Not relics: traditional service groups meet today’s needs

Traditional services groups such as the Rotary and the Lions conjure up images from a time when bowling shirts weren't ironic, Dad smelled of stale cigars and the family wagon had wood side panels.

Yet even in an area that fancies itself as hip and cutting-edge, the Uptown Rotary and Lyn-Lake Lion's Club are serving the community's modern needs.

East Calhoun resident and architect Tom Sopoci has been an Uptown Rotarian since 1989. He and other Rotarians staff the Joyce Food Shelf, 3041 Fremont Ave. every Thursday from 5 to 7 p.m. They've done it for the past 15 years.

When not on the premises, the group raises money for Joyce - $33,000 last year, one-quarter of the food shelf's budget.

Ray Aponte, the principal of Jefferson Elementary School, 1200 W. 26th St., is a Lyn-Lake Lion. His group also works with Joyce, as well as other charitable groups and local schools - including Jefferson.

Jean McGrath, the food shelf's longtime director, is grateful for their help.

"They do such a great job. I don't think they get the recognition they deserve," she said. "They do a tremendous job, and this is a great way to get involved" in the community.

Those in need depend on the Rotary and the Lions, but many in Southwest don't really know what the groups do or what they stand for.

Service through Rotary

The groups have no religious affiliation, and except for the matching vests the Lions wear, have no strange rituals.

What they are about is fellowship and service.

David Houghton has been an Uptown Rotarian for only a year. He didn't know much about the group until he joined hoping to make business contacts for Partnership Resources, Inc., where he helps people with disabilities find jobs.

Said Houghton, "I'd always heard of Rotary, but didn't know what they did. I thought they were a bunch of stuffy businessmen who'd meet for lunches."

He said he's discovered quite the opposite.

Houghton said he's been inspired by the group's commitment to service. Through Rotary's international connections, he and his wife traveled to one of the poorest parts of the Western Hemisphere as part of a program called Haiti Outreach, which helps make provisions for safe water. "It's really been a neat experience," Houghton said.

Uptown Rotary President Glenna Case, a Cedar-Isles-Dean resident, said some join the group to make business connections but soon discover it is about so much more.

Uptown Rotarians meets weekly in the morning, usually at the Minikhada Club, 3205 Excelsior Blvd. Each meeting features a different speaker on a variety of issues and includes elected officials, journalists and musicians.

The group's can-do attitude is evident at the meetings' start, when they pass the "Happy Hat." Each person makes a small donation while recounting something that made him or her happy that week. It may seem corny to the average dressed-in-black hipster, but to anyone who's struggled to make the community better, it's a sweet grace note.

On a more substantive level, the meetings are a chance to plan service projects.

Bill Blackburn, a Tangletown resident and Wells Fargo employee, has been a member of the Uptown Rotary for 12 years. He said the group is perfect for busy people because members work together to give something back. He said his Rotary work has inspired his kids, who've begun to take on worthy causes.

The average age of Rotarians is 45 to 55, Case said, adding that there's a spin-off group called Roteract for people in their 20s looking to get involved.

As Case's leadership role indicates, the Rotary is no longer a fraternal organization; women are equal members.

Service with the Lions

While the Uptown Rotary group has some new blood, the Lyn-Lake Lions Club acknowledge that membership is dwindling because most are retired.

The 14 members meet monthly at Champion's Bar, 105 W. Lake St. Marge Jenkins, president of the Lyn-Lake Lioness Club, said their group is older - their newest member is 82 years old. Jenkins, who lives in St. Louis Park, said only a few members live in the city, so they need new members such as Aponte to keep the good works going.

Aponte said he enjoys the group because he learns a lot about Minneapolis history from the time spent working with the group on community service projects - many of which benefit his school.

Jenkins said the Lions' motto is "We Serve." She said the Lion's Club was started in 1917 in Chicago by a group of businessmen, working to help the blind. The group began its blindness crusade when challenged by Helen Keller in 1925, according to the Lions' Web site.

Jenkins said the Lyn-Lake chapter started in 1964. "It started out as businesspeople on the Lyndale and Lake Street corner," she said.

Anyone can attend a Lions meeting although members must be invited to join. Women have been able to join, as Lionesses, since 1988.

Lyn-Lake Lion's Club President Edward Virnig, an East Harriet resident, has been a member for 30 years. "I'm retired, so it gives me a chance to do something in addition to the other volunteer work I'm doing," he said.

Jenkins said the group carries on the service for the blind through its used eyeglasses collection, its work with the University of Minnesota's Eye Clinic and its Hearing Foundation.

She said that in 1980, the group also began volunteer work with a diabetic research center. "Eight percent of the people that get diabetes go blind," she said.

The Lions also help out at Joyce. From May to September, the group essentially runs the "Produce on the Portico" giveaway, said Joyce's McGrath. The event, which happens on the portico of Joyce Methodist Church, 1222 W. 31st St. is on the fourth Wednesday of each month from 10:30 a.m. to noon.

At Jefferson, Aponte said the group runs the raffle for the school's carnival. They also teach kids about the power of service work; the Lions just finished a four-day food drive among the kids that netted 700 pounds of food for Joyce.

"[The Lions are] a good way to give back to the community," Aponte said. "We have lost that - people are too busy."