Lion July/August 2013 : Page 44

Maine's Oldest Club Gets Younger College students revitalize the 90-year-old Portland Lions Club by John R. Platt

Maine’s Oldest Club Gets Younger

John R. Platt

College students revitalize the 90-year-old Portland Lions Club

Leo Gould, Maine Lions’ vice district governor in 2012-13, has some bad news for the members of the Portland Lions Club. “Lions membership in Maine is down this year,” he tells them at a recent meeting. The state has lost 60 members, mostly due to age. Four clubs shuttered their doors.

Gould and his entourage of fellow Lions from the Whitefield club (they didn't let him make the 120-mile round trip alone) have been sharing this information with clubs throughout the state. In Portland, he looks over his glasses and encourages the crowd to redouble their efforts to recruit new members.

But the Portland club happens to be already way ahead of him. Not only is the club growing in size, it is also getting younger.

From 70 to 40

“We just dropped our average member age from 70 to 40,” Bruce Roullard, the 2012-13 president and president since 2004, tells me. We're in the parking lot of the Iris Network, a nonprofit that helps people with visual impairments. The organization’s offices are just a few blocks away from two sports arenas and the Portland Lions sell parking spaces in the lot before each game. The funds go to the Iris Network and to buy eyeglasses for people in nearby communities. Last year they raised more than $40,000.

As Roullard, a mortgage manager with Bank of America, collects $5 bills from incoming sports fans, he tells me about the club’s recent growth. The Lions started an initiative with the University of Southern Maine (USM) campus in Portland. They invite students to join. Older members often volunteer to pay their dues. The students are interested not only because they can serve the community but also because they gain leadership experience by shadowing the current officers and project leaders. Roullard smiles as he tells me that the club has bought in 11 new student members since the initiative began in 2011.

Service as A Way of Life

Back at the club's meeting I meet Nate Cadorette, a 22- year-old finance major with close-cropped black hair and long sideburns who is already serving as the club’s first vice president, a position that had been vacant for 20 years. Unlike some of the older members in attendance, who wear the familiar Maine uniform of flannel and fleece, Cadorette is dressed in a blue button-down shirt and tie. A member of the service-oriented Sigma Nu fraternity, he was already aware of the Iris Network through participating in their white cane walks every year. "I take service very seriously," he says.

Fellow USM students Tyler Boothby and Tyler Junkins also belong to Sigma Nu and joined the Lions with Cadorette. As the meeting begins, they hop up out of their seats to guide two of the club's blind members to open chairs. It's an easy, practiced move. "We have a friend at USM who is visually impaired," Boothby tells me.

Also a 22-year-old finance major–although he looks even younger–Boothby serves as the club’s second vice president. He first met Iris Network executive director James Phipps at one of the white cane walks. Phipps, like the clients he serves, is blind. “Jim Phipps is an unbelievable man,” Boothby says. “To overcome what he has to become who he is now, it's inspiring. When I'm out there parking cars it’s not for me, it’s for people like that to help them out.”

A Club with History

The new blood has brought energy to the club, says 71- year-old Realtor Leonard Scott, who recently celebrated his 50th anniversary as a Lion. “I was one of the youngest members of the club when I moved to Portland 14 years ago,” he recounts. He remembers often hearing about the glory days of the club in the 1940s when it held noontime meetings at Portland’s famed Eastland Hotel and membership capped out at 125.

Membership had dropped to about 50 people by the time Roy Koster joined in the 1970s, the 64-year-old Lion tells me by phone from his office at Central Maine Power more than 50 miles away. “Slowly but surely, the numbers dwindled,” he laments. He says the members, mostly business leaders who commuted into Portland, started working through their lunch hours, so the club switched to evening meetings. Even that cost them members, as some people wanted to go home at the end of the day.

“The aging membership made it harder to raise money. None of us particularly wants to hawk stuff on the sidewalks,” Koster says. “We did Bingo before there was a smoking ban. I'd come home and my wife would make me take my clothes off on the porch. That was a tough way to make some bucks.”

The parking, which the club started eight years ago, solved many of those problems. “It’s not much work, and it's been a great way to raise funds,” Koster says. But membership continued to age and decline, making it harder to get enough people to work the events. “The kids have definitely helped turn that around,” he says.

The growth comes at an opportune time. The oldest club in Maine and the first north of Boston, the Portland Lions celebrated their 90th anniversary in March. “There's a lot of history here,” Roullard says. “I think the USM initiative is another piece of history for this club.”

Growth and Opportunity

Roullard sees the initiative as a benefit both to the club and the students. “It's a really good opportunity for students to experience community involvement,” he says. “We hope that when they graduate from USM they will stay Lions. Even if they move elsewhere, their memberships will stay with them.”

Cadorette, who works full-time as a junior accountant while going to school, says there's nothing he likes more than finishing a day's work and going out to raise money for the club's causes. He looks forward to possibly taking over as president from Roullard in a year or two. “I didn't know I had this kind of potential,” he says with a smile.

Meeting and working with the older members has also been a life-defining experience for Cadorette. “These guys give their entire lives to helping people,” says Cadorette. “It's something I hope I can do for the next 40 years.”

Platt is a member of the Boothbay Region Lions Club in Maine.

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