The Kenai Lions Club, the local chapter of the world’s largest service club, is celebrating 50 years of providing aid to the community.
The anniversary celebration will be held on Feb. 25, at Paradisos Restaurant. A representative from the Lions Club International, the Alaska 49A Lions District Governor and members throughout the state will be joining the festivities.
“It, for me, has been a beautiful experience to see what a small community can do,” said Phyllis Swarner, one of the directors for the Kenai Lions.
Swarner joined in 2003, the year women were first allowed into Lions Club International, and then worked her way up the ranks. She was also formerly president of the Kenai chapter, and District Governor in 2010-11 of the Alaska District 49A Lions, one of two districts that make up the state’s Lions Multiple District 49.
She started attending meetings in 2002, with her husband, the Kenai Lions current Secretary Dennis Swarner.
“It was just kind of a contagious thing,” she said.
Every year, armed with their ammunition of choice — often recycled eyeglasses, rubber ducks, chili or spaghetti — the Kenai Lions raise money for community members or organizations in need, she said.
The Lions are one of “Kenai’s best kept secrets” Swarner said.
The organization has an alternative take on fraternal orders, Swarner said. Members don’t have a brick-and-mortar, centralized location where they can gather casually, although monthly meetings are held at local establishments. To summarize what the Lions do, she iterated the club’s mission, “We Serve.”
It was formed in 1917 by 38-year-old Melvin Jones, a businessman working just outside Chicago. Jones had implored his peers to some put energy toward community issues. Helen Keller brought the club on board with helping the blind in 1925.
Now there are roughly 1.3 million members worldwide, 38 of which are currently in the Kenai club, said Dennis Swarner. Like any organization, he said, membership has waxed and waned throughout the years, which he has seen first hand since joining in the 1970s.
A few current members are more seasoned even than Dennis Swarner.
President Hal Smalley said Ron Mika joined one year after the Anchorage Lions Club chartered the Kenai club in 1966.
Annually, the Kenai Lions have a hand in Christmas Comes to Kenai, and provide breakfast once a week to students at Kenai Alternative High School, Smalley said.
Perhaps their most recognized event is the Rubber Ducky Race, which raises the money that covers supplies for events, Dennis Swarner said. That way, community members asking the club for help get to keep everything made through the fundraiser.
While they can’t always accomplish as many, the Lions complete between three and four fundraisers each year, Dennis Swarner said.
While it is never guaranteed, some events have raised as much as $20,000 in one night, Phyllis Swarner said.
“The outpour of some of the people on this kind of stuff is just tremendous,” she said. “It is a very generous, very loving community when someone has a problem.”
The club can’t raise money for its own members, Phyllis Swarner said. In the past, people have requested help with burdensome medical bills, or assistance during periods of financial struggle, she said. She said the recipients are always deserving, and are not asked to do any work on the fundraiser themselves.
The Kenai Lions are also closely involved in keeping up Keller’s initiative on providing assistance for people with vision challenges, Phyllis Swarner said.
This year alone, the Kenai Lions contributed nearly 690 recycled pairs of eyeglasses to the program, Dennis Swarner said.
Every year the Lions Club International donates nearly 30,000 recycled eyeglasses worldwide, according to the club’s website.
The 50th celebration is to thank and congratulate current and former members for their service, Smalley said.
“I mean that is what we do, raise money in the area and we have fun doing it and we have fun giving it away,” Smalley said.
Phyllis Swarner said the future of the Lions is looking strong. She recently had a community member approach her and ask about joining, and the junior Lions, the Leos, is full of 12- to 18-year-olds already training to join when they become adults.
“That is a good feeling — not chasing down members,” Phyllis Swarner said. “Having people coming to members and saying that they want to be one of you, it makes you feel like you are doing something right.”
Families are now allowed to bring their youngest to meetings, and the local club has established a presence on social media, which Phyllis Swarner said is essential for any modern organization.
Smalley said the public is welcome to attend the event Feb. 25, and a plate costs $30 per person.
Reach Kelly Sullivan at firstname.lastname@example.org.