Lion February 2014 : Page 34

Smart Growth

Jay Copp

A California club has discovered an innovative way to attract and keep younger members.

On a warm California day, Carl Erickson, 42, strides to a green patch of lawn, faces dozens of Lions and family members and takes the mike for karaoke. The afternoon party of the Cupertino DeAnza Lions Club is in the backyard of Jim Gould, 2012-13 club president. A 12-foot lemon tree, bursting with pebbled fruit, flanks Erickson. His wife, Jenni, holds their 3-year-old son against her hip and, like her husband, wears a cartoonish cardboard Lions mask tilted up on her forehead. To the tune of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” the Ericksons sing of the separate evening monthly meetings of the club’s younger members at a pizza and- beer joint.

“In the Lions, the PM Lions/The children run the show./We start up late when we congregate/We gotta work tomorrow ya know!”

Then the Ericksons, both teachers, turn their wit on the older Lions in the club, who meet weekly in the morning at a restaurant. The eatery normally opens at 7 but allows the Lions to gather at 6. The so-called AM Lions run more formal meetings and then have the leisure to whack a dimpled ball over manicured grass.

“In the Lions the AM Lions/Traditions are affixed./They get things done and they have some fun/With golf and beer till six.”

The dozens of Lions and friends laugh and roar. But the Ericksons aren’t finished. They want to poke fun but also pay tribute to a club where they feel at home. Most of their peers are serial volunteers, taking part in a cancer walk or heart disease bike ride, but declining to join a service club. In Silicon Valley, forget about the midnight oil–computer screens glare deep into the night. Careers demand time; children crave attention. The Cupertino club has found a way for working adults with younger children to be Lions. “In the Lions De Anza Lions/We are a diverse crew/We work together to make things better and enjoy each other too,” sing the Ericksons.

A few blocks from Gould’s home is De Anza Boulevard, a broad, busy thoroughfare lined with restaurants, shops, cream-colored homes and, occupying a long stretch, the gleaming corporate headquarters of Apple. Hovering over Cupertino are the jagged Santa Cruz Mountains. Twentytwo miles away is the frothy ocean. Just beyond the mountains is the fertile San Joaquin Valley that “feeds the world,” as locals like to say. Practically everything and anything will grow here, and what grows in the valley also grows without coaxing or care in backyards, a bounty often taken for granted and neglected by indifferent property owners. One of the proposed projects of the Cupertino Lions, a club truly rooted in a time and place, is to gather the backyard oranges, peaches, kiwi and much more and distribute the fruit to the hungry.

Al Knox, 73, an elder statesman Lion, once ran a firm that provided security for Apple. Sporting a trim white beard reminiscent of a wizened sea captain, Knox remembers the days when Apple was a fledgling newbie that relied on seatof- the-pants inspiration. “Steve Wozniak [an Apple cofounder] used to rush around the building and hand out $100 bills to people who he thought were doing a good job. I said to him, ‘I think you might want a security person to walk around with you,’” Knox recalls with a grin.

Knox, a Lion since 1981, first understood Lions as a bunch of horse@$#%&, and he was perfectly fine with that. A friend invited him to a project. “The club had to clean out a horse stall. I was a CEO. It was therapeutic to work with my hands. I was sold,” he says.

For years the Cupertino Lions operated as a typical club. They provided eye exams and glasses for schoolchildren, supported nearby bucolic Camp Costanoan for children with disabilities and sponsored a student speaker contest. The projects were successful. The problem was the time and energy the projects required as the club aged.

Knox retired early 20 years ago when he sold his business to his daughter. He relishes the long trips on Harleys he takes with his wife–when he’s not busy with the Lions. He understands that a service club takes commitment. “For me, it’s God, family, church, then Lions. I’m busy as a Lion. For a while, I thought I’d go back to work so I can relax,” jokes Knox, the club treasurer and a longtime officer for the club’s foundation.

Leos have helped provide tireless manpower as well as fresh idealism and new ideas. Three years ago Kent Vincent used a close connection he had with a local high school–his wife, a teacher on staff then–to start a Leo club. The Leo club at Monte Vista High School now counts more than 100 members, and Leo clubs at Lynbrook High School and De Anza College are flourishing as well. The Leos serve patrons at the club’s epic crab feed and carry golf clubs at the Lions’ annual fundraising tournament.

The benefits of Leos are not only helping hands but also smiling faces. “Leos have a lot of energy. At the crab feed they do an exceptional job of waiting tables. People who attend our fundraiser associate their [cheerful] attitudes with our club,” Vincent says gratefully.

Another factor boosting the club are the wives and friends of Lions who regularly volunteer their time without formally joining the club. Knox’s wife, Nancy, not a Lion, wears a Lions shirt at the golf outing and works as hard as anyone else. Ellen Ratner, also not a Lion, takes charge of the eyeglass recycling. So it goes. Why not induct them? “She’s [Nancy] busy with the church,” explains Knox. “We don’t like to mess with something that works.”

Many clubs sponsor Leos or welcome the participation of spouses and the involvement of children. What distinguishes the Cupertino DeAnza Lions are the AM and PM groups. That peculiar arrangement was the brainchild of Norm “Eli” Eliason, 72, a retired high school physical education teacher. He also coached basketball, football and track. Eliason joined the Lions nearly 30 years ago after a brief conversation with his principal at the school that had recently hired him. “You’ll be teaching here, so I think you should be in the Lions,” he was told. Eliason nodded and within a short time he was sporting a Lions pin.

Eliason and his fellow Lions, younger and able, took on hands-on projects that required strong backs and unflagging energy. Camp Costanoan was a focal point. The Lions painted the dormitories and spruced up the grounds. Or they fixed up homes and yards of the elderly and disabled. “We did a lot of physical work,” Eliason says.

The community needs seemed to grow, but the Lions were growing older. Eliason saw the writing on the wall several years ago. “I was sitting with Jeff Smith at a meeting and remember saying, ‘Look around. We’re all gray-haired, Most of us are retired. We have to do something or our club will be dead.’”

Smith nodded, remembering an encounter in 1988 he had with a Lion from Wales when he was a Lion in England. U.S. servicemen who stayed on in Wales after World War II had a large, active club in Cardiff, the capital. But the president told him the club was faltering. “He told me it would die within the next five years because they had failed to connect with younger members. Any prospective younger member would look around the room and see a sea of gray and white hair and decide he or she did not belong. This made a great impression on me,” says Smith.

Shortly later Smith, Eliason and Ray Lancon happened to visit the Redwood Shores Lions Club, a club with Filipino members who brought their children to meetings, which were informal and lighthearted. “The kids were playing on the floor. People brought food. It was great,” says Eliason.

Right off the bat, Eliason knew four young adults who would make good Lions: his two daughters and their husbands. Jill Eliason (she kept her name) was married to Scott Ludlum, and Jenni Erickson, married to Carl, was his second daughter. His daughters were not a hard sell. “My kids grew up around Lions. They understood and enjoyed what we did,” he says.

In 2007, Eliason invited about a dozen or so young adults to a meeting about the Lions at an athletic center. His two daughters brought their husbands. The others were related by family or job. Young adults who joined later, such as Amy Reeber, now 36 and a teacher at the same school as Carl Erickson and Jill Eliason, also had a personal or work connection.

Amiable and low-key, Jeff Ludlum, 46, now runs the Lions’ PM meetings. His brother, Scott, is married to Jill Eliason. Jeff occasionally brings his 2-year-old to the meetings. “All the Lion ladies want to be around her. It’s like a bunch of grandmothers,” he says approvingly.

Service has been part of Jeff Ludlum’s identity since he chaired his fraternity’s philanthropy committee at Santa Clara University. After college, he forged a career in sales and marketing. Several years ago his job began to gnaw at him. Maybe, he thought, he’d be happier working at a nonprofit, shooting for a societal good instead of seeking profits. Then the Lions came along. “The Lions scratched my itch–the philanthropy angle,” he says.

Being a Lion makes him an outlier in his circle. “I don’t know anybody else in my life who is a Lion except for the people I knew in the club when I joined,” says Ludlum. “They do some service through their church or work. My friends tease me, ‘You’re a Lion? I thought that was for older people.’”

Cupertino is not like an established Midwestern town where people have known one another’s families for decades or at least share the same ethnic or religious backgrounds. The digital industry attracts a slew of newcomers. Nearly two-thirds of Cupertino residents are Asian. Mobility is an aspiration. People change jobs and addresses frequently. The composition of Lions clubs often is determined by geography. Cupertino is more spread out, a community with a sense of dispersal. “You can’t get that hometown feel here. Lots of our members don’t even live in Cupertino,” says Knox.

Even before he joined, Carl Erickson had been volunteering at the Lions’ crab feed and other projects. Working as a line cook had helped him pay for college. “I liked that kind of work,” he says. “I didn’t see it as a kind of obligation [to his father-in-law]. It was something I wanted to do.”

Yet for the most part, the prospective members knew little of Lions. Their fleeting knowledge led to some wild assumptions. Reeber heard bits and pieces of information and formed a premature conclusion. “Lions? I thought it was a train thing. There was Lion Al. I thought it was Lionel trains,” she says. Ludlum was similarly puzzled. “I knew the name–Lions. There were Lions, Elks, Rotary. I thought it was social. I didn’t know it was a service organization,” he says.

The young adults liked what they learned about Lions and agreed with the idea of meeting separately in the evenings, a much better fit for their working hours. They became full-fledged club members even though they met separately. “We borrowed from the concept of a branch club. It’s kind of a hybrid branch club,” says Knox.

Ludlum and the others discovered that Lions tapped into their desire to reach out in benevolence to the wider world. One of the guests at their meeting a few years ago was a Lion from India visiting his daughter in the area. Neelkanth Byakod of the Ambikanagar Lions Club told the younger Lions of his club’s eye camp. The Cupertino Lions agreed to partner on the cataract surgeries. “Lions for me are community and camaraderie. I value doing service locally but you can do more worldwide, too, because Lions are in every country,” says Ludlum.

Friendly and spirited, Reeber jumped right in, volunteering to organize the golf tournament. The course the club used is owned by NASA, so easy access to the grounds, given security issues, was problematic. Reeber called each of the 102 courses in the area and prepared detailed spreadsheets on their pros and cons. The long hours of service she logged did not deter her. “I don’t have kids. I love what I do. I want to give back in my time away from work as well,” says Reeber, whose husband, Bernie, is also a teacher and a Lion.

The younger Lions view the club not as an obligation but as an opportunity to get out of the house and be with like-minded peers. “Everybody just recruited their friends,” says Reeber. “When we give back, we’re having fun. We’re doubling our pleasure. It’s like hanging out all day on a Saturday with your friends. We’re laughing, joking, but we’re doing good for others.”

Ludlum points out that the San Jose area is large and diverse with more than 1 million people. The power of the experience as a Lion acts like a magnet, drawing members to meetings. “Who are you connected to? Your neighbors, maybe your family if they’re nearby. This creates another layer of community,” Ludlum says. “The church I grew up in–people came from all over. I only saw them on Sunday. It’s the same thing with Lions. When we get together, we are like neighbors.”

The PM meetings are looser and family-oriented. Members’ younger children attend. The children ring the bell, lead the flag salute and then Ellen Ratner supervises arts and crafts for them while the Lions conduct business. “Bernie and I joined Lions after going to one PM meeting because we felt so positive when we left,” says Reeber. “I would say what holds us all together is we like each other. We don’t have to pick between spending time with our friends and spending time doing good for the community because we get together with friends and do good for the community all in one.”

Reeber says she doesn’t quite agree with the notion that the club is not like a typical club in a small town. “I see other Lions at the grocery stores. Many travel together multiple times in the year. Many play golf weekly. We’re generally friends, regardless of age. Bernie and I have gone wine tasting with the Ratners, who are much older than us.”

Some AM Lions come to the evening meeting and vice versa. (“We enjoy pizza and beer as much as anyone,” says Vincent.) Board members attend both meetings, and a club listserv enables members to stay current and trade information and opinions. The unusual arrangement works because members, younger and older, are like-minded in their laser-focus on service. “We want to give back to the community. There is no other agenda,” says Vincent. “Everyone gives 100 percent. There are no ulterior motives.”

That AM Lions are kindred spirits to the PM Lions also contributes to the club’s harmony and effectiveness. The AM Lions are older but not stodgy or hidebound. “We make it fun. No matter what we do, we make it fun,” says Vincent. “We tend to make a party out of every event.” For the golf tournament, the club is divided into three groups. The group that gains the most sponsors (Apple typically makes a sizeable donation) are served by members of the other two groups at the next barbecue. “They get bragging rights as well,” adds Vincent.

The AMers and PMers meet separately but otherwise mix and mingle at projects and events, whether it’s a Habitat for Humanity build, beautifying the grounds of the Pacific Autism Center for Education or Project Linus, which involves making blankets for disaster victims and the homeless. With $400 of fabric and wielding scissors, AMers, PMers and Leos worked side by side to create 63 blankets in 110 minutes. Leading the blanket project was Leslye Noone, a PMer on account of her job. “Leos are so quick,” says Noone, who has three grown children and wears fashionable blue glasses. “One of them, a big, burly guy, was walking around with the blanket he made on his shoulders. ‘OK, you have to turn that in and get back to work.’”

Not everything works perfectly with two separate meetings. “Communication is an issue,” admits Eliason. “We have to work hard to make sure people know what’s going on. There haven’t been any fights or conflicts. We just have to work hard to maintain communications.”

Overall, the influx of younger members has been a great success. “They dive right in. They can do physical work and mental work. Their technological skills are unbelievable,” says Eliason. “We need them. We need their muscle. We need their skills.”

After the karaoke at the backyard Lions’ party at Jim Gould’s home came the awards. Knox takes the microphone. “You want to see the past? Come to the AM meeting. Want to see the future? Come to the PM meeting,” he declares. A Lion at a table shouts out, “We’re in trouble.”

Ludlum receives an award for his leadership. Other Lions are praised. A Rotarian who helps coordinate the crab feed receives a Melvin Jones Fellowship. The Rotarian grabs the mike. “I was told to come to a Tail twister party. I was not even sure what that was,” he says sheepishly.

Noone, who works at a college and became a Lion in 2009, takes it all in. “We raised our kids to be involved in the community. This is a natural progression for me,” she says. Nodding toward the children with their Lions parents and grandparents, she says, “How could you not love it with the kids here?”

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