The quaint seaside town of Seal Beach in Orange County, California, got its beginnings as a shipping port called Anaheim Landing, where growers found it a convenient distribution point for the wine they nurtured in their Southern California vineyards.

Girls sings and plays guitar at Seal Beach Lions Club Arts and Crafts Faire
Everyone in Seal Beach looks forward to the vibrant and eclectic Annual Arts and Crafts Faire hosted by Seal Beach Lions.

But when the railroad arrived in 1875, it took over as the main method of transport and the port town became a sleepy vacation get-a-way for people from nearby cities. When a branch of the Pacific Electric was planned, area businessmen decided it was time to build a town that folks could actual settle in. But for decades, the town faltered. It remained a sleepy beach town with a population of about 400 summer residents, many of whom bought small cottages they planted right on the sandy beach..

In 1913 one of those businessmen decided to invest in building a pier off the beach, with large pavilions on either side for entertainment. Then, several years later, another businessman decided to build an “amusement area.” They brought in rides from the closing San Francisco Panama-Pacific International Exposition and rebuilt them to establish the first beachside amusement park in Orange County. What became known as the “Joy Zone,”—and current historic downtown Seal Beach—seemed to do the trick.

People came.

Seal Beach Lions Club member sweeps area in front of historic red car.
Seal Beach Lions were integral in restoring a famous “red car” from the historic Pacific electric train line.

The area, by now called Seal Beach, became a bustling tourist destination, popular with local residents and recruits from the nearby naval base. And as it developed a reputation for fun, it also developed a permanent population.

Jokingly referred to as “Mayberry by the Sea”, Seal Beach’s downtown is a three-block stretch of boutiques and cafes that runs into the historic wooden pier. It’s a friendly place. Shop owners will happily sit and chat and no one is in a rush. The whole town has a feeling of being one big happy family. In many ways, it is. “People love to live here,” says Mayor Joe Kalmick.

And that’s in large part due to Lions.



Building A Club

Two generations of Lions work the food table at a recent Seal Beach event.
Seal Beach welcomes Lions from all stages of life, making it easy to participate no matter your schedule.

Woven into the fabric of everyday life in Seal Beach are Fish Frys, arts and crafts fairs, Christmas parades, beach and graffiti cleanups, sight programs, historical restoration projects, youth outreach programs, and dozens upon dozens more events and activities. All run by Lions. Because although Seal Beach is a small town, it’s home to the largest and most active club in North America.

Established in 1939 with just six members, the Seal Beach Lions have been serving the communities of Seal Beach, Rossmoor, and Los Alamitos for 80 years. Whether it’s the annual Fish Fry, which has been a staple of the community for 78 years now, the arts and crafts fair, or the Christmas parade, Seal Beach Lions seem to be everywhere. “The Lions club is so integrated in our community that almost every major event that goes on in the city, the Lions participate in or are managing it,” says Kalmick.

With 418 members and 120 Leos, the club powers its way through a whopping 120-plus projects per year, with something on tap every single weekend except for Christmas. In a town with just 25,000 people, those are impressive numbers.

So, how do they do it?


Be Known

SEal BEach Lion clean window on restored beach cottage.
Lions have restored a beach cottage from the early 20th century–a remnant from Seal Beach’s origins as a summer vacation spot.

The Seal Beach Lions do not recruit. Instead, ten years ago they adopted the motto, “If you build it, they will come.”

“We didn’t ask a single person to join our Lions club,” says Scott Newton, who joined Lions in 1988. “We’ve grown by being involved in the community and being able to bring youth into what we do.” Their goal, he says, was to make themselves so entrenched in their community that potential members would come to them. And it’s worked.

John Quinlan joined Lions approximately one year ago specifically because he wanted to help restore the Red Car—an old repair car from the former Pacific Electric train line that, after being part of the city for more than 100 years, had fallen into disrepair. So when he found out that the Lions were involved with the city to try and help broker a solution between the previous caretakers and the city, he knew this was a great opportunity. “Now instead of having to work within the city,” says Quinlan, “I could come into the Lions club and offer support and my skills to try and bring the historical site back to life.”

Since taking ownership, Lions have cleaned and repainted the Red Car and are preparing to open it up for events. “The community will hopefully get to know the Red Car again,” says Quinlan. “The way it used to be.”

“In Seal Beach, if you ever want to get something done, it’s the Lions club [that can do it],” he says. “They’re involved in everything.”


Be Seen

Sign reads Another Seal Beach Lions Project.
Lions make sure they are known by placing a sign at the site of every service project.

And they certainly do seem to be everywhere. The sixteen-foot van papered in Lions signage is a familiar sight around Seal Beach. Lions take the van on every service project, whether they need it or not. “We’re very visible,” says club president Scott Weir. Not only do they bring their van, but at every event they leave brochures and post a sign that reads, “Another project by Seal Beach Lions.”

Their social media feeds are filled with bright, well-shot photographs. Their comprehensive website is well-maintained and regularly updated to feature the next big project. It also includes a whole calendar of upcoming events, information on past events, ways to contact the club, and even an application to join. “We’re still invitation only, but we want to give them a preview right away of what it’s all about to be a Seal Beach Lion,” says Newton.

And what is it like to be a Seal Beach Lion?

“It’s truly like family,” says lifeguard and Lion Nick Bolin. Bolin became a Leo in middle school when his best friend asked him to come to a meeting. He enjoyed having fun with his friends, getting to know some of the Lions, and becoming involved in the community. He became a Lion when he was 21, and while he’s involved with many of the projects, Bolin sees firsthand the joy Lions can bring others when community members check out one of the beach wheelchairs donated by Lions. The chairs make the beach more accessible to the elderly and those with disabilities. “Those wheelchairs go out almost every day,” he says. “Some people are going out into the water for the first time. It just really brings them a lot of joy. And that’s because of Lions.”


Represent Your Community

Ten years ago, when they decided to rebuild their club, the Lions focused on bringing in people from all walks of life, which meant they had to appeal to a wide variety of interests and abilities. This meant taking a critical eye to some of their old traditions. “We asked, ‘Are they relevant?” says Newton. The answer, he soon realized, was, well, no.

“I was looking around a room and noticing a lot of lips weren’t moving when we were singing songs,” says Newton. “It wasn’t relevant for a new generation. And that was one of the traditions we ended: singing songs at every meeting.”

Newton and the other leaders realized it wasn’t their fathers’ club anymore. “And my son says that about it as well,” he says. “And my grandson will say the same thing as they continue to evolve and change to be relevant in the community.”

Man in Lions Club shirt holds little girl on shoulders.
Seal Beach lions is proud to be family-friendly, working hard to ensure there is the right mix of projects so that young families can stay involved.

Changing the way things are done isn’t easy for everyone, even when it’s something non-essential, like singing songs. Some of the older members had trouble with the new way of doing things. But over time, they adjusted, and they adopted new traditions with their growing club.

One of those new traditions? “A lot more socialization,” says Newton. By focusing on bringing in established groups to Lions, they are able to get a lot more people in, and it has the benefit of being a ready-made mix of folks who already like hanging out. “Mothers’ groups in town? Become Lions. Join us,” says Newton. “I think the most important thing is relevance in your community, and every community is different.”

They also are keenly aware of the pressures on young families and have made specific efforts to not only reach out to families, but to ensure Lions is a place where the whole family feels welcome. “We want to make sure some of our younger members who are starting to have children stay active,” says Newton. “Because what happens with younger people that have children? They want to disengage for a while. Let’s keep them working, let’s give them a reason to serve with their children.”

And its ok to hearing crying in the back of a meeting. At Seal Beach Lions Club, people bring children. “It’s perfectly fine,” says Newton. Once a quarter Seal Beach Leos babysit the children while their parents are upstairs at a meeting.

And Leos see how much fun it is to be a Lion. They feel involved. And they feel excited to join when they turn 18. “They’ve been watching it their entire life. We are integrated—Leos aren’t in the background, they’re in the foreground. And that attracts them to want to be part of a club.”


Bring Ideas

And once you’re a part of Lions? Well, they expect you to bring it. Bring your passions and your ideas. All members are encouraged to come with an agenda. “We love new ideas,” says Newton. “We’re always looking for new projects.”

Ed Soles found himself chairperson for a brand new event five months after joining Lions. As a professional skateboarder, he had participated in Skateboarding for Autism events in the past and thought it would be a great event for Seal Beach and for the Lions. “So, we’ve already got 24 children signed up and former professional skateboarders are going to be at hand helping them, training them, and teaching them some skills,” says Weir. “What a lot of fun.”

Fun and fulfilling. For Quinlan, he feels like he’s finally found his voice with Lions. “I simply go up and make a presentation at our meetings and everyone wants to get involved. If you do have a passion for a project in your community, you simply present it. And the Lions club is so diverse and has so many great people within the club that they’ll take on your project.”


Be There for Your Community

Three lions with arms around each other.
Seal Beach Lions choose the service projects that appeal to them. And if they have an idea for something they want to do, the club helps to make it happen.

In fact, they’ll take on just about anyone’s project. “We rarely say no when someone asks,” says Weir. Whether it’s the police department that wants to do an open house for a national night out or a carnival for local schools. “Yes,” says Weir. Lions will grill up some food and offer support in any way that’s needed. A resident reporting graffiti? No problem. “We’ll be there.”

They are a small town and big club. They’ve managed to build a club that has been able to attract, support, and sustain an astonishing number of active, engaged Lions. They have built a sense of community through accessibility, friendliness, and smart advertising.

And instead of focusing on recruiting new members, they’ve focused on being the club their community needs. They engage with their local businesses, their government, and the school districts. They are continually taking stock of who they are, that they represent their community, and that they are, above all else, relevant.

“Every club has the ability to do what we’ve done,” says Newton.

If you build it, they will come.


Watch Seal Beach Lions talk about why they love their club, and why they love being a Lion.