Lions are among us.
Not the prowling, roaring, claws-and-fangs type. These are the two-legged variety whose motto is, "Together we serve." They are members of the Pleasanton Lions Club, proud to have benefited this community for 80 years.
President Juanita Furtado -- the second woman president in eight decades -- handed off her gavel July 10 to Steve Grimes. Before their installation dinner at Callippe Preserve Golf Course, Furtado reflected on a year that had seen increasing requests for help from a variety of organizations.
"I have a hard time saying no," she admitted with a laugh. "We can't help everybody, but this year we tried to help more than before."
Furtado noted that the economic downturn has sent many community groups scrambling for funds to meet increased needs in a time of decreased individual donations. "It's a challenge to respond to changing needs."
Nearly a century old, Lions Club International claims 1.3 million members in more than 200 countries. They have become known for their work world-wide in vision care. Their membership brochure states that their clubs "recycle eyeglasses for distribution in developing countries and treat million of people to prevent river blindness."
Furtado has seen first-hand how this effort works. For several years, she has placed Lions' cardboard eyeglasses donation boxes in half a dozen locations throughout Pleasanton, then visited periodically to collect the pairs that have been dropped off.
The glasses are taken to a warehouse in Vallejo, where they are sorted by lens prescription and packed up to be shipped to places such as Mexico, Haiti, India and Nepal. Optometrists and volunteers help to distribute them at free clinics to people whose lives are transformed by having vision correction, often enabling them to see clearly for the first time in their lives.
Vision help also is provided closer to home. Sometimes school teachers are the first to notice that a child is having vision problems. If a Pleasanton family cannot afford eye examinations and prescription glasses, the school can submit a letter to the local Lions Club, and it will quietly pick up the tab, helping assure academic success that might otherwise be out of sight -- literally -- for those students.
Diabetes is a disease that can lead to vision problems. Pleasanton Lions Club works closely with Juvenile Diabetes Research Fund (JDRF), a national organization seeking a cure, and also with the Diabetic Youth Foundation (DYF).
"When someone asks for our support, we don't just write out checks," said Furtado. "We ask them to come and speak directly to our club members."
That is how the club came to know Hannah Francis, who was diagnosed with diabetes at a young age. Now a senior in high school, Hannah and her family have counted local Lions among their supporters for many years as they organize "Hannah's Hikers" to raise funds through the annual Walk to Cure Diabetes.
"They (Lions) have been incredibly generous and supportive," said Zoe Francis, mother of Hannah and family-walk team organizer for the event, which will take place Sunday, Oct. 3, at Heather Farm Park in Walnut Creek. "My dad is a lifetime Lions Club member (in Oklahoma), and it makes him extremely proud that the local chapter supports our team."
The purpose of the Concord-based Diabetic Youth Foundation, Furtado said, "is to help kids learn to manage their own diabetes and to see that they can still lead normal lives." The foundation runs a camp at Bearskin Meadow within Sequoia National Park.
"At camp, newly diagnosed youngsters can see that they are not alone, not the only ones having to deal with diabetes," Francis said.
Pleasanton Lions Club has provided camperships for children and families for the simmer sessions.
"We have had campers come up to us and say, 'Thank you! You have saved my life,'" reported Furtado.
Pleasanton Lions Club also frequently helps out the community by providing food for worthy events. For the Special Kids' Fishing Derby at Shadow Cliffs Regional Recreation Area, the Lions pull up their kitchen trailer, first to provide volunteers with a pancake breakfast, then to serve the young derby participants a hot dog lunch. For many years, Lions have served a "Dog & a Drink for a Dollar" to the eager participants at the local Fourth of July celebration in Lions Wayside Park.
They will don their aprons again in August to serve pancakes to the hundreds of volunteers who will report to the Alameda County Fairgrounds for the biannual East Bay Stand Down weekend for homeless military veterans.
Many of the Lions will linger, after the volunteers eat, to help the Veterans of Foreign Wars serve the first meal to the homeless veterans who are bused in for the event.
"For many of them, it's the first good meal they have had in a long, long, time, and they are very hungry," said Furtado. "They are so grateful and so polite when we serve them. Many of them have not been treated with respect or kindness in quite a while."
Crabby for a Cause
Food service is also the main way that Pleasanton Lions earn the funds that they allocate. On Jan. 29, the club will take over the Young California building at the county fairgrounds for its famous all-you-can-eat crab feed. Incoming president Steve Grimes has been in charge of that event for 20 years.
"It's a lot of fun!" Grimes said enthusiastically. "We have tried to keep it a social event, with many people coming back year after year."
Businesses often reserve tables of 16, to treat their employees to a night of feasting and entertainment. The party includes a live band and a casino, plus a Wheel-of-Fortune for children.
Long-time Lion Tony Macchiano is one of the key organizers; he drives into Oakland each year to pick up 4,300 pounds of cleaned, cooked and cracked crab. Besides trays of crab, each guest gets salad (made with 100 pounds of fresh shrimp), rolls and pasta. Dedicated Lions volunteers work from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. for this successful event.
Members of the bands at Amador Valley and Foothill high schools are the servers.
"It's good for both of us," said Grimes. "Our club couldn't do it without them, and they get a generous donation for their service, so it's a win-win situation."
Tickets at $40 will go on sale in October. The event attracts 1,200-1,500 people. From 6:30-11 p.m. in one night, Lions will raise tens of thousands of dollars to put toward worthy causes in 2011. Those wanting to reserve tickets or whole tables in October can call Grimes at 484-3524
"We are hoping to expand our membership," said Furtado. "That's another challenge. We are planning more family-oriented events, to meet the needs of our younger members. We look to them for their energy, their ideas, and particularly their ability with technology."
Incoming president Grimes has set as his goal bringing in 20 new members in the next year. Six were inducted at the installation banquet.
Membership in Pleasanton Lions is open to men and women age 18 or older "who are dedicated to improving the quality of life in communities locally and worldwide, while developing and sharing personal leadership and organizational skills," according to their brochure.
Those interested are welcome to visit the club, which meets for dinner and programs the second and fourth Tuesdays of each month, starting at 6:30 p.m., in the city's Regalia House, 4133 Regalia Court (east of First Street, off Vineyard Avenue). Dues are $75 per year, and each dinner meeting costs $10, plus "Tail Twister" fines for a variety of things (such as getting one's name in the paper) and pass-the-hat causes, such as donations to the City of Hope cancer center in Pasadena.
"Some of our members do not attend meetings, they just come and volunteer at our events, and that's fine," said Furtado.
Last year's budget for the local club was $91,000. Of that, it donated $38,000 to "mostly local" charities, and spent $41,000 at local businesses.
Why become a Lion?
Juanita Furtado, a 20-year Pleasanton resident and 10-year Lion, is quick to answer: "This is the most joyful thing you can do! A little bit of my time, my energy and my money help another person so much. And the biggest surprise is that you feel better than they do.
"Lions get to be in touch with the people they help, and there's just nothing better."
Easy way to help: Donate old eyeglasses
Next time you change your eyeglasses prescription and frames, consider donating the old pair to be recycled to someone who needs it. There are six drop-off locations in Pleasanton:
1. Pleasanton Public Library - 400 Old Bernal. White metal mailbox with Lions logo is located in the lobby.
2. Pleasanton Kaiser Clinic - 7601 Stoneridge Road. Personnel in the Optical Department collect the donated glasses.
3. Wal-Mart - 4501 Rosewood Drive. White cardboard box with Lions logo and slot on top is in the reception area of the Optical Department.
4. Valley Eye Care - 5575 West Las Positas Blvd. (at ValleyCare Hospital Medical Offices). Go to second floor. One office to the right and one to the left have collection boxes with Lions logo.
5. Senior Center - 6363 Sunol Blvd. Donation box is in the coffee shop to the right of the lobby.
6. Pleasanton Optometry - 1400 Santa Rita Road (across from post office, next to Alisal Elementary School). Glasses may be given to the receptionist.