Paige Austin 2015-12-08 17:05:20
One of the nation’s largest, the Seal Beach Lions Club in California is the get-‘er-done group in its picturesque oceanside town. Five years ago, urged on by a friend, Camille Romano, an oil company manager, joined the Seal Beach Lions Club. She had misgivings. “I wasn’t raised to be part of a group, so this was a real departure for me,” says Romano. It didn’t help that the Lions had a reputation for being an old man’s club, she adds with a laugh. Yet Romano fit in so well that she ended up serving as 2014-15 president. Located a couple dozen miles south of Los Angeles, Seal Beach is a touristy, seaside village with 24,000 people. It’s a low-crime community with a neighborly vibe. Locals fondly refer to it as “Mayberry by the Sea.” Lions meet in the Khoury’s restaurant hall overlooking the Long Beach Marina. Speakers have to compete with a gorgeous view of the sun setting over the Pacific. Meetings have the feel of a beach-party family reunion. Flip flops and surf T-shirts are the unofficial uniform in the bimonthly gathering of about 100 to 150 members. That kind of informality appealed to Romano. And it’s appealed to a lot of other residents. The Seal Beach Lions Club is one of the largest and fastest-growing clubs in the nation. It has the most women, family members and Leos of any club nationwide. Of the club’s 310 members, 49 percent are women. It’s a club that reaches out to young people with about 200 youths in three Leo clubs. The club was never exactly small: it had 100 members five years ago. So how did it triple its membership? What is the secret to its growth? There really is no secret or even a brilliant or unorthodox strategy. The club has focused on serving and on being visible, a strategy meant to attract members. And they focused on Leos, sponsoring them and including them in everything they do. “We saw results much earlier than expected. People heard about us, saw us serving and came to one of our happy hours or bimonthly orientations,” says Scott Newton, a past president. Careful not to lose his footing, Ryan Rodriguez, 18, picks his way along the rock jetty jutting out into the Pacific Ocean. It’s a perfect day. Distant Catalina Island looks almost close enough to swim to. The sun shines down on Rodriguez, and a gentle ocean breeze cools him off as he works. Around him, about 20 other teens, Seal Beach Leos, paint over a riotous rainbow of graffiti smattered over the jetty separating Seal Beach’s coastline from Long Beach in California. The teens work mostly in pairs, leapfrogging along the jetty as one spots graffiti, and the other paints over it. They talk and joke as they work. Even a stranger can see this is a tight-knit group. Rodriguez is all business. With uncanny focus, he spurns efforts at small talk and works methodically to make sure no graffiti in his pathway will survive undetected. It seems like nothing can distract him until a plane flies overhead. Suddenly, Ryan is transfixed. He rattles off the plane’s make and model. At a glance, he knows when it was built and what it was used for. “Ryan is autistic,” explains his mother Lori Yoshida. “He loves planes.” Yoshida enrolled her son in the Leos four years ago, and the experience has been life-changing for him. “It’s really been a positive thing,” says Yoshida. “The kids have been great with him. It’s meant so much for him to be around them just doing regular activities and hanging out. The Lions have been really supportive.” “I like feeling supported,” Ryan chimes in. While Yoshida was looking for a low-pressure environment for her son to socialize with other kids, Rodriguez turned out to be an important member of the club, helping out with cleanups and volunteering to work the annual Lions Fish Fry at the Seal Beach pier. The Lions made it clear: they needed Ryan. His story is a common one among Leos and among Seal Beach Lions. They joined looking for a chance to give back to their community only to discover that the club had changed their lives. Or, conversely, they joined in hopes of making new friends only to discover they had it in them to make a true difference in the community. The club’s monthly calendar is jammed with almost daily events ranging from meetings, donation drives and graffiti cleanups to blindfolded dinners and softball games to help those with sight understand what it is like to be blind. Two of Seal Beach’s largest events, the festive Christmas Parade and the cherished 70-year-old annual Fish Fry at the pier, are both hosted by the Lions. For locals, the Lions are known as the go-to foot soldiers when there is a big job to be done on short notice. “When I need the project to get done, it’s the Lions I turn to for help. They never flake. They never say, ‘No. We’ve already done enough for you,’” says Lina Lumme, executive director of The Youth Center in Los Alamitos. Lumme relies on the Lions and Leos for manpower setting up graduation ceremonies, the center’s annual Christmas Tree lot and the “Every 15 Minutes” drunk-driving education program at the local high school. “When you think you can’t possibly ask them to do anything more, they surprise you,” says Lumme. “They just never say, ‘No.’” Folks in Seal Beach and neighboring Los Alamitos take it for granted that the Lions will be there to donate the manpower for community causes. When McGaugh Elementary opts for a food booth at the school fair, it’s the Lions who donate the food and staff the booth. When a beloved activist who organized beach cleanups in Seal Beach passed away in 2014, it was the Lions who set up her beachside memorial service. When mobs descend on Seal Beach’s publined Main Street every St. Patrick’s Day, it’s the Lions who provide sober drivers and vans to get revelers home safely. And when a mass murderer walked into a Seal Beach salon in 2011 and shot nine people, killing eight, the Lions organized a silent auction and fundraiser on Main Street to raise funds for the victims’ families. For a community in the throes of mourning and post traumatic shock, the event was a rallying point for residents and businesses. The fundraiser brought in more than $36,000. More importantly, it was how one town showed heart in the face of evil. Seal Beach Lions take pride in being ubiquitous around Seal Beach. “We are not a knife and fork club. We have projects going on every week,” says Ellen Liebherr, 2012-13 president and a past district governor. “I have never heard anybody say ‘no’ to a call for help.” And that is what Chardy Lang was hoping for when she approached the club with an idea for a Leo club comprised of home-schooled kids. She had already been turned down at the district level and didn’t know what to expect when she approached the Seal Beach Lions at their annual fish fry. “They said come on over to Seal Beach, and that was that,” recalls Lang. “Just like that, there were 40 new Leos.” In the 18 months since they joined the club, the homeschooled Leos have been among the most consistent volunteers. In their first year, they were honored as the Leo Club of the Year by Lions Clubs International, and their president was named International Leo of the Year. The club took a gamble with something new, and it paid off, says Liebherr, the membership chair. “We are not afraid of change. You could put ‘change’ in our name,” she says. “You just have to step out of your comfort zone. It makes you see who you really are.” Newton can remember the exact moment the Seal Beach Lions first stepped out of their comfort zone. It was five years ago. As with so many other clubs, membership was stagnant. The Seal Beach Lions needed to try something new. “There was a definite sense in our club that we really didn’t have enough to do, and I think there was this pent-up demand to do service,” says Newton. So the Lions went looking for ways to help. The local newspaper printed a letter from a reader complaining about the state of disrepair a local park bench had fallen into. So the Lions volunteered to refurbish it and ended up repairing 26 public benches battered by the salty sea air. But it was with graffiti removal that the Lions met a need that no one else could. Despite its calm and peaceful vibe, Seal Beach is hardly immune from the Southern California graffiti scourge. About four years ago, there was a prominent business right in the heart of town with graffiti scrawled all over its wall. “The city had a problem because the owner wouldn’t clean it up, and the city can’t do it for legal reasons,” says Newton. “So the city called the Lions because they know we are the get-’er-done group. We went down and painted over it—problem solved. “That led us to wonder who is cleaning up graffiti around town, and we told the city we are taking over,” Newton says. “And we went after it with a vengeance. Two thousand tags and five months later, we had every single tag cleaned, and graffiti just kind of disappeared around town.” Ray Longoria, the club’s graffiti guru, maintains a hotline and a standing army ready, at moment’s notice, to do battle with graffiti. Tooling around town in a golf cart with a license plate that reads ‘I ❤ SLBCH,’ Longoria keeps paint and supplies ever at-the-ready in his cart. From gang tagging spread across walls to initials penned onto a payphone, Longoria and his crew usually have it cleaned up within 24 hours of discovery. It’s hard work ridding an entire city of graffiti, but Longoria, a consummate joker, has a way of making each cleanup feel more like a party. “Our graffiti program has actually become a great recruitment tool,” says Newton. Residents and business owners see the Lions in their bright yellow shirts making a difference and want to join or donate supplies, he says. In a laid-back beach town where city council members and staff don Hawaiian shirts for public meetings, Newton fits right in. Tall, tan and typically clad in Lions’ yellow, Newton’s laid-back vibe belies a passion for his club and a shrewd approach to growing membership. “We needed to be everywhere,” says Newton. “Not just at meetings. Not just at Lions events. Everywhere. And branding? It’s key. We ordered tons of T-shirts and banners. We wanted to be sure people knew who we were.” It’s worked. In the five years since the Lions decided to do something about their stagnant numbers, the club spurted from about 100 members to 310. The branding and the constant service projects may have helped draw in new members, but it’s something else that keeps them, says Newton. The club goes out of its way to be inclusive. Women were elected as club presidents for three years in a row, and unusually low dues help encourage members to bring their families. “Family is a big part of our club,” says Newton. “That’s why I joined. With the Lions, you can still serve without having to put your kids on the shelf. You bring them right along with you.” He and his wife, Cathy, are the unofficial patriarch and matriarch of the club. They seem to attend every event together, and they know each Leo by name. For the Newtons, family and the Lions go hand-in-hand. A Lion for 27 years, Scott Newton brought his wife and two children, parents, grandfather and his brothers and their children into the Lions. In September, in a ceremony on the beach, his son, Grant, married Diana Brunjes, a Lion he met through the club, naturally.
Published by International Association of Lions Clubs . View All Articles.
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