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Anne Hailes: Lions clubs - A force for good at a time of great need

Newcastle Lions president Liz Murphy and Lion Dan O'Reilly with volunteers Manus O'Boyle and Patricia Harvey in the Lions' Six Towns Christmas Food Bank Appeal

I REMEMBER the Lions Club somewhere in my distant past, a club exclusively for wealthy gentlemen, portly and in bespoke suits enjoying business talk, brandy and cigars.

Cheques were written but few got involved beyond that.

Scroll forward over 50 years and the scene has changed. Today the Lions Club is a place for men and women, there's even a Leo club for young people.

All have one thing in common - to use their time and talents to help others, no bluster just getting down to thinking of what's needed to make lives easier. There is no talk of politics nor of religion - only ideas for suitable projects to undertake.

It all began in 1917; the First World War meant there were many social problems and recognising this, Chicago businessman Melvin Jones established the Association of Lions Clubs throughout the United States.

Since then it has taken off; 47,000 Clubs in over 200 countries with 1.4 million members. In 1925 blind and deaf activist Helen Keller approached them for help and to this day major international projects include the problems of blindness, also focusing on hearing, raising awareness of the dangers of diabetes and providing relief for disasters worldwide.

The first club in Ireland was established in Dublin in 1956 and there are now 103 clubs throughout the island.

Here in the north, Dan O'Reilly is one of those 1.4 million members and chairperson of the Newcastle Lions, known as Zone B.

Although the Lions are on duty all year round helping others, Dan told me about their work this month.

"As we near Christmas there's a need on a scale not seen before. Many families have faced Covid, have lost £20 in income per week due to cuts in Universal Credit, have seen food prices grow and found increasing costs in electricity, gas and heating oil very difficult to cope with.

"For many families, even though they might be in full time work, they may not be able to purchase toiletries or food and must turn to local foodbanks.

"There's no shame in this. There are many different foodbanks and they all need donations of food, volunteers, and money which is used to help purchase appropriate food, nappies, meat vouchers or toiletries."

And don't forget the children - a toy from the Lions might be the only Christmas present they will get.

Thinking Ahead

WITH Covid limiting clubs in their usual programmes, Newcastle and five other Lions clubs in the area talked it over and decided they could best provide the service needed by coordinating their efforts.

These Lions don't only talk the talk, they walk the walk as well, a 5K sponsored walk through Montalto Estate in Ballynahinch for the six presidents as well as organising a Zoom night at the races and a raffle.

The project involves Lions Clubs in Armagh, Newry, Downpatrick, Banbridge, Ballynahinch and Newcastle, who are all banded in a group called Zone B chaired by Dan and today he and his colleagues will begin to count the proceeds of their fundraising project to raise money for the food banks in each of the towns.

Butchers' vouchers have been offered, people have handed over the £100 High Street vouchers as well a gifts of vital items. All the money donated will be split equally six ways for the food banks.

Zone B has a proud record of service - managing 10 defibrillators in Newcastle and Castlewellan over the last four years thanks to social events, pupil quizzes and wine, gin and cocktail tastings.

After the death of two pensioners in a caravan on a Newcastle caravan site, they fitted carbon monoxide alarms free of charge in pensioners' homes. They loaded up trucks with important items for people of Kosovo following the 1999 war.

When the dreadful fire engulfed the Grenfell Tower four years ago, Lions from this area went to London to help sort through clothing that had been donated and then brought some children back to Newcastle where they were guests of the Burrendale Hotel and during their time here visited schools to mix with boys and girls and share their experience.

"Northern Ireland is a fortunate place with so many charities helping people in different ways." Dan told me.

"When asked on the street, 'Do you know what the Salvation Army or St Vincent De Paul does?', most people would have no problem giving an answer that both groups help people in need.

"If though you asked a member of the public, 'What do the Lions do?', unless you live in a town where there's a Lions Club, you might answer it was a political party, it was a business group of men or it was a football team.

"If you were then told that the Lions Clubs International is one of the biggest charities in the world, made up of ordinary men and women whose only goals are to provide humanitarian need and voluntary service through community involvement and international cooperation, you might be surprised.

"The most important thing about all clubs is that 100 per cent of any money donated to or raised by the Lions for charity goes to charity. The Lions are a global leader in humanitarian service."

After Christmas one project will be to hold a survey to find out what the public think and expect.

"Christmas is truly a time for giving. In these times in which many are struggling, anything any of us can do to ease the pressure is worth doing," says Dan.

"This is the work of the Lions. A force of good and kindness in action."

There is still time to donate as there is still a need to supply food banks. Visit lionsnewcastlecodown.org click on the 'donate; button.

A list of food banks in Northern Ireland can be found at: cabfoodbanksuu.wordpress.com.

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