In 2021 the Wisconsin Lions, along with dozens of local branches scattered across the state, celebrated their 100th year of service. Several Council board and staff members are active in their local chapters, creating an informal bond between our organization and the century-old Lions, as we each work to empower people living with vision loss within the parameters of our respective missions.
Wisconsin Lions is part of Lions Club International, a huge worldwide organization that for most of its history has provided assistance to people living with vision loss. One of the Lions’ first projects shortly after its founding in 1917 was creating a braille magazine for children, containing stories and puzzles. In 1925 Helen Keller spoke at their national convention and encouraged the organization to up the ante. She suggested that the Lions become “Knights of the Blind,” and in the following years the Lions added vision screening, cornea transportation and many other activities to its vision-oriented mission.
In Wisconsin, the Lions operate an Eye Bank, screen children for potential vision problems, collect used eyeglasses and run the Wisconsin Lions Camp in Rosholt. Each local Lions Club also has its own initiatives based on the needs of their own communities.
For ten years as a youth, Council Program Assistant Heather Buggs attended the camp in Rosholt, which was founded in 1956. Heather, who has low vision, enjoyed such fun activities as hiking, swimming, camping and a ropes course. “The camp helped me gain many friends over the years who are also blind or visually impaired,” Heather says. “It was a great place to learn new things and turned out to be a support group and a place to be myself without peer pressure.” Over time, the organization added camp weeks designed for people with other disabilities.
Heather later joined the Madison Evening Lions Club – one of three in the Madison area – and has been a member for 20 years. Their signature project, which won a Lions service project award for 2021, is Game Night, which is open to people with unimpaired vision as well as those with vision loss.
Rhonda Staats, Secretary of the Council’s Board of Directors, belongs to the La Crosse Lions Club. Her father belonged to the same club, and Rhonda joined in 2013. She’s served as a board member and as the president. The club provides vision screening for children in elementary school and preschool. Rhonda got involved because she wanted to foster “greater synergy between the Council and the Lions.”
For his first year as a member of the Berlin Lions Club, Council board member Chuck Fehl, diagnosed with macular degeneration in his 60s, attended Club meetings just to observe. He’d been prompted to join after buying Mother’s Day roses from Lions for his wife and learned that the Lions’ mission focused on vision and diabetes.
But he had some fresh ideas in mind, such as an assistive technology fair. Club leaders liked the idea, and they held their first such event in 2018 at the Berlin Senior Center. Three vendors brought new technologies designed to assist people who are visually impaired. About 70 people attended, and about half of those had experienced vision loss. The club offered a second fair in 2021 and plans a third this fall, on Tuesday, October 4.
The Berlin Lions also purchased two electronic magnifiers and placed them in the senior center for area residents to check out and return later, just like library books. The club also screens children for vision problems at local schools. “The schools really appreciate this, especially the nurses,” Chuck continues. “If a child can’t see well, they’re not going to function very well in school.”
Chuck went on to serve as president of the Berlin Lions Club for two years.
Council Board Treasurer Renee Peterson is a 20-year member of the Horicon Lions Club and is also treasurer of the Lions Pride Endowment Fund of Wisconsin, which supports the Lions Camp. She also spent six years on the board of the Wisconsin Lions Foundation.
The Horicon Lions Club screens schoolchildren for vision problems, provides eyeglasses to those who cannot afford to buy them, and partners with the Wisconsin Lions Eye Bank to transport donated eye corneas.
Renee first became involved because her employer suggested she join a service club. “Once I learned about all the great things the Lions do, I realized I’d picked the perfect organization,” Renee says. “As a child I struggled in school, testing in and out of special needs classes, only to realize several years later, that my lag in learning was because I needed glasses and couldn’t keep up with class.
“I want to make sure students today don’t have that same struggle,” Renee says.
The Council is grateful to Lions Clubs across the state that support us with donations! You can learn more about Lions Clubs International and find a local chapter at LionsClubs.org.