Hansen’s disease, more commonly known as leprosy, is a chronic bacterial infection that attacks the nervous system and could ultimately result in the loss of limbs and disfigurement.
In 1866, decades before Hawaii would be annexed by the United States, its ruler King Kamehameha V exiled a number of men and women suffering from this disease to the isolated peninsula Kalaupapa, on the island of Molokai, the fifth-largest island in the Hawaiian archipelago. Sent against their will and forced to stay, these men and women lived in caves or rudimentary shacks made of branches and were given no medical care. A Belgian priest, Father Damien de Veuster, moved to the colony in 1873 and helped to replace the run-down shacks with permanent houses. However, for decades, men, women and children throughout Hawaii who had leprosy continued to be exiled to live lives of struggle and rugged isolation.
At the dawn of the 20th century, more than a thousand men and women lived at the Molokai colony. By June 1948, the population of the colony had dropped to 280. In that year, Molokai became home to a 31-member Lions Club charter—half of whom were those with leprosy. It was the first and only civic organization at the settlement.
The charter’s birth marked a turning point for the Molokai colony that was celebrated with an all-day celebration attended by 500 Lions and guests from all around the Hawaiian islands, an event that would have been unimaginable on the peninsula just a few decades before. The new club was headed by community leaders. The local sheriff, the settlement administrator and the medical director were all Lions. The Kalaupapa Lions Club raised money for polio patients and held Christmas dinners to raise funds for people who were visually impaired. Lions planted an orchard on the island and helped build Judd Park, a scenic picnic site named for Lawrence Judd, former governor of Hawaii, Kalaupapa administrator and Lion. The club also donated a ramp for the island’s airport, through which Molokai’s many visitors have arrived, including celebrity entertainers like Shirley Temple and Red Skelton.
In 1969, the laws confining people with leprosy on Molokai were lifted, though some chose to remain on the island. With 20th century medical advances, Hansen’s disease is able to be treated and is no longer a cause for isolation and exile.
Molokai remains relatively isolated. The island sees a fraction of the visitors that explore the other Hawaiian islands, and a barge of groceries, sundries and other supplies arrives once a year to stock the local general store. But the legacy of the Kalaupapa Lions Club is proof that even those afflicted with a terrible disease can choose to give of themselves. Of the 17 total residents of Kalaupapa in 2013, eight of them were Lions. “We Serve” has rarely been so clearly modeled and exemplified as by those who, in another era, required help themselves.
Explore the exciting history of Lions Clubs International with our exclusive Touchstone Stories series. They’re a great resource for promoting service at your club meetings!