Cans for Kids with Cancer

Lions sorting cans in a large warehouse
The Marquette Lions spent weeks in an empty chicken barn sorting cans for recycling.

The Marquette Lions envisioned a simple three-hour event to collect and recycle empty, refundable aluminum cans.

But they ended up moving a mountain — a mountain of 81,501 empty beverage cans worth 10 cents apiece, and it earned them more than US$8,100 for children battling cancer in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Club Vice President Mary Rule initiated the event as a way for her club to make some money at a time when five of their fundraising events had been canceled due to COVID-19.

Community members had just come out of a long snowy winter when the pandemic “stay at home” orders were announced. To top it off, COVID-19 had put a stop to stores accepting recycled cans, and so people in Michigan who had paid the usual 10-cent deposit on a can had no way to return them and get their deposit back until restrictions were lifted. They were stockpiling them. And like Rule, growing frustrated not only with having to stay home, but staying home with all these cans.

A can collection would at least give them a chance to clear out some clutter, Rule thought, as she grappled with her own abundance.

But what she and her fellow Lions did not expect was for people to show up to Marquette Lions Lakeside Park with their cans more than an hour early, or for the line of cars to continue long after the three hours were up. Or, for homebound residents to call and plead with Lions to “Please come get the cans.”

Lions sorting cans.
Marquette Lions Club president Kerry McGinley and treasurer Art Anderson sort cans and bottles.

For hours on end, Lions in gloves and masks, with adherence to social distancing guidelines, gave curbside service by going to vehicles for bags, boxes, and often entire truck beds full of cans.

As one donor said, “Who doesn’t support sick kids?”

Over the day, cans began to fill the storage space loaned to the Lions, and Rule had to find a larger spot where they could be sorted and workers could stay socially distant. She asked the county to loan them an empty barn at the fairgrounds, and so the Lions loaded two of the largest U-Haul trucks they could find and in multiple trips took the cans to the empty chicken barn.

The cans were left to quarantine for two weeks, giving volunteers time to come to terms with the dirty task that awaited them, says Rule. They would soon find everything from pickle jars to broken bottles and snuff cans in the mix.

Because of COVID-19 restrictions and closures, the Lions had to take the cans to distributors who required they be sorted by brand and packed 240 cans to a clear plastic bag. Recyclable plastic bottles were also sorted.

Fortunately, they were helped by 39 Lions from the Gwinn and Engadine Naubinway Lions in D 10, says Rule, and together the volunteers worked in teams of six to 20 people for six hour shifts.

Woman standing in front of bags of cans
Marquette Lion Mary Rule suggested a can collection to raise money for kids with cancer, and her community in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula responded whole heartedly.

In three to four weeks they had completed the task.

“We could have done more but it was an exhausting project. It’s a dirty, thankless job, and I’m going to be satisfied with what we accomplished,” she says. “There is not a question in anyone’s mind now that our (101-year-old) Lions Club is still a very active part of our community.

“We raised the consciousness of Lions, and made our community aware of the (newly-named) Marquette Lions Lakeside Park. And many of us who had not gotten together in months were able to get out to the barn, laugh and talk, and reunite.

“There were so many little pearls to the project that made it a perfect storm, and from that standpoint it was a success, a huge success.”

Child holding stuffed dog.
Rylan, a cancer patient from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, gets support from the Marquette Lions.

And most important, the Lions raised money to help their local families who suffer through childhood cancer.

“When a child has cancer there’s hardship for the entire family,” says Lion Christine Smith of Engadine, the District 10 Lions pediatric cancer chairman. Because the Upper Peninsula has no childhood cancer treatment centers, Smith says many families drive six to eight hours to southern Michigan, or to neighboring states for their child’s medical care.

The funds raised from the cans, along with a local grant for US$7,500, will help the families meet some of these costs that insurance does not cover, like food, lodging, and transportation. Through a partnership with Bay Cliff Health Facility, and Camp Quality, they will cover costs for a family weekend at “Camp Quality” in the Upper Peninsula next spring.

The money will also help the Lions in D 10 provide free wigs for children with cancer through a partnership with Maggie’s Wigs4Kids, and the Lions have partnered with Kids Kicking Cancer, a global organization that provides therapeutic martial arts classes to empower sick children to heal physically, spiritually, and emotionally.

As for Mary Rule, her experience at can collecting got the club asking her to lead another can collection, but a smaller project. “It was easier because I got smarter,” she says. This time they netted more than US$4,000 for the club’s community fund. And now, when people continue to call Rule to come and get their empty cans, she refrains from telling them that the event is over. Instead, she or one of her fellow Lions, picks up the cans and turns them in for cash that will go in the Lions’ bank for future projects.