Recruitment drive saves Merrillville Lions from extinction
MERRILLVILLE — With the Merrillville Lions on the brink of disbanding, several new members have pledged to join the 67-year-old service club, saving it from oblivion.
The new members include several town leaders and others active in the community.
Club president Vernon Schweitzer, of Merrillville, said the club was on the verge of shutting down, the victim of a dwindling and aging membership, when Town Council President and Lions Club member Carol Miano, D-3rd, rallied some friends and town officials to become part of the group.
“The club is down to 15 members, four or five of whom are doing everything. The four of us couldn’t keep it going anymore,” said Schweitzer, who is 83.
He said Miano had talked to quite a few people interested in joining, resulting in a decent-sized group attending an informational meeting last week. Another meeting will be at Town Hall on Oct. 24, after which interested people can join.
Miano said she couldn’t stand by and see a club of 60-plus years fall apart.
“We might have up to 10 new people. That’s a step in the right direction,” said Miano, who is also the volunteer director of Merrillville Senior Services.
Clerk-treasurer Eugene Guernsey and his wife Jacki are among those planning to join the club.
Guernsey said he’s drawn to the Lions because, unlike some other service organizations, it doesn’t spend an exorbitant amount in administrative salaries at the international level.
John King, the club’s secretary-treasurer, said the Merrillville club was formed in 1946 and at one time boasted 140 members, all of whom were Merrillville residents. It also had its own building.
He said more than half of the members now live outside Merrillville and most are up in age. King lives in Crown Point.
The building was sold about five years ago. The club now meets in a back room at Merrillville town hall.
Some once-active members, like Tony Wirtz of Lake Station, have died, leaving a void in the club. Others have health problems. One has dementia.
“Tony was a Lion for at least 35 years and was in demand for his cooking talents anywhere in Northwest Indiana,” said King.
He said Wirtz was the cook at the club’s two major fundraisers: pork chop dinners and pancake breakfasts.
“Last time we got a new member was two years ago, when we got two new members,” King said.
King said the Merrillville club has had membership drives and open houses in an attempt to attract new, younger blood in the group. King, a member for 29 years, just turned 74.
But like with so many other service organizations, the Lions have found that younger adults are involved in Little League, Pop Warner and other groups focused around their children. That leaves no time for service groups.
Beth Gregor, 34, will infuse some of that young blood into the group. She is joining with her mom, Dorinda Gregor, Merrillville’s zoning director and member of several commissions and boards.
Beth Gregor said the idea of being able to help kids who need glasses and the elderly in need of hearing aids attracted her to the club.
“And I want to help members, too, to try to keep the club alive,” Beth Gregor said. “I hope I make it to get my 40-year pin.”
Schweitzer said the meeting last week was an informational one, to tell prospective members what the group is all about, the cost to join and to determine how many would be interested in joining. He said there is a $25 entrance fee and dues are $50 a year, with $25 due every six months. He said if couples join together, yearly dues are $75 combined.
King also gave a rundown of what the Lions have done for the community in the past 10 years and for the Lions International organization’s causes in general.
The Lions primarily purchase eyeglasses for children in need, leader dogs for the blind and hearing aids for the elderly without Medicare insurance. The local club also donates to several local events, including the annual Easter Egg hunt at Hidden Lake Park in Merrillville.
“We’ve done as much as we could. We’d like to do more but more people are needed to raise more funds and to do more,” King said.