel land is on conservation status, areas that can’t be developed, through acquisitions by the city, the nonprofit Conservation Foundation and the influential J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge. Sanibel is a world apart. And so is its thriving Lions club—at least in a few ways. The Sanibel-Captiva Lions Club is dedicated to usual Lions’ projects such as vision screenings. But it’s also a club that reflects its peculiar location and adapts to members’ particular concerns. The Lions’ service model has found a cozy home even on islands set apart from the mainland. Sanibel Island is flat, long and narrow—12 miles long and three miles at its widest. About 6,700 people live here. Sanibel, as well as its adjacent Florida barrier island Captiva, have long been delightful destinations for tired-of-shoveling Northerners and in-the-know Floridians who love the surf, laid-back pace of life and those late-afternoon moments when, as novelist Richard Ford has written, “the sun turns the sea to sequined fires.” You overhear conversations on Sanibel you don’t hear anywhere else. In a seashell-cleaning hut at a motel, a husband said to his wife, “It’s all about the shells, isn’t it? That’s why we come here.” “Well, actually,” she replied, somewhat sheepishly, “we came here to get away from the kids.” Many of the 70 members of the Sanibel-Captiva Lions Club are winter-only residents (the legendary “snowbirds”) who escape to Sanibel for six or so months. About 30 club members live on Sanibel year-round, and the rest belong to other Lions clubs in their home area. About 70 percent are retired. (No members currently live on Captiva, population 500.) The snowbird Lions, like other residents, donate their time to preserve the charm of the island. “Some of our members are involved with our well-known environment, working on nature carpentry projects,” says Lion Leslie Forney, a retired Army brigadier general, city manager and law firm administrator. “For eight years I was a ‘Hammerhead’— volunteers doing construction work, renovation, things like that—for the Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation. Many of the Hammerheads have been Lions.” The Conservation Foundation has fought such development proposals as a huge trailer park and golf and tennis club, and campaigned for measures ranging from protection for alligators to eliminating junked cars. Sanibel bases its land-development code on the preservation of natural resources. With few exceptions, the buildings are restricted to a height of three stories, and on both Sanibel and Captiva from May through October (the nesting season for sea turtles) residents must keep lights near the beaches off or shielded. (Islanders have been longtime battlers. One elderly Sanibel couple in the 1960s fought putting a road through their property—standing off a bulldozer with a crossbow.) Undoubtedly, the crown jewel of the islands is the “Ding” Darling refuge, run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and named after a pioneer conservationist who was also, of all things, a Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist. The refuge contains more than 7,000 acres of magnificent habitat for all kinds of birds, mammals and fish. More than 800,000 people visit it annually, many never getting out of their cars as they traverse the five-mile Wildlife Drive. Over 220 bird species have been spotted here, from pied-billed grebes and white and brown pelicans and ospreys to brilliant roseate spoonbills and the curiously-dancing reddish egrets. Lion Cliff Nolan, a retired account manager for a floor covering company, observes that Sanibel is unusual in another respect. Someone once told him there are more registered nonprofits in the zip code (33957) than any other in the country. “It does give you an indication that there is a lot of charity work done around here, and a lot of competition for dollars from generous people,” he says. Lion Jim Graham, who owned a manufacturing company in Fort Myers before retiring, says his fellow members are probably more dedicated to charities than most clubs. Members are from so many diverse places that they pay more attention to other things besides their immediate Sanibel community, according to Bruce Cochrane, 2014-15 club president and a Realtor. For example, they leave the island and travel to places such as Immokalee to distribute eyeglasses. “We’re small, so we branch out,” he says. “Members will come in from other clubs and remark, ‘Hey, this is something we might adopt here.’ It’s kind of nice.” The major fundraiser is the three-day Arts and Crafts Show held in March on Sanibel. A contingent of artists sell a variety of wares, and the club gets a percentage of their sales. In the three days, they generally raise about $40,000, so it’s not an insignificant event. The club also donates time and money for a camp for people of all ages with disabilities on the Caloosahatchee River just outside of Fort Myers. It runs an $180,000 college scholarship program. Members also conduct health screenings at the local recreation center for glaucoma, blood pressure and diabetes. There are two or three retired physicians in the group. Another event is the newly-established Eye Ball, a dance held last November. The goal was to raise money for a small $6,000 camera to screen children aged 4 to 8. As it turned out, the Eye Ball made twice as much money as needed. “We were all real excited,” says Cochrane. “We feel that kids’ vision is just as important as our screenings, which mostly end up getting older people.” Not everything, of course, is blue skies and roseate spoonbills. Lions are well aware of the numbing bumper-to-bumper traffic, which is why some vacationers shun these islands. The traffic jam is usually between 3 and 6 p.m., when workers and day-tripping tourists head back to the Fort Meyers mainland. But there are back routes, which avoid the mess, as the Lions know how to do. Then there are challenges specific to the club. Perhaps not surprisingly, there isn’t a Leo organization. The school on Sanibel goes through only eighth grade, so the students have to go to South Fort Myers High School, where they tend to stick around after school for sports and activities. A lot of families consequently sell their homes on Sanibel and move for the high school. Plus, it’s an affluent community. One Realtor says if you can find a house on Sanibel for under $500,000, you’re doing well. Very few condos go for under $400,000, and Captiva prices are even higher. “Attracting young members is a real problem,” says Nolan. “We have one member who’s not even 30, but he’s probably the only one under 40. Sanibel not only typifies ‘Florida retirement,’ but it probably sets the leadership role. However, I think a lot of clubs are like that. The world is changing.” To help recruiting, the club sends members to a meet-and-greet session for new property owners at the Sanibel Community Center. With such a diverse community of folks from all over the country, it’s not surprising to find an occasional standout character. One was a founding member of the club, Francis Bailey Jr., who owned the local grocery store and was a onetime mayor. He died in 2013 at age 92. He and his brother were known for many things, including playing softball, as one person put it, “forever.” “Francis was an unusual person in his own right—generous before it was in fashion,” says Nolan. “He loved this island tremendously and loved all the people who shared his enthusiasm. Our club is experiencing the same loss as the rest of the island. If Francis met you once, he remembered you. And if you came back three years later, and you walked into his store, he’d remember your name. He was everybody’s friend. It’s hard to describe him. He wrote his own thing, you know?” The same can be said for the Sanibel-Captiva Lions Club. When in Florida, Do as Floridians Do Held in late winter (or what passes for winter in Florida), the Strawberry Festival in Plant City is enormously popular. Attendance is more than 800,000 for the 11 days. “It’s No. 2 in the state, next to Disney World,” says Lion Gail Lyons, co-chair of the pageant committee. “I asked one woman if she attended the state fair and she said, ‘We used to. Not anymore. We like the Strawberry Festival better.’” Chartered in 1929, the Plant City Lions Club helped start the festival, and today it operates a food booth and hosts the Strawberry Festival Queen’s Scholarship Pageant. Lions in Florida roar with shrewdness—capitalizing on successful ventures in a state crawling with tourists and home to thriving industries such as fishing. Lions take no chances in attracting crowds to its food booth at the Strawberry Festival. A sign proclaims “Best Prices at the Festival!” Customers who buy a cheeseburger or bowl of chili also are treated to a roar—provided they make a $1 donation to the Plant City Lions Club. A Lion or Leo wearing a “Hear us Roar” T-shirt duly complies as promised. Some Leos roar with perhaps a little less gusto. “These girls are teenagers, and, of course, are somewhat embarrassed to be giving a roar,” confides one adult volunteer. The club’s food booth grosses more than $3,500 a day. The strawberry queen pageant produces ample revenue each year from the $15 pageant tickets and sponsorship ads in the festival program book. The club also runs a golf tournament in October. The pageant had 15 contestants this year. “Any of those 15 could have worn that crown,” says Lyons. “They have to have a GPA of 3.0 or above, and have to be 16 and not older than 20 by March 1. Our judging criteria is poise and stage presence, and she must really be well versed in speaking ability because as queen you are put on the spot at the drop of a hat. For those 11 days and even a year, she and her court have to make personal appearances.” “They’re articulate and smart,” adds Tony Lee, a State Farm insurance agent who’s a long way from his native Vietnam. “These are future leaders.” “We have 55 members in our club, and maybe a third are retirees,” says Lee, club president. “And we have a lot of Leos helping us.” The club donates to a whole list of charities, from Meals on Wheels to Southeastern Guide Dogs, and sponsors an annual eye-screening event for children. In another part of the state, the Fort Myers Beach Lions Club Shrimp Festival this year drew nearly 20,000 people, who consumed 1,378 pounds of shrimp. “It’s Gulf Pink Shrimp, a.k.a.‘Pink Gold.’” says Darby Doerzbacher, a Lion since 1987 and the first woman club president in 1992-93. Doerzbacher works in the Fort Myers Beach shrimp business in fleet operations. “I inherited the job of Shrimp Festival chairman from my predecessor—who did not tell me it was an assignment for life!” The shrimp dinners come with slaw, crackers and a secret cocktail sauce made on site with ketchup and horseradish as well as secret ingredients. The winner of the Shrimp Eating Contest ate 1.4 pounds of shrimp in three minutes. But it’s not all about eating. The 5K Shrimp Run drew 371 runners. More than 100 arts and craft vendors sold wares. The festival also includes a parade and a queen's pageant. The Fort Myers Beach Lions Foundation nets more than $50,000 for the two-day event. “This is an extensive endeavor for a club with 33 members. About 95 percent turned out to help,” says Doerzbacher. Many non-Lions help work the festival, too. “We could not do it without them,” she adds. —By Cliff Terry
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