Touchstone Story #73–Champions

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Only a few weeks before Kevin Sessions was to compete in a basketball tournament at the summer 2014 Special Olympics USA Games, the 19-year-old athlete hit a slump. His dad and coach Warren Sessions couldn’t understand what the trouble was—until Kevin mentioned that everything seemed blurry.

As soon as father and son reached the Games, Warren took Kevin to the Special Olympics-Lions Clubs International Opening Eyes clinic to have his eyes checked. He was diagnosed with nearsightedness and spots behind his eyes. To make sure he was ready to play in a big basketball game the next day, the clinic volunteers rushed to get Sessions the eyewear he needed in only 20 minutes. What a difference the glasses made. Sessions scored 12 points in the game, and his team went on to win the gold medal. 

Special Olympics gives thousands of children and adults with intellectual disabilities the chance to shine through athletic training and competition—building community, confidence, fitness and courage in the process. But like Sessions, many athletes suffer unnecessarily from undiagnosed vision issues.  

Special Olympics first established an eye health services program for participating athletes in 1991. A decade later, Lions Clubs International Foundation gave its first grant to the Opening Eyes program. The two organizations have had a special partnership ever since, providing free vision screening to more than 350,000 participants, offering free prescription eyeglasses and sports goggles to more than 170,000 Special Olympic athletes, and distributing more than 100,000 free sunglasses. 

The Lions Clubs International Foundation donates approximately US$1 million each year to the cause. Since the partnership began, more than 20,000 Lions volunteers from more than 80 countries have staffed the state, regional, national and international Special Olympics Games. 

The partnership between Special Olympics and Lions almost seems inevitable. In 1968, the first Special Olympics Games were held at Chicago’s Soldier Field stadium, less than three miles from Lions headquarters, at the time in downtown Chicago. 

In 2010, Lions and the Special Olympics created Champions Lions Clubs, a new designation for Lions clubs that focus specifically on Special Olympics. These clubs go beyond supporting the Opening Eyes program. They help Special Olympic athletes with scholarships, training, donations, health programs, hands-on support and promotion of the Games.  

At the 2013 Lions Clubs International Convention, Lions expanded its Special Olympics partnership with an initiative called “Mission: Inclusion,” which aims for full acceptance and inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities through health programs, outreach, leadership and advocacy opportunities. Thanks to its longstanding partnership with the Special Olympics, Lions have helped the world to see that every person has the talent and passion to be a champion.

Explore the exciting history of Lions Clubs International with our exclusive Touchstone Stories series. Don’t forget to share these stories with new members so they gain an understanding of Lions history!

Kester Edwards receives his Melvin Jones Fellowship plaque from Chairperson Yamada

Making History: Charting a Future in Service

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While his service footprint has been made throughout the Washington, DC, metropolitan area, his inspiration comes from the hills of Tobago, a small island nestled in the southern Caribbean. It was in these lush, green hills that Kester Edwards learned of the power, and impact that local service can have on a global population. Thousands of miles from his hometown, Kester recently received a significant distinction from the world’s top service club organization, and made history.

As a charter member of the Washington, DC, Special Olympics Lions Club in 2001, Kester Edwards has taken that inspiration and transformed it into a focused effort to ensure that community service is not just offered TO individuals with intellectual disabilities, but also FROM them. His signature projects include dedicated support to food kitchens throughout the nation’s capital, women’s shelters, at-risk youth, and the local Special Olympics program. Fundraising, advocacy, hands-on service, connecting members and inspiring the next generation of Lions, both in his Club and abroad, are just a sample of the highlights that Kester Edwards has achieved in nearly two decades as a Lion.

Kester Edwards’ story is one of millions, and at the same time, one of a kind. Kester Edwards has provided some of the strongest global service focus to Special Olympics athletes of anyone in the world today, perhaps most notably because he himself is a former SO athlete. He is also a former SO coach, international member of the Board of Directors, and currently a formidable sport development expert.

His profile has inspired a generation of Lions and SO athletes, and the world is taking notice. In the company of Dr. Timothy Shriver, Chairman of Special Olympics, Inc., Lions Clubs International Foundation (LCIF) Chairperson Dr. Jitsuhiro Yamada, and a range of Special Olympics and Lions Clubs International leaders, Kester Edwards received his Melvin Jones Fellowship, recognizing his dedication to LCIF. He is the first Special Olympics athlete to ever receive an MJF.

“I am proud to stand here before you as the first SO athlete to receive this distinction. My commitment is that I will not be the only, or the last,” said Kester, at the Lions Clubs International Centennial celebration event, hosted by Special Olympics at the 2017 Special Olympics World Winter Games in Schladming, Austria. “I have been a solider of Special Olympics for many years, most of my life in, fact.  And tonight, I commit to all of you at Lions Clubs International, I am now a lifetime solider of Lions Clubs International.”

As recognition of humanitarian work, an MJF is an honor presented to those who donate US$1,000 to LCIF or to people for whom a donation was made by others.

“Words do not capture the admiration we have for Kester’s deep commitment to a more just and inclusive world for all,” said Dr. Timothy Shriver, Chairman of Special Olympics. “Kester is a role model, a man of physical strength, professional achievement, and enormous integrity. A role model not only because of the service he provides to others, but also because he is a great colleague, dear friend, and strong advocate for change.”

Kester continues to support his community through a range of projects, and has most recently been identified by Special Olympics and Lions Clubs International as a key driver of the youth activation work underway with Leos throughout the world.

Kester Edwards addresses the audience

“I have been blessed,” said Kester at the Centennial event. “More athletes should be given the opportunity to serve, and that is now my mission: to make sure that I am but the first of many. That is inclusion in action.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a guest post by Special Olympics.

A student enjoys the playground.

Fun is Very Accessible at a Playground in Argentina

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Villa Regina Lions in Argentina volunteered at a school for disabled children and young adults, so the exhortation from the LCIF chairperson to help those with disabilities struck a chord. “Imagine the joy of a disabled child when a playground is built allowing them to finally participate in play,” then- LCIF Chairperson Wing-Kun Tam wrote in a newsletter to Lions in 2012.

The end result has been an accessible playground at Special Education School #5. The playground includes an accessible merry-go-round, multiple sets of swings and a teeter totter. There is also sensory equipment such as an elevated sandbox, a tactile panel, a sign language panel and a braille panel.

The playground was built thanks to an LCIF grant of US$17,211 and through funds raised by the Villa Regina Lions Club.

Special Education School #5 enrolls more than 100 students ages 6 to 25 with visual impairments, cognitive disabilities or physical disabilities. The school provides traditional learning tailored to their abilities as well as vocational training.

The school had no playground. In addition to providing recreation, playgrounds provide students with disabilities a rich opportunity for cognitive, social and emotional development.

Villa Regina Lions raised funds for the playground in a variety of ways including “Pedaling for a Dream,” a 24-hour bike-a-thon done in conjunction with local volunteer firefighters.

Villa Regina Lions often volunteer at the school. They take students for walks around the school’s property and also organize activities for the annual Children’s Day. Every August, Lions bring hot chocolate and sweet bread to the school and organize games for the children.

Thanks to Villa Regina Lions, students at Special Education School #5 now can learn and play among their peers, develop their life skills and discover the fun to be had on a playground.

This article was originally published in the May issue of LION Magazine.


Touchstone Story #7–The White Cane

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Great ideas often take ages to form before taking hold all at once. The white cane, the now universal and indispensable aid for the blind, follows that path. It came into wide use beginning in 1930 as two caring problem solvers stood on busy street corners thousands of miles apart—one in Paris, France, and the other in Peoria, Illinois.

Throughout history, visually impaired people have carried canes, staffs and walking sticks to help get around obstacles. But, they faced terrifying new challenges in the 20th century as cars replaced carriages on city streets—streets that were frequently without stoplights and crosswalks. The plain, walking stick still worked as a way-making tool, but it was useless as a warning sign to motorists. A blind Englishman named James Biggs claimed to have found an answer in 1921 when he painted his walking stick white. A decade later, this simple invention began to gain ground.

The white cane crossed first to continental Europe through a one-woman campaign. From her home on the bustling Boulevard de Courcelles, a wealthy Parisienne named Mme. Guilly d’Herbemont would watch nervously as sightless students commuted to a nearby school for the blind. In November 1930, she wrote a letter to a leading Paris newspaper urging the use of attention-getting batons blancs, similar to those carried by traffic police. A few months later, Mme. d’Herbemont arranged for the French president to ceremoniously present one white cane each to a blind war veteran and a blind civilian. She then made personal gifts of 5,000 more white canes to the city’s blind residents.

Meanwhile, Peoria Lions Club President George A. Bonham rallied the help of thousands of partners when he introduced the white cane to North America. Lions had eagerly embraced Helen Keller’s call to aid the blind at the Lions Clubs International Convention five years earlier. Now, they were primed to act on a fellow Lion’s compelling new idea for service.

Like his Parisian counterpart, Bonham was moved one day in 1930 in downtown Peoria when Bonham saw a blind man tapping his cane helplessly as traffic swirled around him. No one seemed to notice the man’s dilemma, which set Bonham thinking. The answer again was the white cane, this time with a red band for even greater visibility. Bonham shared his idea with club members who immediately voted their endorsement. Members took up the cause, painting white canes for the blind and writing letters to city officials. In December 1930, the Peoria City Council passed the nation’s first “white cane safety law,” giving blind citizens the right-of-way and other protections when carrying a white cane.

At the 1931 international convention in Toronto, Lions heard a detailed presentation on the white cane program and received copies of the Peoria ordinance to bring home. By 1956, with the help of a full-scale awareness and advocacy campaign, every state in the United States had enacted white-cane safety laws.

The white cane has become a symbol of the independence, confidence and skills of those who rely on it to guide their walk through life. Every Oct. 15 on International White Cane Safety Day, many Lions wear a white cane lapel pin, reminding us how far we have walked together.

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!

A young woman works with a sewing machine.

Reaching Across Borders to Fight Poverty

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Although India has one of the fastest growing economies in the world, an estimated 50 percent of Indians lack proper shelter. An overwhelming majority of the population does not have access to adequate sanitation or secondary education.

Lions in Ireland are teaming up with Lions in India to help the poor in rural areas to help themselves.

Lions of District 106 I in Ireland are partnering with the Arni Silk City Lions of District 324 A4 in India help women break the cycle of poverty. Together, they received a US$50,000 Core 4 grant from Lions Clubs International Foundation (LCIF) to fund a microenterprise program for single and widowed mothers. LCIF believes that microenterprise boosts the economic well-being for those who live at or below the poverty level and have limited skills and capital but who aspire to improve their situation.

The Lions are working with Nandri, a nonprofit in Ireland, and Child Aid Trust (CAT) in India to provide microenterprise loans to single and widowed mothers. Most of the women who participate in CAT programs are illiterate and support their families through menial labor. They are part of the Dalit caste, the lowest social class in India.

The women are denied access to traditional credit or loan options. The women are given a loan of Rs. 25,000 (approximately US$366), which they repay at a one percent interest rate for 25 months. Some women use their loans to purchase a cow whose milk they can sell on an ongoing basis. Some choose to purchase sewing machines so they can find consistent work as seamstresses. Others open small shops to sell snacks and cold drinks in their communities. All of these options allow the women to be more independent and to feed and educate themselves and their children.

This article was originally published in the March issue of LION Magazine.


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