by Holly Nunn, Staff Writer
The 525 trees in the parking lot of Laurel Mall represent 525 families’ holiday cheer, said Phil Ault, a member of the Laurel Lions Club.
“When I sell a tree, that’s someone’s Christmas,” Ault said. “It’s the thing that’s going to make their Christmas happy.”
But the trees also represent the biggest source of income for the service club, which donates to causes like high school scholarships, medical bill assistance, and eye care and food for the homeless. The amount of money the club raises from the sale has significantly decreased in recent years, losing out to the economy and the appeal of artificial trees, said Ault of North Laurel.
The Laurel Lions Club has been raising funds for the community for almost 80 years, and selling trees, shipped from Pennsylvania and Canada, for 54 years.
“Back in the day, we used to order 1,200 trees. We’d make up to $40,000,” Ault said. “We keep decreasing the amount of trees we order. But last year we still had 30 surplus trees.”
Ault said this year the club ordered 525 trees, down from 675 last year. Ault said that with the economy, they felt that was all they could sell. The lot opened Nov. 26 and by the weekend of Dec. 10, the club had raised $6,000. Ault said the club hopes to make about $5,000 more with the 100 trees left.
Prices on the fir, spruce and pine trees, which are sold in the Laurel Mall parking lot, range from $29 to $45, with a few 9- to 13-foot trees at $85. The club has held its prices steady over the last few years, Ault said, to continue to make a profit.
On Saturday, Ault helped West Laurel residents Nancy and Wilson Shaffer tie a 7-foot Fraser fir to the top of their van. The Shaffers have been coming to the Laurel Lions for their Christmas tree for more than 20 years, Nancy said, and they don’t mind paying a little extra for a good cause.
“They do so much for the community, and they’re so nice and helpful,” she said.
The Laurel Lions Club is one of 46,000 local clubs that make up Lions Clubs International, a service organization founded by Chicago businessmen in 1917. The clubs, which include men and women interested in community service, focus on raising funds and donating community improvement efforts.
The money from the fundraiser, supplemented by other fundraisers the club holds, including a car show in September, goes toward efforts like this year’s Santa with a Badge event, a shopping trip with police for students in need; support of clinical and research work with The Wilmer Eye Institute at Johns Hopkins; and Lions Club Camp Merrick in Charles County.
The camp, which is not affiliated with the club outside of funding, is an independent nonprofit for blind, deaf or diabetic children, and since 1979 has been supported primarily through donations from Lions Clubs in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. It has been hit hard in recent years by reduced fundraising, camp President Wayne Magoon said.
“A lot of our issues are recession-based,” Magoon said. “People just can’t donate like they used to.”
Laurel’s club isn’t alone in its service struggles.
Getting more people to volunteer is the biggest problem facing College Park’s Lions Club, club President Ronald Seibel said. He said they stopped selling trees about 10 years ago, because members are older and can’t handle the trees anymore.
“Membership is a constant problem,” said Seibel of Adelphi, who worked for 30 years at the University of Maryland, College Park. “We’re having trouble securing new members from the younger generation. I think it’s the time commitment.”
Seibel’s 31-member club has only five members who are still in the work force.
Laurel’s club still has about 40 dues-paying members, and 90 percent still are working, but only about 20 actively volunteer, Ault said.
Ault’s father, Donald Ault, was a lifetime Lions member, and Phil Ault said he grew up going to Lions events.
“Back then, it was a privilege to be in the Lions. You had to be invited,” Ault said. “Now, we have to recruit people.”
The club has tried lowering dues and easing up on traditionally stringent rules that required attendance at meetings to try to lure more members. The Laurel club has held membership dinners, inviting people to see what the club is about and encouraging them to join — but to no avail, the club presidents said.
Both Ault and Seibel said they have to spread out their funds more than they used to, giving less to each of the efforts they support.
“I think we do a tremendous amount of service for what we have to work with,” Seibel said. “But if we get to the point where we can’t give to the community, well, there’s a whole lot of resources that won’t be there.”