As a caseworker for Child Protective Services in Phoenix, Elizabeth Michaelis, 26, has seen more than her share of heartache. The current economic situation has only made her job more frustrating. The number of children in need keeps growing, as parents lose their jobs or fall behind in their mortgage payments. At the same time, cash-strapped local governments are cutting their budgets, leaving Michaelis and her co-workers with fewer resources to help out. One case in particular hit her especially hard. Two teenage brothers had spent years shuffling between family members, finally ending up with their great-grandmother. She meant well, but could only provide the barest necessities on her limited income. Michaelis knew that if the boys’ basic needs weren’t met, she would have no choice but to move them into foster care. “When I heard they were sleeping on the floor, I called my mom the same day,” Michaelis said. In less than a week, Michaelis’s mother and her friends had bought and delivered beds, bags of groceries and clothes. The boys were especially thrilled to receive laundry carts and detergent— everyday items the rest of us take for granted. “They’re pretty much raising themselves, and they just wanted to have clean clothes for school,” says Michaelis. Michaelis’s network of friends and family also happened to be fellow Lions, members of the multigenerational Phoenix Adobe Mountain Lions Club in Arizona. When Michaelis heard one of her co-workers talking about a family with five children ages 6 and under all sleeping in the same bed, she brought it up at the club’s next meeting and the members went into action again. “We decided this would be our focus,” says Michaelis. “As a social worker, I see a lot of people struggle. With Lions, I feel like I’m able to make a difference.” The Phoenix Adobe Mountain Lions Club may be a relatively new, relatively small club; it chartered in March 2008 and currently has 23 members. But this family club is a tightly knit group whose members believe strongly in their core mission: to help other, less fortunate families. For many, it’s the culmination of life experiences that have brought them face-to-face with the needs of their community. Now, their passion and determination have convinced their spouses and children to join them. Take Mary Michaelis, 55, Elizabeth’s mother. As an outreach worker at a public school for homeless children in Phoenix, she helped families find places to stay, maintained a clothing room so that students could have something clean to wear, provided transportation and coordinated public services. “The job was all encompassing,” she says. At the invitation of Dr. Art Parker, one of the school’s founders, she visited a Lions club in Phoenix and eventually became its first woman member. But it wasn’t a perfect fit. Michaelis realized she and a few other members wanted to focus on more direct, more hands-on service. They also discussed how they had the most fun on club trips, when their families came along. What if every meeting could have that same spirit? And so the Adobe Mountain Club was born. “We didn’t really know what we were doing, but we went ahead and did it anyway,” laughs President Terry Barrett, 72. A retired college professor and former school superintendent, he spent his career mentoring students. “My work with Lions is a continuation of what I’ve done all my life,” he says. Barrett and his wife, Sandy, have brought their children, Sean and Shannon, into the club as well, along with their spouses and children. “My daughter lives 40 miles to the east of me, and my son lives 30 miles to the west,” says Barrett. “The club has brought us all together.” Though Sean and Shannon are too busy with work and family obligations to attend most meetings, the whole family gets together for club activities. Barrett’s four grandchildren, ranging in age from 6 to 1 and-a-half, even helped put together care packages for troops overseas. “We’re grooming the next generation,” Barrett says. Both Barrett and Michaelis say the club is richer now that both their spouses are members rather than occasional guests as club functions. “Even though they weren’t members of a club before, their input is just as important,” says Barrett. “Maybe more important, because our ideas are getting old!” For years, Mary Michaelis juggled volunteer work with the demands of raising three children. She still remembers how hard it was to tell them she would have to miss one of their activities, and she feared that her husband didn’t always understand her sense of mission, Either. Now that Stan, 57, and her daughter are fellow members, volunteering and family time aren’t mutually exclusive. Before meetings, Elizabeth often joins her parents at their house for dinner so they can all catch up. “I used to rope Stan into things,” says Mary. “Now, he’s more apt to step up and take action. He’s more open to people in need. He used to be very conservative when it came to discussions of the less fortunate, but not long ago I watched him hand money to a woman with several children who was a few dollars short at the grocery store.” While a family club can open up everyone to new experiences, members have to make allowances for the needs of different ages; not everyone can or should be held to the same inflexible standards. “Attendance at meetings is very different for the younger generation,” says Barrett. “My children have very busy lives. They’re really interested in community service, but sitting in meetings is not their forte.” While at least one member from each family is usually present at meetings, it’s understood that not everyone will make it (especially those with small children). The club also makes allowances for members who are out making a difference in the issues they care about, even if that means they attend only sporadically. Attorney and politician David Lujan, for example, is the minority leader in the Arizona House of Representatives and recently formed an exploratory committee for a possible run for state Attorney General. He joined the club because its mission is especially close to his own heart: he is the staff attorney for a non-profit organization that helps children who have been victims of abuse. “They are incredibly passionate about their work,” he says of his fellow members. “Meeting people who are persistent and encouraging makes you want to get involved. They know I have a busy schedule, so they allow me to participate at the level I’m able.” The club also hopes to attract more young members by reaching out to local universities and community colleges. Martha McDaniel, 57, is the club’s membership chair; her husband, Bill, and son Alec, 23, are also members. “This is the best opportunity to teach our children the responsibility of giving back,” she says. “We’re growing our own.” The McDaniels run their own business, which sells highway signs and traffic safety supplies. Their own giving has inspired others to step up. When Martha was buying supplies for the two boys living with their great-grandmother, one of the employees suggested making street signs with the boys’ names as a surprise gift. The McDaniels have even adopted a new Christmas tradition: They enjoy dinner together but all the money they would have spent on gifts for each other goes to buy presents for a needy family. The club’s focus on meeting specific needs is what makes it work, says McDaniel. “In my lifetime, I’ve given away so many dollar bills to people standing on a street corner, only to see the same person sitting there the next week,” she says. “I’d rather give things that help them get back on their feet, things to make living a little bit easier. If you can give a child a new backpack and school supplies, some clean clothes—those sound like small things, but that’s what helps build their self worth.” Giving to those in need is a worthy goal, but Phoenix Adobe Mountain members want to make a difference for the long term. Mary Michaelis knows firsthand how challenging it can be to change the course of troubled lives. Now a new clubs extension consultant for Lions Clubs International, she travels frequently out-of-state. Recently, she spotted a young man she knew from her days at the high school for homeless teenagers working at the airport Starbucks. “I felt being happy to see him working and off the streets, then a bit sad because he could do so much more,” she says. “We actually tried to give him a scholarship to a private school. He was so bright and really had an opportunity to break his family’s homeless cycle, but we can’t fix home issues that parents don’t want to fix.” There may be no easy solutions, but Phoenix Adobe Mountain members have seen how seemingly simple items—new clothes, a bed, even laundry detergent— can improve a child’s life. Just as members of nurturing families are there for one another through good times and bad, club members hope they can offer ongoing support to the children who need them. Such work has brought them closer to their own loved ones and each other. “It doesn’t seem like a club,” says Barrett. “It feels like a family.” As for Mary Michaelis, she plans to stop by that airport Starbucks again, hoping she can convince the young man to apply to college or a trade school. “It takes more than money to help a child in need,” she says. “It takes our time, which is even more valuable.”
Published by International Association of Lions Clubs . View All Articles.
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