Citizen Choice Awards: Garner Lions Club

By Lisa Mumma
Citizen Journalist

Editor’s note: The following is the fourth part in a six-part series of profiles on our Citizen Choice Awards honorees. Citizen Choice Awards is an award ceremony that recognizes people who exemplify what it means to be a Garner citizen. This week, we honor the Garner Lions Club for civic organization.

Winded from carrying several heavy boxes into the back door of the Garner Lions Club’s West Main Street facility, Jim Valsame, Gene English, Signal Ross and Kenny Lynch gathered on a recent afternoon to do a job. Having sorted into heaping piles more than 700 pieces of donated eyeglasses, lenses and hearing aids, including related accessories like cases and tiny batteries, they paused to admire the bounty before them.

“Our residents, eye care professionals, funeral homes and senior citizen organizations, among others, have been extremely generous this year,” said Ross, a Garner Lions Club member for more than 20 years who currently serves as club chaplain. “I’m thrilled with the number of boxes we get to pack and ship.”

Nurtured by parent organizations Lions Clubs International and the N.C. Lions Foundation, the Garner club, chartered in 1944, strives to improve the lives of the blind, visually impaired or hearing impaired by providing these individuals with opportunities to enjoy life fully and productively. Club members support these efforts through raising funds for prevention, research, education, recreation and emergency service programs to help eventually eliminate these impairments.

Club members also welcome and support collaborations with education, medical and recreational partners to create and maintain projects to meet its goal, such as funding clinical eye trials and radio reading services. The 21st-Century Vision Van travels the state, for example, providing free screenings in communities across North Carolina.

Valsame, a Lions Club member since the mid-1950s, was tapped to spearhead the SightFirst capital campaign early in his career to help the World Health Organization fight blindness in third-world countries. Inspired by Helen Keller’s challenge for the Lions Clubs to be the “Knights of the blind and deaf” when she addressed the N.C. Lions Foundation convention in 1935, Valsame also worked toward increasing the presence and reach of humanitarian campaigns such as the White Cane Fund for the Blind.

English, on the club rolls for more than 30 years, noted that club members across North Carolina enjoy volunteering at Camp Dogwood, a 54-acre resort on Lake Norman constructed to give visually impaired or hearing impaired kids a typical summer camp experience. He added that service options are endless and range from swinging a hammer, leading a hike or flipping pancakes. Clubs can also choose to sponsor kids to attend camp when funds at home fall short.

Propelled by the organization’s humble but clear motto, “We Serve,” the Garner club also directs its benevolence toward home. The legacy of its ball fields notwithstanding, in addition to subsidizing eye exams and glasses, hearing tests and aids, the club supports a long list of local charities such as Garner Area Ministries and the Linus Project. The Garner club partners with its neighboring club in Knightdale to sponsor the annual Dollars for Scholars golf tournament, which benefits area high school students who show potential for success in higher education endeavors.

“We don’t make a big deal about our work sometimes,” English said. “Lions Clubs are the best kept secret in the community.”

North Carolina Lions Club feeds 100 visually impaired

Staff Writer

blind luncheonSpirits were high Wednesday as more than a hundred of the area’s visually impaired residents gathered Wednesday to share a holiday celebration that’s continued in the Albemarle for the last 30 years.

Betz Blowe, a social worker with the state Division of Services for the Blind, said it began in her area about 30 years ago, when the few residents who attended under her charge wanted to make the party larger. Blowe serves Hertford, Gates and Chowan counties.

She and four other social workers rotated hosting the party every few years. Now four social workers rotate the responsibility of the Christmas party and it was Angelo Sonnesso’s turn. He handles Pasquotank, Perquimans, Camden and Currituck for the state’s blind services. For the three times his area has hosted it recently, the River City Lions club has provided the meal.

Blowe said the yearly celebration is important to residents who may have transportation difficulties.

“I think it’s very important because I’m legally blind and the opportunities in this rural area for visually impaired individuals to even just get out of their homes is pretty limited,” Blowe said. “…For a lot of them this is the only opportunity and the only Christmas party that they’ll have an opportunity to participate in during the holidays.”

Residents at the celebration came from a 13-county area that included Hertford, Gates, Chowan, Pasquotank, Perquimans, Camden, Currituck, Dare, Hyde, Tyrrell, Washington, Martin and Bertie counties.

Sonnesso said the group represented a diverse segment of the region’s residents. But not all were in attendance. He said that about 10 of the approximately 100 residents he serves were at the event. Some were unable to attend because of illness and others were out of town with family. Most of the residents he serves are in their 70s to mid-90s.
entertainment at the blind luncheon
Some of the residents know each other from when they attended Camp Dogwood together. The camp is the North Carolina Lions Foundation’s camp for the blind in Catawba County.

“It gives the folks from the other counties a chance to meet old friends,” he said of the celebration.

Luther Creel, president of the River City Lions Club, said his organization has supported blind residents ever since Helen Keller asked them to serve as knights of the blind. He said his group spent about $8 a plate for the approximately 120 residents and volunteers in attendance.

The Weeksville Lions Club allowed the use of its building for the event and the River City club spent about $1,000 from its fund-raisers during the year for the event.

Alva Armstrong, 85, of Edenton, said she’s been attending the dinners every year since she lost some of her eyesight in 2001. She attends for “the fellowship, just plain fun and seeing old friends,” she said.

She and the social workers said they appreciate all that the Lions do for them, including Wednesday’s dinner.

Sonnesso said the residents would hate to see the dinner stop.

“They look forward to it,” Sonnesso said of the Christmas dinner. “Somebody said ‘Well maybe you know in these difficult times we should cancel it,’ and they were like ‘No way!’”