Ninety years ago, four Utah men gathered at the old Hotel Utah downtown to start something they hoped would improve their community for years to come: the state's first Lions Club.
"We want every boy and every girl to have a fair chance," wrote club founder A. O. Treganza in an article published in the Salt Lake Telegram on Dec. 10, 1922, "and if cruel circumstances have deprived some individual of the right to a fair chance the Lions would replace that opportunity and help the unfortunate to that extent."
Fast forward 90 years, and the Salt Lake City Lions Club is still serving those in need, along with more than 40 Lions Clubs throughout the state. But now the Salt Lake club has a need more members. The longtime club, which limited membership to 100 in the beginning, now has about a dozen members who try their best to fulfill the group's longtime mission of community service and buying eyeglasses for those who can't otherwise afford them.
Each year, the club's members volunteer at the Utah Food Bank, ring bells to collect change for the Salvation Army, and hold a golf tournament to raise money to buy glasses. In recent years, the club has raised about $6,000 a year, said club president Frank Steele, buying 347 pairs of glasses in 2010 for children and homeless adults, for example. They work with LensCrafters and Eye Care for Kids to give vouchers for free glasses and eye exams to people often referred to them by other service organizations. The companies sell the vouchers at a discount.
But without more members to help raise funds, the money tends to run out each April, meaning some in need must wait months for eyewear, said Lions Club member and past club president Zella Millard.
Members can only imagine the good the club could do with more support. Current president Frank Steele said he hopes to get more members to attend the group's twice monthly meetings and wants to attract companies to sponsor members, just as many did in the old days. He said about half of the club's members just happen to be Questar employees.
"We're a small club, but we really do a lot for how small we are," Steele said. "The heart is still there, the passion is still there and we want to keep that going."
It's a passion with deep roots of service in the community. When the club was founded its members started a legal aid society, in which lawyers volunteered to give legal advice and representation to those who couldn't afford it. They also worked with lawmakers to amend laws; supported prison development and reform; helped build roadways, repair roads and crosswalks; and worked to improve traffic safety for schoolchildren. They held weekly Friday luncheons at the Hotel Utah now the Joseph Smith Memorial Building with speakers and musical numbers.
The Salt Lake City Lions Club was founded just four years after the founding of the national organization. Aiding the blind and visually impaired became the Lions' focus in 1925 after Helen Keller addressed the Lions Club International Convention, challenging them to become "knights of the blind in the crusade against darkness."
Over the years, the Salt Lake group's membership has waxed and waned. When group secretary Jerry Millard joined 33 years ago, the group had about 150 members, he said.
He said he joined to expand his horizons and help the community. He stuck with it after he saw the effect the group was having.
"It's a wonderful feeling to help some folks who are pretty bad off," Millard said. His wife and past president, Zella Millard, joined more recently, shortly before the two married about seven years ago. She joined because of her husband but stayed in the group because she saw a need.
"It's really rewarding to be able to help people get glasses who can't afford them," Zella Millard said. "We both wear glasses, and I can't imagine having to do without them."
Thank you notes sent to the group over the years show how much of a difference they've made.
"Thanks to you I can actually see the board in class!" says one note, scrawled in a child's handwriting bordered with drawings of smiley faces and stars.
"I've been indigent with little direction and many ailments," reads another note. "Now I thank you for giving me my sight back. It is the kindness you've shown which makes this world a much better place."
Steele's wife and membership coordinator, Sue Steele, said it is a mission worth preserving, especially in light of the club's 90-year legacy.
"The four men that started the Lion's Club were persistent in doing what they needed to do," Sue Steele said. "They spent hours outside their family lives, homes and jobs to make sure people who didn't have a lot got what they needed."
She said if the club's original members could persevere, so can today's members.
To learn more
O For information on how to join or donate to the Salt Lake City Lions Club, call club president Frank Steele at 801-599-1815; Sue Steele at 801-865-9952; or email firstname.lastname@example.org.