For many decades now the Beaches Lions Club has been an integral part of the Beach Community and the driving force behind one of the flagship events: The famous Beach Easter Parade is an important fixture of the Beach community calendar every year, an event that draws tens of thousands of people and provides fun for the whole family. Together with Centre 55 and the Beach Metro Community News, the Lions Club also recognizes outstanding community service and awards the Beach Citizen of the Year Award. This was definitely an organization that I wanted to find out more about.
Talking to the real community experts, I asked Sheila Blinoff and Carol Stimmell from the Beach Metro Community News who I should to talk to and they suggested Joe Bordieri, a long-term Beach resident who has been involved with the Beaches Lions for many years. On a Tuesday night for which a Director’s Meeting was scheduled I headed down to the Beaches Lions Club building, located right next to Ashbridges Bay, just a few meters southwest of the intersection of Coxwell and Lakeshore Boulevard.
As people were arriving for the meeting, Joe and I went upstairs into the club’s meeting room and we sat down so Joe would be able to give me an overview of the oldest service club in the Beach. The Beaches Lions was founded in 1935 and Joe explained that in the “good old days” the club’s main role was to entertain children, seniors and help anybody in need. Membership was closed to 80 members from the business community, and between the 1930s and the 1950s there could only be one member from each trade or profession.
Internationally the Lions Club also has a proud, long-standing history. Founded in 1917 by a Chicago business man named Melvin Jones, the club today has more than 1.3 million members in over 200 countries across the world. Its founder believed that local business people should broaden their horizons and participate and contribute to improving their communities and the world in general. Three years after the club was founded in Chicago, it went international with the first Lions Club being established in Canada in 1920. From there the Lions Club expanded internationally throughout Europe, Africa and Asia. A particularly active time for international expansion were the 1950s and 1960s.
In the early years, one of the mottos of the club was that “no club shall hold out the financial betterment of its members as its object”. Unselfish service has remained one of the key objectives of the Lions Club.
A key point in the Lions Club’s history was a speech made by Helen Keller in 1925 where she challenged Lions to become “knights of the blind in the crusade against darkness.” Ever since then Lions clubs have actively dedicated themselves to serve the blind and visually impaired. Lions Club members are working hard to end preventable blindness, but they also participate in a wide variety of community activities.
As part of its dedication to working with the visually impaired, the Beaches Lions Club sponsors blind people to work with seeing-eye dogs. It costs about $8000 to train a seeing-eye dog, and there are two institutions providing that training: an organization in Oakville, just an hour outside Toronto, and another one in Oakbrook, Illinois.
Lions clubs have long held an esteemed and highly respected role in communities across the world. Joe Bordieri, who came to Canada from Italy more than five decades ago, explained that “in the old country only the rich and famous” would join the Lions Club. When he first joined in 1977 he was very enthusiastic. For many years he worked hard to become the President of the local club since he always had an interest in the local community.
Creative fundraising ideas were employed over the years. In the mid-1980s the club would hold fundraisers called “Giant Bingo” with a $5000 jackpot and more than $20,000 in prizes. Bingo would be held at the Greenwood Race Track (formerly the Woodbine Racetrack) for six to eight years. Throughout the 1960s the Lions Clubs would donate wheelchairs and telephone devices for the deaf. Oil tanks were being donated to needy families in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1967, the Beaches Lions Club built a Centenary Lions Home for Seniors at 55 Norway Avenue. The Lions Club managed it for one year and then donated it to the City of Toronto for one dollar. Over the years, the Beaches Lions also sponsored a wading pool in Kew Gardens. This pool is still fully operational today, a fixture since the 1950s.
Another big fundraising event for the Beaches Lions Club is the Easter Parade, a hugely popular annual event in the Beach that also features several bands at the Alex Christie Bandshell at Kew Gardens. Through Loonies for the Lions the public has the opportunity to contribute to the important causes that the club supports. During the Canada Day Festival several ten thousand people attend. Several bands are playing, and the event features rides for children, and all around entertainment opportunities for the whole family.
Joe also mentioned that there used to be a Beachfest that the Lions Club would hold. The promoter of this event was a Lions Member by the name of Lido Chilelli who also founded the Beaches Jazz Festival. In addition the Lions Club used to hold a ceremony called “Citizenship Court” to welcome New Canadians during Canada Day festivities in the park.
Another big annual event organized by the Beaches Lions Club is “Christmas in the Park”, which is hosted by Beach celebrity Glenn Cochrane. This event also is the occasion of the Christmas Tree Lighting, the official kickoff of the holiday season. Christmas trees are for sale, run by a Lion member for the last 12 years.
Joe himself has long-standing connections to the Beach. He was born in Sicily and came to Canada in 1955. After getting married he bought Vienna Upholstery in 1964, and he and his wife had five children. He has been working in the Beach since 1955 and has been a resident since 1964. Over the years Joe has seen many changes in the Beach: he said “in the 1950s you could shoot a cannon across the street, and there would be nobody to react.”
At that time there were a lot of used furniture stores. Joe credits the revival of the Beach mainly to two people: Lido Chilelli, the founder of the Toronto International Beaches Jazz Festival, and Zoltzz (local merchant Harold Wiseman) who opened his popular fashion discount store “Ends”. Joe added that people from all over the world come here to enjoy the area, and from a point a view of living here he said it is the best place in the city.
I inquired about the procedure for joining the Beaches Lions Club and Joe said that it is necessary for an existing member to refer a new member to the club. Presently the Beaches Lions Club has 56 active members. Many of the members are retired professionals and business people, and the club is able to draw on their decades of experience. A number of younger members have also joined the club, and Joe said that the best age for someone to join is “when they have made it professionally and they have the time to contribute and give back”.
Joe adds that the members also have a lot of fun together. The Club has monthly dinner meetings where members get together, socialize, have fun and talk about club business. He explained that if a member starts to talk about their business, a so-called “tail-twister” will fine them. The fining of course is just for fun, but it illustrates that the dedicated purpose of the club is service, not self-promotion. Joe added that business relationships happen automatically as members get to know one another.
The Beaches Lions Club is a collection of individuals who come together to make a difference, and its special events are treasured fixtures in the community calendar. The Lions Club motto is “Many people can do what one person is unable to do alone”, and the Beaches Lions Club is a perfect example of this spirit.