Twenty new Lions are expected to join the ranks of Lions District 17A in Kansas by the end of this Lion year, thanks to a symposium that highlights the important roles women play in Lions.

Women in Lions Team pose for photoThe second Women in Lions Symposium was held in December 2022 in Lawrence, Kansas. The first, which convened in 2021, inspired three women who attended the event to start three new club branches: Topeka Twilight, Johnson County Family, and Junction Sundowners. While the new members are both female and male, the goal of the symposium, which was held in-person and by Zoom, is to increase women’s membership to 40% across the district. The district currently has 562 women members—about 38% of the total.

The event featured six speakers including Lions International Past President Gudrun Yngvadottir, International Vice President Dr. Patty Hill, Past International Director Elisabeth Haderer, International Director Dianne Pitts, Past District Director Debbie Hough Cantrell, and Bella Whitlock, 18, a newly minted Lion and Miss Kansas Teen Volunteer.

Forty people from around the world attended the symposium online and in person. “The symposium motivates women to do more. “It keeps us engaged. It tells us we have a voice and we can do so much in Lions,” says Dr. Vania Castro, who organized the event and who chairs the Women in Lions committee for the district.

Yngvadottir, who spoke by Zoom, recounted her experiences ten years ago when she organized a group of Lions from Iceland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Finland, dedicated to increasing women membership and fostering more women in leadership roles.

Lions Clubs Women's symposium in KansasShe recalled how the group developed training and promotional materials, created a Facebook page where they shared success stories of women in Lions and created a logo—designed by Yngvadottir’s daughter (who is a professional designer)—which shows five women standing together and embracing serving as Lions—a design that has since been shared countless times around the world.

Yngvadottir’s message was that women have the power to change Lions and the world. “Women don’t just talk about ideas and solutions, they work professionally to reach their goals,” Yngvadottir said. “Women are not only capable, but they work hard and get things done.”

In a separate Zoom address to the group, VP Dr. Hill harkened back to the 1920s, an era when women could not be Lions and when activist Helen Keller often addressed groups of Lions about the needs of the blind and deaf. “Even though most of her audiences were men, she didn’t believe that men alone had the power to create change,” Hill said. “She exemplified the concept of women as change makers.”

Gift bags from Women in Lions symposiumWhitlock, who a year and a half ago started a Leo Club that now has 15 members, talked in person about the projects the club has done, including creating a drive to collect menstrual health products and another that collected socks, both of which were donated to a local shelter and other community organizations.

Whitlock, who became a Lion in January but still helps out with the Leo Club, says she attracted teens to her club by emphasizing it is an informal group with a serious cause.

“I told them ‘Just show up at noon. We have pizza and we have fun. But we also brainstorm about our projects and how to go about doing them.’”

“She has brought so much freshness,” says Castro about Whitlock. “She’s a young woman with so much energy who wants to do good.”

Lions Castro speaks at women's symposiumCastro grew up in Brazil where her father and four uncles were Lions. Later, as an adult, she realized that overhearing their discussions about the work they did as Lions was a formative and cherished part of her life.

“They’d come over to my house, sit around and have coffee and talk about Lions,” says Castro, a medical researcher affiliated with  Harvard Medical School, who recalls feeling an immediate connection when she attended her first Lions meeting at the Leawood Lions Club in 2014. “I had finally found my home away from home,” she says.

In the space of just two months, Castro was asked to be the president of the club, which shows the potential for women to take leadership roles in the organization. Castro says there are many ways to support and grow women in Lions. “Find things to accomplish together, such as service projects,” she says. “Visit clubs, attend district meetings, compliment each others’ accomplishments whenever an opportunity arises, plan celebrations, parties, and have fun.”

Whitlock says she is inspired by Lions like Castro who are leading the way to bring more women into the organization. “Empowering women is always a go-to for me,” Whitlock says.

And that’s the case for many other Lions as well.

Whatever challenges they may face, VP Dr. Hill urged the symposium attendees to remember an empowering quote from Keller, who said, “Never bend your head. Always hold it high and look the world straight in the eye.”