Roughly 30,000 Lions are expected to converge on Chicago this weekend, but there's no reason for alarm -- these Lions won't bite.
Oak Brook-based Lions Clubs International is celebrating the 100th anniversary of its founding with a centennial convention Friday, June 30, through Tuesday, July 4, at McCormick Place.
Lions Club InternationalHistory: Lions Clubs International was started by Chicago insurance businessman Melvin Jones in 1917. Its national headquarters are in Oak Brook.
Mission: Aiding the blind and visually impaired, championing youth initiatives and helping strengthen local communities through hands-on service and humanitarian projects, including feeding the hungry and environmental efforts.
Clubs: 46,000 in 207 countries and geographic areas
Members: 1.4 million
People served: 159 million
For information and convention highlights: Visit lionsclubs.org.
For historical videos and a centennial tribute: Visit lionsclubs.org/EN/news-media/videos/centennial.php.
Source: Lions Clubs International
During the convention, Lions representing about 160 countries will march down Chicago's State Street for an Olympic-style Parade of Nations starting 9 a.m. Saturday at the intersection of Lake Street and proceeding south to Congress Parkway.
"We're expecting probably around 30,000 Lions and guests that will come from around the world for the convention," said Bob Block, general chairman for the host committee. "We have 23 marching bands and about a dozen floats. It's a spectator's parade because you get to see the different nationalities and countries in their national costumes. It will be unique. It's one of the biggest conventions Lions International has had in North America."
This will be the first convention for Jim McClung, 74, of Elgin and his wife, Barbara, members of the Dundee Lions Club.
"It's exciting to meet a variety of people from so many different cultures, yet we all have (the same) goal ... and to be a part of the service community," said McClung, a retired school psychologist for Community Unit District 300 and president of the Dundee Lions Club. "It's nice to have an opportunity to see how our efforts have contributed."
Service above all
Locally, the Dundee Township area club's 35 members sponsor a festival of trees at Christmastime, host a pancake breakfast fundraiser, run a basketball tournament for middle school-age children, and helped establish Lions Park in East Dundee, where members will plant a tree in honor of the centennial in July.
"We do a lot to give back to schools and a variety of other groups -- Boys and Girls Club of Elgin, Elgin Community Crisis Center, and food pantry," McClung said.
Lions is the largest service clubs organization globally, with more than 1.4 million members in more than 46,000 clubs serving communities in 207 countries and geographical areas. Its mission has been aiding the blind and visually impaired, championing youth initiatives and helping strengthen local communities through hands-on service and humanitarian projects, including feeding the hungry and environmental efforts.
There are 40 clubs within Northwest Chicago and the surrounding suburban area with roughly 1,250 members.
Of those, the Mount Prospect Lions Club is one of the largest in the region. Founded in 1934 by 31 local men, today it has 83 members.
Few members will make it to the convention, though, because the club's own 79th annual festival coincides with the centennial celebration, said President Jessica Putra of Schaumburg, who works for the village of Mount Prospect.
"We've been organizing everything for months. This is our biggest fundraiser of the year," Putra said.
The club has been running Mount Prospect's farmers market on Sundays for about 10 years, and donated $10,000 from last year's proceeds to the town's food pantry.
"We help out in a lot of different aspects," Putra said. "It started off with helping people that were blind and hearing-impaired and it's kind of just evolved to serving people in the community any way we can. I think it's really cool they brought the convention back to Chicago. This is where it started."
Past and future
Among the convention attractions is a special historical exhibit representing clubs from Lions' 13 geographic regions.
"It's like a museum piece that's going to be in our main exhibit hall during the convention," Block said. "We've done a lot of research on our history, as far as improving the grave site for (founder) Melvin Jones in Chicago. We are very proud of what we've done over the last 100 years."
Jones, a Chicago insurance businessman, wanted to create an organization where professionals could come together to help those less fortunate. Its initial purpose was serving the blind, and later the hearing-impaired. Helen Keller, a deaf-blind American author and political activist, served as keynote speaker for one of the first international conventions.
"She challenged the Lions of the world to be knights of the blind, and that has been the leading cause for Lions Clubs International ever since," said Tom Laws, 78, of Elk Grove Village, a commercial kitchen designer, a Lion for 37 years and former president of the Elk Grove Village and Mount Prospect Lions clubs.
Laws has attended about 17 international conventions in Hawaii, England and all over the U.S. Among the keynote speakers were former U.S. presidents Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter, himself a Lion, said Laws, a past Lions' northeastern district governor for Illinois who works at Lions' international headquarters in Oak Brook.
He also has marched many times in the parade, which typically lasts four hours. Most countries and U.S. states will have a marching band preceding a group of Lions walking. All nations represented will present their flags in a "moving ceremony," Laws added.
Organizers will be introducing at the convention a new area of focus for Lions' service mission -- Type 1 diabetes programs.
Looking ahead to the next 100 years of service, officials hope to incorporate new technologies, such as using mobile apps to connect members and report on service projects, Block said.
"It's a very exciting time for our organization right now," Block said.
There's also a push to reach out to younger audiences to ensure the organization's future. The average age of Lions' membership is late-50s and used to be in the 60s.
"What we are seeing is a lot of young people joining," Block said. "And some of the clubs are turning into family clubs, with entire families participating. We have tried starting them in colleges. We are working on trying to recruit new blood to keep it viable and to keep the club active in our communities. We need to change the tradition of the Lions Club for the newer generation."