By Jillian Risberg
For 50 years the Mount Olive Lions Club has been a force for good right here at home with their free eye screenings for the township’s school children, scholarship funds, senior support and endless others have benefited from their altruism.
“Ten to 15 percent have serious eye problems that most parents were not even aware of,” says Club President Joe Gentile, a member for 35 years.
According to Gentile, when you take your child to the pediatrician, they only perform a simple eye exam.
“You’d be surprised how many children as early as first grade had a wandering eye, poor vision or even worse — that we caught because of this eye screening and they’re able to get treated,” says the Club President.
For the past 20 years, more than 18,000 children have been screened courtesy of Lion member and licensed optician Dr. Jeanine Labrada, who connects other Lions with the nurses at each one of the schools to assist.
“We have Mountain View, Tinc Road School, Sandshore and Chester Stephens School (CMS),” Gentile says. “Those four grammar schools, we’re there every year around October/November and Dr. Labrada brings her equipment.”
The Lions Club is an international non-political service organization founded in 1917 in Chicago, Illinois by insurance salesman, Melvin Jones.
According to the Club President, Jones had a successful career when he and quite a few others got together with the purpose of giving back to the community and to those who needed financial help.
“They really didn’t have a goal at the time of what they were all about until Hellen Keller approached them at one of their conventions (1925),” Gentile says.
In the 1920s, eye diseases leading to blindness were rampant so the author and activist challenged the Lions to become “Knights of the blind in the crusade against darkness.”
Their work ever since has included sight programs aimed at preventable blindness.
Globally, the Lions Club serves over 200 countries and geographic areas. Their 48,000 clubs and more than 1.4 million members are on the frontlines — helping humanity and improving communities.
Since its inception, Lions Clubs International segregated women to an auxiliary called the Lionesses. They eventually did away with the 1917 ideals and began admitting women in 1987. The organization now has 135,000 female members.
“About 25 percent of our members are females,” Gentile says. “And growing, every year we have more and more.”
According to the Club President, all the money they accrue stays in the town and the area.
“We do not collect any money through our fundraisers that is used for any club dues, dinners or anything,” he says. “The money we take in goes out 100 percent to the different activities.”
And they don’t have to pay rent or utilities on any building or hall.
“We meet the first Tuesday of every month (8pm) down at I love Subs on Hillside Avenue in Flanders and the third Tuesday of every month (8pm dinner meeting) at Enzo’s Pizzeria on Route 46 in Budd Lake.”
The Club President says anyone who has any interest in joining can definitely approach them. The Club has been in existence since February 1969.
“I did coaching and assistant coaching when my children were younger in Mount Olive in soccer, softball and baseball,” Gentile says. “When they got older and didn’t really need me anymore, I had this void in my life — and I wanted to give back.”
He met some folks who were in a Lions Club and they asked if he was interested and he said he was.
And Drew Van Dam joined by invitation of fellow Lion member, Ralph DeVito.
“He felt after knowing me for several months that I may be a nice addition to the club,” says Van Dam, a member since January 2000. “We had moved to Mount Olive in Sept 1999 next door to I love Subs. We hit it off and Ralph (Subs owner) asked me if I might like to join and serve through the Lions Club.”
He decided after meeting the other members to join, with Gentile also making that decision and they both experienced firsthand how much their service is needed.
“A lot of times we find out someone is on hard times,” the Club President says. “We work very closely with the senior and health department in Mount Olive.”
According to Van Dam, over the past 20 years he’s become heavily involved with serving the community with local, state and international projects.
They recently donated 20 $50 Walmart cards before Christmas to Mount Olive for them to give out to the children in town that needed the money in order to buy something for Christmas.
“We do this every year; we’ll do $2,000 worth of cards either at Thanksgiving or Christmas, depending on what they need,” says the Club President.
They’ve provided college/or vocational training scholarships for Mount Olive High School graduate, eyeglasses for local needy students, Eagle Scout recognition and donated a low vision reading machine to Mount Olive Manor senior citizens.
The Lions often get approached by the town or the Police Department or the Board of Health about a problem or issue.
“They’ll ask if there’s any way we can do it and we will tell them we’ll make a commitment and how much money we have to contribute to the cause,” Gentile says.
One of those causes is providing first bullet proof vests for the Mount Olive Police.
“It now costs almost $1,000 per vest and over our 50 years experience, we’ve donated to buy over 70 police vests,” Gentile says. “The second vest is paid for by the FOP (Fraternal Order of Police) or the PBA (Policemen’s Benevolent Association).”
The Club President says it gives him and all the Lions members a sense of accomplishment knowing they’ve helped out a fellow resident.
“We’ve paid for eyeglasses, we’ve paid for eye exams, we’ve paid for eye operations where somebody could not afford it and needed it,” he says. “We were able to raise some of the money or all of the money to do what had to be done.”
Van Dam has committed himself to service by holding all the officers positions, as well as being a trustee on the New Jersey Lions Charitable Foundation and currently holding the treasurer position.
“So it’s a personal satisfaction that you get — and when people donate, a lot of them say, ‘my father, my uncle, so and so I know was in the Lions Club or was helped by the Lions Club; that’s a good feeling.”
According to Gentile, for years they have been a proud part of Rockaway’s Camp Marcella, a residential summer campground designed for children and teens with blindness, visual-impairments and special needs.
“Camp Marcella is funded and sponsored by over 25/30 Lions Clubs throughout New Jersey, from Bergen County, all the way out towards the Delaware Water Gap,” he says. “Those are the kinds of things that have been done and continue to be done.”
The camp is a State Project of New Jersey Lions Multiple District-16.
“They have the chance to go to camp for a whole week free of charge,” Gentile says. “It’s a sleepover camp with bathrooms and beds — we have a nurses station; it has a full lunchroom/cafeteria where they’ll cook meals for the kids. And for recreation, in the last 10 years we installed a brand new in-ground pool which has a ramp and lift for those in a wheelchair.”
The Club President says there’s also a baseball field and a playground, two lanes of a bowling alley that the blind and visually impaired children can actually bowl, a Lions arts and crafts building they keep every year and supply the camp with whatever they need.
For all the good they do and the countless people they help, the Mount Olive Lions Club is hurting for members.
“It’s hard to get people to volunteer anymore,” Gentile says. “It’s a sign of the times — nowadays people are having children at an older age because of school, finances and everything else.”
Van Dam echoes that sentiment, saying the club does many wonderful projects, but getting new members is a major struggle as people cue away from volunteering to serve.
Often both husband and wife are working, there are many single parent families, and the family values and traditions are not what they were decades ago.
“In terms of donating time, they say, ‘I would love to but I work and when I don’t work I’m watching the children and the grandchildren,” the Club President says. “This generation, the Baby Boomers — we’re also taking care of our parents,”
According to Gentile, most of the clubs in the region; including the Rotary, Kiwanis and Elks are all good clubs.
“We all do good things for the area we’re in and we’re all pretty much on the same level that we just cannot get enough members,” he says. “And try to get some younger members — the average age in our club is probably 60-years-old.”
The Club President says that as they get older, retire, move down south, pass away unfortunately, they are losing members at a faster pace than gaining them but they are never going to stop trying.
“We do try to get the word out and approach friends, neighbors, anyone who we feel would be a good fit,” Gentile says. “We’ve had as many as 30 members in good times, some years we got down to only like 12 members. We’re back up to 22, so it does fluctuate.”
For the Club President and Van Dam, being a Lion is very rewarding.
“I am always looking how to add projects and new members,” says Van Dam. “No Lion relieves any remuneration, only self satisfaction of helping others less fortunate than me.”