A growing number of women are taking the lead and Lions’ service has never been stronger

In 1987, Lions Clubs International voted to allow women to join the Lions family. And join they did.

Today, women are the fastest growing segment of Lions, with more than 425,000 women serving around the world.

In Latin America, 41% of club presidents are women, and so are 43% of district governors in Australia, New Zealand and Indonesia. Of course, this was also the year Gudrun Yngvadottir became the first woman elected international president.

“Our clubs and organization have certainly been strengthened since women have joined,” says Lions Clubs International 3rd Vice President Brian Sheehan. Speaking for his Bird Island, Minnesota club, he says, “They have brought new and vibrant ideas to our club in what we should accomplish for our community and how we can contribute outside of our community. It has made us an extremely strong and diverse club, with a great mix of seasoned and new, younger Lions members.”

The idea that a diverse room of voices create a more robust organization is borne out in recent research, which shows that companies with more gender parity perform better. “They’ve expanded our scope of service, our perspective of service, greatly,” said Past International President Judge Brian Stevenson in a 2018 interview.

And as the number of women leaders in Lions grows, the ways in which they can use their unique perspectives to find innovative ways to serve will continue to grow as well.

Here are some of the inspiring ways women are taking action and changing what it means to be a Lion.

Take a look as PIP Judge Brian Stevenson discusses the year Lions voted to include women.

George Cochrane has his mother Anny Cochrane’s back as she assembles Christmas dinner boxes in the back of Sammy’s Market owned by Lion Sammy Deema in Bethel, Alaska.

They’re Saving Lives Near the Arctic Circle

Six years ago, Anny Cochrane awoke to find that over the night a man had died of exposure at the end of her street.

Today Cochrane is a woman Lion in no-man’s land.

She and her neighbors in Bethel, “the middle of nowhere Alaska,” knew that every winter the cold claims five or six people in their area. But this time it happened too close to home to not keep their attention.

This time Cochrane and her friends decided “there has to be something better.” They wanted a sanctuary to save those who are left overnight in the cold. And the more the group talked, the more they were reminded that what they really wanted—to serve and to help—is what Lions do.

The environment is rugged and the list long to support the many needs of the families in their town of 6,000 on the western edge of Alaska. The Bethel Lions Club was already spread thin.

Cochrane and others, including her husband, Jon Cochrane, chartered the Bethel Winter House Lions. They found a building and made arrangements for hot meals, welcoming the area’s most vulnerable as well as travelers who temporarily find themselves without a home for the night.

Three years later, in 2016, the Bethel Lions and the Bethel Winter House Lions merged to strengthen their power, and now the Winter Shelter House is a project of the Bethel Lions. It is open from December through March when the days are short and the night temperature can drop to dangerous levels. On some of the coldest nights they have more than 40 houseguests.

Cochrane, an energetic and optimistic mother of six, and a second vice district governor for Alaska, sees both the advantages and the unique challenges of living in the bush, 400 miles and an hour plane ride away from the next town, the city of Anchorage.

Among those challenges: Daylight that tops out at five or six hours in the winter; transportation that is limited to plane, barge or two feet; a river that turns into an ice road connecting them with 58 surrounding native villages; water that is trucked in and sewage that is trucked out; and above all, poverty. More than 26 percent of Bethel’s people live below the poverty line compared with the national average of 14 percent.

Despite all that, says Cochrane, “I love it here. I could live here another 20 years. I love it.

“Any time you have the ability to make a significant change in your community, it’s amazing.”

Anny and Jon Cochrane, the current club president, moved to Bethel six years ago for his job at a bank. He had lived in Anchorage as a teenager but never been involved with Lions. She had met Lions only as a child in Idaho, when the Challis Lions fed pancakes to the whole town in a parking lot for the Fourth of July. She remembers it like the syrup poured yesterday.

Now her Lion involvement gives her joy in a very different way. It keeps her engaged, and like her club mates, satisfied to be improving lives one bit at a time. Besides the shelter, the club operates the town’s food bank, recently designated as a regional food bank, much to her delight. And the Lions’ and Leos’ summer food program in the park five days a week is by far Cochrane’s favorite activity.

Lunch packs from the Food Bank of Alaska are shipped from Anchorage to Bethel for children under 18, and women Lions use this opportunity to not only feed the children but teach them about good health and hygiene.

“It’s a lunch in the park but it’s really life skills,” says Cochrane. Children learn the importance of brushing teeth and washing hands and eating healthy. The women develop low-sugar healthy recipes that kids age five and older can make for themselves from ingredients that most will get with food stamps. In a partnership with the ROTC the Lions also host a lunchtime book swap to encourage summer reading.

Although the men in the club are happy to drop the lunch supplies at the park, the women are key to making the lunch happen, embracing the community with projects like this that focus on youth, family, and food insecurity, says Cochrane.

The women started the Bethel Leos club and also run a popular pediatric cancer fundraiser. They introduce their own children to Lions early on by bringing them along to all their Lion activities.

“Sometimes we can all get stuck in our old ways, but the women here have been able to open up more service opportunities in our club,” says Cochrane. “The women bring a fresh voice and a fresh perspective.

“The men just think differently. They aren’t aware of those issues. I’m not going to bash our men. We love our men,” she says. “They’re excellent at spearheading things like the community Thanksgiving dinner, and it’s good to have a balance in a club.”

The Lions get most of their funding from weekly bingo nights and other organizations that are eager to work with them. Cochrane, proud of her networking skills, says it’s clearly a matter of finding ways to politely ask for money. “We couldn’t do it without partnerships.”

The Lions also operate the soup kitchen. They bought a vision screener to take to the native villages. They support a regional cultural dance festival each spring, and they purchased a snow machine for the search and rescue team, and an ambulance equipped for ice rescue.

“It’s all important,” says Cochrane.

“Everybody goes to the Lions for their needs here. There are so many things that wouldn’t be getting done in the community if it weren’t for Lions. I’m just really thankful that I’m given the opportunity to be a part of it.

“We get to help people,” she says with a hint of swagger. “I think that’s awesome.”

New York Lions Paula Flisnik and Celestina Ekezie met at Lions Day With the UN and developed a friendship that over one year led to a completed mission trip to Nigeria.

They’re Proving the Power of Partnership

At the March 2018 Lions Day with the United Nations in New York, Lion Paula Flisnik admired Lion Celestina Ekezie’s colorful dress and gele, a traditional Nigerian head wrap.

Flisnik walked over to complement Ekezie’s attire, and the two Lions from different clubs, different backgrounds, and different careers, began to chat. Flisnik learned that Ekezie has a vision impairment. Ekezie discovered that Flisnik serves in the blindness field.

In the 10 months to follow, the new Lion-born friends remained connected and combined their skills and resources to organize a two-week medical and educational mission trip to Nigeria, assisted by U.S. and Nigerian Lions.

PDG Flisnik, a Marcy Telephone Lion who was recently awarded the foundation’s Helen Keller Distinguished Service Award, is director of community relations at the Central Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired [CABVI] in Utica, New York. Ekezie, a New York City Barahona Lion from the Bronx, is founder and CEO of Beacon of Hope Outreach, a U.S. and Nigerian nonprofit that works to create healthier educated communities in a country where the life expectancy is still below age 50 and diabetes, stroke, and poor eyesight are normal occurrences.

With Flisnik’s help, Ekezie organized a group including eight doctors to travel to southern Nigeria in January. Shipments of donations that included 700 glasses, vision materials and more from the Lions and the CABVI, and shoes from the Marcy Telephone Lions, preceded their trip. The Lions of District 20-R2 in the Bronx, and numerous individuals contributed funds.

With their van, a hospital on wheels, the group visited rural communities where the people have to walk to the mouth of the stream to get water, and walk five miles or more to reach a hospital. More than 5,000 Nigerians received assistance with medical exams, vision checks, eye and dental care, diabetes screenings, medications, wound care, and food. And through the Girls Initiative run in part by Ekezie’s daughter and niece, more than 1,000 girls were taught about hygiene, sanitary health, sexual awareness, and abuse prevention. Women were also taught how to make disinfectant soap.

At the end of their visit, Ekezie’s group was asked to please come back. The young women requested that someone teach their parents about the Girls Initiative so they might better teach and empower the younger girls as they grow up.

“Look at what we’ve accomplished in less than a year,” said Flisnik in a phone conversation with her friend shortly after the trip was completed. “We became friends, and ever since we have been driven to work together. And see what can happen.

“We hope to help Lions look beyond their needs, look beyond the United States, and help wherever they can,” she said. “Being a Lion isn’t just about giving money. It’s about the hands-on work of serving.”

It is also about going back to help where you’re from, said Ekezie, who has duo citizenship in the U.S. and Nigeria, and hopes her organization can secure a location in Nigeria for construction of a rehabilitation and wellness center.

“The fact that I came to the UN and I met Paula gave me a new lease on life. There’s nothing like when you see someone who encourages you and mentors you and believes in what you do. Women Lions can do that for each other,” Ekezie said. “When she’s giving me all this support I am not going to disappoint her.

“As a woman I want to impact as many women as I can. The support of Lions has given me the ability to walk farther and in any way I can, empower people. It’s making me do more than I was doing before.”

Flisnik said she gets re-energized when she helps people like this. “When they’re happy, I’m happy, and that’s a rewarding opportunity I get from being a Lion.

“We know we can’t always change their environment, but we’re helping them live within their environment, to be successful with what they have.”

Cady Mariano, charter member of the San Diego California United Leos, met the Lions at age 9 and has been serving ever since.

They’re Staying Young

In one of their many service projects the San Diego California United Leos make sandwiches and hand them out to the homeless.

Charter club president Cady Mariano had often heard about the living conditions of the people on the street. “But when I saw them and I handed them a sandwich I could see the problem in a whole different way,” she says. “If you’re not involved, you don’t understand how hard some things are.

“I see bad things happening all the time, and to just say, ‘I’m against animal abuse,’ or ‘the hurricane was so bad’ and to not do anything about it is pointless. I choose to do something about it.”

Being in Leos not only exposes young people like her to Lions, but to these community needs, says the 16-year-old. “It helps us realize how great it is to help, and how much we can make an impact at a young age.”

Her awareness to need started when she was in kindergarten and her school held a fundraiser for victims of an earthquake in China. Mariano, who is half Chinese, emptied her piggy bank to give, shocking but also inspiring her mother, San Diego United Lion Lee Mariano.

At age 9, Cady was introduced to Lions when charter San Diego United Lion Dr. Allen Chan saw her perform with a children’s Chinese Dance Troupe and invited her to dance at a Lion fundraiser for Rady Children’s Hospital.

That performance led to more and more outings with Lions, and at age 10 she chartered the San Diego United Cubs Club. In 2015, she chartered the Leos.

Now a high school junior, her list of accomplishments and awards is long, and although she appreciates the accolades, she says, “I don’t think my work is that impressive. It has just become part of my life. Through Lions I’ve realized that I am so blessed to have everything I have, and that I shouldn’t take it for granted.”

In 2013, after a dance performance for the Salvation Army, Mariano approached the leaders and asked what more she could do to help, in the same way she asked Lion Chan how she could help when she was 9. Every year since, she and her Leo friends have boxed up hundreds of Thanksgiving meals for needy families. They have held bake sales for fire victims, conducted toy drives, and rung the Salvation Army bells at Christmas.

In February of 2017, at age 14, Mariano became the youngest recipient of the Salvation Army’s Volunteer of the Year Award.

“Lions has shown me all these ways to help, and now I see people hurting and it hurts me to not help,” she says. “I’ve benefitted because serving is such a part of my life now that it would be weird to not have it.”

Tennessee Houston County Lion Evelyn Alsobrooks, 101, waits for her younger brother, Lion Ben Hagler, 88, to bring her the minutes from the club meetings so she stays informed.

They’re Staying Active

No one doubted Evelyn Alsobrooks would be a good addition when in 1993 she became the first woman in Tennessee’s Houston County Lions Club. They supported her to become their first woman president three years later.

Now 101 and living in a nursing home, Alsobrooks remains an active and interested Houston County Lion. Although unable to attend meetings because of her hearing loss, she is eager to get Lion updates from her younger brother, Lion Ben Hagler, who is 88 and brings her the club minutes so she can voice her opinion.

Alsobrooks joined Lions at the invitation of her husband, George Alsobrooks, hoping to spend some social time with him, but also help her community, she says. One of the biggest challenges was during her presidential year when work was beginning on the Lions Pediatric Eye Center at the Vanderbilt Eye Institute in Tennessee.

But Alsobrooks was up for it. She is known for her stamina. She worked as a machine operator in a Detroit factory during WWII, and when she later lost her right arm in a traffic accident, she reacted by starting to paint with her left arm to strengthen it. Her friends say she got pretty good.

Would these life experiences have given her the confidence to join the all-male Lions club?

“As if I needed it,” she says.

Women Lions, says Alsobrooks, are more service oriented than men and likely to urge the men in the club to get out there and help. “If Lions show respect for each other’s ideas,” she says, “LCI will be an even stronger organization.”

Wentzville Outreach Lions Club members in Missouri say their president Lisa Alexander is “a Godsend.” PHOTO BY WHITNEY CURTIS

They’re Multiplying

One week after the Wentzville Outreach Lions had their charter night in 2016, they served 100 Thanksgiving dinners to the homeless, veterans, seniors, and first responders.

On Christmas Day, the new club did it again. But this time more people came to eat and more townspeople came to help. The Lion spirit to give was already catching on in their Missouri community.

Charter Lion Jimmy Butler credits their current president Lisa Alexander with the club’s jump start that has yet to slow down.

“She is a Godsend,” says Butler. “Without our guiding Lion Lisa we would not be a Lions club today.”

Alexander, who joined Lions in St. Louis, Missouri in 1998, and served as district governor in 26-M3 from 2013 to 2014, tosses the credit back to club members who wanted first and foremost to put their words into actions. Their enthusiasm was infectious, and seeing a number of women in the club encouraged her even more, she says.

“Men are good, but women can get down in there and get things done that sometimes men can’t get done,” says Alexander. “We are committed to seeing it through.”

Every month the club has a different project in addition to their continuous service like collecting food for the local pantry. In February they gather coats, shoes, and socks for the needy. In April they conduct hearing screenings paired with the eye screenings offered at Walmart. The Lions help seniors clean up their yards in the spring, collect school supplies for children in the summer, pick up trash along the highway four times a year, and the list goes on.

The calendar pages turn quickly.

Before the club’s official charter night, Alexander wondered how she could give this spirited group a boost. She applied for a community grant from the Walmart Foundation and got the club a US$2,000 nest egg. In January 2018, the Lions of District 26- M3 received a US$100,000 LCIF grant to build an inclusive playground in Wentzville to accommodate children with disabilities.

At community events, Alexander and other Lions make a point of telling their guests about the organization. They invite students and their parents to help with projects, and they find that the extra promotional effort has further warmed their reception in the community and increased membership.

“We work together as a team, but teams need leaders,” says Butler. “You can make it happen with the right leadership.”

He questions if their particular leader ever gets any sleep.

“No,” replies Alexander with a laugh. “I don’t sleep much. I have a full time job and I volunteer. But they say if you need something done you ask a busy person and they find a way to get it done.

“My family says I’m married to the Lions.

“Lions changed me because I knew nothing about giving back. I knew nothing about helping people. And now I’m always busy doing something for the club,” says Alexander.

“We live in a ‘me’ world. It’s all about them and not about others. But we can do something about that. We can make a difference in people’s lives and it feels wonderful when we do.”