Ellijay Lions celebrate 85th birthday
On the eve of the Ellijay Lions Club’s 85th birthday, members observed that only two other Lions Clubs in the state of Georgia have been around longer.
The local club officially turned 85 July 27. An official charter from Lions Clubs International was granted on that date in 1934.
“As Lions go, we’re quite old. The whole organization has been around just over 100 years. The Atlanta Lions Club is the oldest (in Georgia). The club in Chatsworth was founded about a year before we were and they sponsored us,” said Barrett Creech, the Ellijay club’s treasurer.
The public is invited to attend an open house at the Lions Clubhouse, 1729 South Main Street, that will commemorate the birthday milestone Tuesday, Sept. 17, from 4-6 p.m.
“We want to let people know what we do,” said Marie Wyrosdick, the club’s second vice president. “We feel like there are a lot of people in town who may have heard of us, but they don’t know what we’re all about.”
‘We serve’ not just a motto
The motto of Lions International, as well as the Ellijay club, is “We serve.” That pledge applies to a variety of causes to which club members donate their time and resources.
“Every Lions Club in its respective community is dedicated to service according to the needs of local citizens,” said Bill Leinmiller, Ellijay Lions, charities treasurer. “Some clubs lose their focus after a few years and fail in that community responsibility, then that community suffers. Fortunately, the leadership in the Ellijay Lions has never lost focus on how to best serve Gilmer County. Our previous leaders discovered unique ways to raise funding that could benefit various needs in this community.”
Through a longstanding commitment by Lions International, various types of assistance are provided for the blind and those with sight-related needs.
“Eyesight is the main thrust of the organization, namely (helping people) get their eyes checked and making sure they can see properly, especially children,” said Creech. “We also get involved with diabetes blood sugar checks sometimes, as well as hearing. Even though the Lions are best known for eyesight, we also arrange for people in need to get hearing aids.”
The Lions’ goal of improving eyesight originated from a plea in 1925 that changed the direction of the still-young organization, Creech explained.
“Before 1925, the Lions Club was primarily a businessman’s organization. That year, Helen Keller, who was not only blind but also deaf, gave a speech to the Lions in Columbus, Ohio. She challenged them to be the knights for the blind,” he said. “They took her up on that challenge right on the spot.”
The Georgia Lions Lighthouse Foundation is a charity organization that partners with individual clubs to improve eyesight and hearing in communities across the state.
“All the Georgia clubs contribute to (the Lighthouse in Atlanta), which contracts with Emory University to do cataract surgeries and other eye surgeries for those who can’t afford it,” Creech said.
The Ellijay club typically assists around 100 persons a year with eye-related needs, including reduced-cost eye exams and glasses, Creech noted.
“We can equip children or adults with glasses. When someone comes in and has a particular prescription and can’t afford it, they can go to Walmart where Dr. Melonie Clemmons does an exam that they don’t have to pay for. She donates her time and Walmart gives us a very good price on the glasses,” he added.
More than 1,500 have received vision services and at least a dozen Gilmer residents have undergone sight-saving surgeries through the Ellijay Lions since the local eye assistance program was started in 1997.
“As part of the eyeglass component, we also have boxes set up in places like Walmart where people can donate their unwanted and unneeded glasses. The Lighthouse has a group of people who receive those glasses, then take out all the lenses and sort the frames,” Creech added.
Festival, fair primary fundraisers
The Ellijay Lions conduct various fundraising drives each year, including bucket collection for their White Christmas and White Cane Days efforts, but the two biggest fundraisers are events held at the Lions Club Fairgrounds.
October’s Georgia Apple Festival, a cooperative event with the Gilmer Chamber, is preceded by the Lions-sponsored Gilmer County Fair in August.
The immensely popular Apple Festival that now spans two weekends and typically welcomes attendance of 50,000 or more each year started as a down-home get-together on the town square, noted Leinmiller. The festival has steadily grown in scope and attendance since moving to the fairgrounds in 1974.
“Nearly 50 years ago, a small group of Ellijay Lions pitched a 10x10 canopy on the square and proceeded to provide some string band music for the local folks. When asked what they were doing, the answer was, ‘We’re celebrating the apple harvest,”’ said Leinmiller.
Aside from providing amusement and entertainment, the county fair is also a driver for the club’s sight-saving efforts.
“Net proceeds from the fair make it possible to provide financial support to the Georgia Lighthouse,” Leinmiller confirmed. “We’re also able to provide financial support to the Georgia Lions Camp for the Blind in Waycross, which is a weeklong camp for blind children and some adults who, otherwise, would not be able to enjoy something like that.”
The local club disburses funding through a separate 501(c)(3) nonprofit, Ellijay Lions Club Charities Inc. Leinmiller said 34 local organizations typically receive some type of financial support from net proceeds generated by the Apple Festival alone.
“Rather than try to directly address the many needs in our community, we feel the most efficient way to serve our citizens is to provide financial assistance to numerous entities that provide physical and mental support here,” he added.
A short list of those entities includes the Gilmer Community Food Pantry, Gilmer Learning Center, the local Family Connection chapter, Gilmer County Library, Kids Kottage and the New Beginnings temporary housing program.
“It’s accurate to say that 100 percent of the Lions Club’s net proceeds from the Apple Festival are distributed directly into the Gilmer County community,” Leinmiller noted.
Focus on children, veterans
Local nonprofits and other organizations that help children and teens are top priorities in terms of the club’s outreach.
Groups that have received past assistance include an outlet for abused and neglected children (Appalachian Children’s Center), childhood literacy boosters (Craddock Center, Kids Ferst) and organizations devoted to meeting educational needs (Mountain Education Charter High School, Gilmer Education Foundation, Christian Learning Center).
“Over the years, we’ve consistently made certain that no less than 78 percent of our total charitable contributions are disbursed directly into the Gilmer County community. Over the past 18 years, the Ellijay Lions Club has contributed $1.6 million into our community and we take pride in that accomplishment,” noted Leinmiller.
Through the annual White Christmas effort, families in need receive Christmas gifts for their children.
“You’d be surprised how many people have told us, ‘You helped me out years ago. I wouldn’t have had much of a Christmas then, so now I want to make a contribution,” Creech noted.
The Lions Club Special Friends provides a social outlet for children, teens and adults with physical and mental challenges. Team leader Jane Weaver said the only requirement is that members live in Gilmer County.
“We meet nine times a year and try to do something different every time that they will enjoy,” said Weaver. “We have a very good group of people and all they want to do is feel like they aren’t any different than anybody else. The Lions Club does so many different things, but, to me, this is one of the best uses our money goes to. It gives joy to people and you can see the results right then.”
The Ellijay Lions also present what has become one of the most comprehensive schedules of Veterans Day events in north Georgia, if not the entire state, Creech noted.
Started by Lioness/Lions Club members Lou Harley, Emma Lou Stover and Sam Burrell, the appreciation effort has grown into a half-day salute to local military men and women.
“It goes from a complimentary breakfast that morning at First United Methodist Church to a parade through downtown that’s followed by a program on the square with guest speakers. Then we have a complimentary lunch for veterans and a guest at the clubhouse. We serve several hundred at a typical Veterans Day lunch,” Creech said.
Find out more
The Ellijay Lions Club meets at the South Main Street clubhouse the second and fourth Tuesdays of each month. Regular meetings are not open to the public, but persons interested in joining may attend as a guest if invited by a current member, Wyrosdick said.
“If anyone would like to attend one of our meetings as a guest, they can just contact our membership chairperson, Emma Lou Stover, or anyone on the membership committee. They would be glad to have them attend,” she noted.
Another way to inquire about joining the club, or get a better idea of its far-reaching charitable efforts, is to attend the Sept. 17 open house.
“There’s tremendous camaraderie between our members and you will meet some of the best people,” Wyrosdick said.
“We want to open the doors of the clubhouse so people can come in, ask any questions they may have and see if they may be interested in being a part of what we do. We’ll have displays and informational tables set up. If you think you may be interested in helping with a specific project, there will be someone there to talk to you about it.”