From its founding in 1917 in Chicago to today, Lions Club International continues to be one of the world’s largest service organizations with more than 1.4 million members worldwide. In Norwich, the Lions motto, “We Serve”, is the guiding principle for the Club’s many initiatives focused on improving vision, hunger, global relations, pediatric cancer, and the environment. The wide array of community activities over the history of the Norwich Lions Club is remarkable. For a relatively small group, the Club has had a hand in supporting or improving nearly every aspect of the town including schools, non-profits, and town infrastructure and recreation facilities. Most recently, the Club was involved in screening elementary school children in Norwich, Sharon, and Woodstock for eyesight issues.
Chartered in 1954, the Norwich Lions Club (NLC) has served Norwich and the surrounding communities for nearly 70 years and conducts large and small fundraisers to support community projects initiated by its members as well as non-profit organizations throughout the Upper Valley. The Club’s first service projects included the donation of a piano to the Marion Cross School, the construction of a house at Beaver Meadow, and the development of baseball diamonds in town.
Phil Wheeler – a long-time Lion of 60 years, past Club president, and past district governor overseeing all Vermont clubs – was an early founder of one of the club’s most popular projects: the Memory Tree. “I started my Lions service with the Middlebury Lions Club but moved to Norwich after graduating from the Tuck School. When the Memory Tree project first started, I encouraged clubs all over Vermont to get involved,” says Wheeler.
Each year, volunteers install the tree and decorate it in the gazebo in town and invite people to name those that they want to memorialize or honor. At one time, every Lions Club in Vermont hosted a Memory Tree, thanks to Wheeler’s encouragement.
The first year the Memory Tree program took place in Norwich, Wheeler memorialized his parents. His father was a general surgeon in Brattleboro and a 50-year member of his local Lions Club. “My mother was there to take care of us and support him because he was often called away on an emergency in town,” Wheeler remembers.
This commitment on the part of both his parents inspired Wheeler to take up a life of service. “I really enjoy helping others; the club is always looking for people who need help,” he says.
The Memory Tree program has evolved over the 44 years since Wheeler presented the idea to clubs around Vermont to include honoring a friend or family member who is still living as well as memorializing those who have passed on. The Memory Tree program is part of the 19 days of Norwich, and the Byrne Foundation matches the proceeds for a donation to the Upper Valley Haven – a non-profit organization that serves people struggling with poverty by providing food, shelter, education, service coordination, and other support.
The signature fund-raising event for the Norwich Lions Club is the well-loved Norwich Fair. Originally organized by local churches for the first 40 years, NLC took on sponsorship and operation of the fair in 1989 and has been providing fun and entertainment to all fairgoers ever since. The Club celebrated the 69th year of the Fair last summer, which has raised over $30,000 in recent years, far exceeding previous annual receipts of $18,000-22,000.
Club President Fran DeGasta reflects on the many service-oriented benefits of the Norwich Fair: “Local non-profits partner with the club for their own fund-raising initiatives at the fair, and they can retain all of their proceeds. People really enjoy the popular dunk-tank attraction on the sidelines.” Until recently, the fair also featured a pig roast, King Arthur Pie Baking Contest, and bingo.
In addition, NLC solicits grant applications annually and has funded projects for nearly 40 different Upper Valley non-profits, schools, and community groups over the years. The list of funded projects is extensive – digital library materials, food resilience projects, heat pumps, medical equipment, and educational materials are just a few examples.
Early fundraisers included an annual Lions Minstrel Show, the sale of light bulbs, spring auctions, and sponsoring canoe races on the Connecticut River. Over the years, the Club has also held wine-tasting events at the Norwich Inn to support NLC’s service activities. In addition to the Norwich Fair and the Memory Tree, current major fundraisers include an annual “Meadow Muffin Contest” wherein participants purchase “plots”, hoping to be chosen for a prize by a bovine “plop” – a fan favorite of many native New Englanders. An online silent auction with over 200 items donated by local businesses and individuals throughout the Upper Valley raised more than $11,000 in 2022 to be offered in the Club’s granting program.
Many of the NLC’s community projects are part of an ongoing response to needs identified by members and may provide one-time or ongoing support. The various fundraisers support these initiatives as well. A partial list includes sponsoring free monthly dinner meals for over 100 adults and children at LISTEN, providing fuel assistance, cash donations and eye exams and glasses, delivering sand to seniors during the winter season, sponsoring bus transportation for children to local nursing homes to read to residents, and supporting the Pediatric Cancer Treatment Room Transformation Project at ChaD (Children’s Hospital at Dartmouth).
Similar to other service clubs, Lions Club members volunteer individually and collectively at various local and regional events for service, fellowship, and of course, fun. Collaborating with other Lions Clubs and local institutions, club members have planted trees, marched in parades, helped with elementary school reading programs, and provided voting outreach services. The reach of the Norwich Lions Club also extends to a Cabot, Vermont-based summer camp for children with vision and hearing loss. Lions provide lunches during registration days, host activities, provide equipment and games, and work with Lions from other clubs at the camp.
The original founder of Lions Club International was Melvin Jones, a Chicago insurance salesman. In Norwich, as in many clubs, a fellowship has been established to honor the founder, and is presented to those who donate $1,000 to the Lions Club International Fund or to recognize a club member or citizen who demonstrates ‘above and beyond’ dedication to humanitarian causes. In 2023, the Club honored retired Norwich town clerk, Bonnie Munday, with the fellowship. Munday was instrumental in supporting the Memory Tree by annually posting a list of those who were memorialized and honored and managing donations.
Munday recalls her participation on a local Substack blog: “I tried to have a complete list up for the Christmas Pageant so that people could look at it and see that the memories they submitted were posted. I do hope the next clerk will keep up with this tradition.” Lion Stephen Flanders, a retired research civil engineer, and Nico Bekker, vice president of Ledyard National Bank, were awarded the fellowship in 2021. “It was an honor to get it,” says Flanders. “Nico and I each did things to help the club’s effectiveness with new fundraising procedures and by expanding our website.”
Lions International celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2017, and clubs around the world developed ‘Legacy Centennial’ projects to mark the occasion. In Norwich, the Lions Club purchased a basketball scoreboard for the Marion Cross Elementary School, installed tree signs on the Norwich Green, contributed a flag pole for the Norwich Police/Fire complex, and helped to fund the Norwich Veterans’ Honor Roll Monument.
As club members prepare to install this year’s Memory Tree for the 2023 holiday season, residents and visitors to Norwich can see it on display as they pass through town. “It’s a welcome sight as you drive into Norwich to see the tree lit up in the gazebo,” says Wheeler.
President Fran DeGasta hopes to see the next generation step in to get involved in community service with the Norwich Lions Club. ”Prospective members who are prepared to share the club’s commitment to helping others are encouraged to attend one of our meetings to see what we’re all about,” DeGasta says. “We come together as a club for the greater good of all.”
The Norwich Lions Club meets twice a month from September to June, on the first and third Tuesdays in the downstairs Community Room of the Norwich Public Library.
For more information on how to get involved in this active community service club, visit the club’s website at norwichlionsclub.org.