Before there was Gold Medal basketball in Juneau, there were Lions. For nearly 64 years, Juneau Lions Club members served communities throughout Southeast Alaska. The club currently has 23 members, who passionately uphold the Lions Club International motto, "We serve."
The local chapter is part of Lions Club International, which boasts more than 1.3 million members worldwide, according to its Web site.
Juneau Lions Club emeritus member, Dr. Walter Soboleff, joined the club before most of the current members were born. They call him "the Lion Monarch."
He witnessed the enormous response to the very first Gold Medal tournament in 1947.
"It just sparked," the 99-year-old Soboleff said. "People just came."
The idea for the Juneau Lions Club Gold Medal Tournament came from Boy Scouts executive Del Hanks, who thought the basketball tournament would be a good way to bring Southeast communities together in friendly competition. The Lions Club supported the tournament from the beginning.
Dr. Soboleff said he has only missed three or four of the 61 past tournaments.
Funds generated from Gold Medal supports almost everything the Juneau Lions accomplish in the community.
It wasn't always that way, though. Soboleff remembers going door to door selling light bulbs and brooms. His daughter, club Secretary Janet Burke, recalls the "wiener wagon" the club ran on the Fourth of July.
"We used to haul it over to Douglas, and the hamburger-slinging gang and the hot dog gang would work feverishly all day," Burke said.
These days, Gold Medal funds it all, and the Juneau Lions Club is able to give back to every community that participates in the tournament.
Each year the club supplies scholarship funds for every community with a Gold Medal team. Scholarship winners are selected by the individual towns.
"We make it a local responsibility to select (the recipient), but we provide the funds for the scholarships," Soboleff said.
The Juneau Lions also give to many local service organizations. In 2007 alone, the club donated at least $500 each to 27 nonprofits in Juneau.
In 1925, Helen Keller urged Lions to be "knights of the blind in the crusade against darkness." Lions worldwide, including the Juneau Lions, continue to make this fight a priority.
The Juneau Lions work with the other chapter in town, the Mendenhall Flying Lions, on many projects involving sight preservation. The two clubs join forces and moneys to help pay for eyeglasses or optometrist visits for those who apply for assistance. If needed, they also help provide a seeing-eye dog for a blind person.
Club President Ted Burke, husband of Janet Burke, said the club's great impact with Gold Medal allowed them to broaden the scope of their eyeglass recycling program. Lions send boxes to communities throughout Southeast Alaska to collect used eyeglasses. The glasses are then sent down to a Washington center where the prescriptions are analyzed. After inspection, the eyeglasses are sent to communities in developing countries where they are needed most.
Lions also take part in a variety of service projects. They help clean up Juneau with the organization Juneau Little Free.
"We have a section of the road from the tram all the way out to the hatchery," Ted Burke said.
A group of volunteers also help with adult literacy, and every year the club participates in the Salvation Army Thanksgiving program. Also, the club adopts a family during the Christmas holiday. In 2007 they provided a family of eight with Christmas gifts, clothes and a full set of groceries.
"We try our darnedest to try to take a very large family," Ted Burke said, "because most organizations in town can't afford that."
In 1980, the club started the Lions Disabled Ski Program to teach alpine skiing to the disabled. The program supported Juneau's Joe Tompkins as he learned to navigate the slopes without the use of his legs.
Today, Tompkins is a champion mono-skier who competed in the Winter Paralympics representing the United States. He is sponsored by the Juneau Lions Club and is a club member himself.
Still, it is hard to believe the Juneau Lions accomplish all they do with only 23 members.
"It would be easier if we had more people," Janet Burke said.
Ted Burke said membership has declined in recent years.
"It's a little harder to find volunteers," he said. "You have to work a little harder at it than you did before."
Club membership peaked in the 1960s, when there were up to 60 members.
When Ted Burke joined the club in the early 1990s, there were four different Lions Clubs in Juneau. Clubs generally need 20 members to be considered active, and eventually the Glacier Valley Lions Club and the Douglas Lions Club dissolved.
Ted Burke remembers when the Juneau Lions Club reached beyond Juneau.
"When I first became a member of the club, Gold Medal had such a far-reaching connect that we had members from Haines and other members from other communities," he said. "That's kind of gone by the wayside too."
Connections with other communities are strong during the week of Gold Medal. Ted Burke hopes the eyeglass recycling program will help maintain connections year-round as well.
The Juneau Lions Club eagerly welcomes new members.
"I've never heard our president say no to anyone who wanted to join," said Ross Soboleff, son of Dr. Soboleff and a member of the Lions Club since the 1990s.
There are different levels of commitment in the club, and Soboleff noted the importance of giving new members projects to work on right away. Everyone joins for different reasons, he said, "but it all works."
Some Lions are retired, but many work full-time.
"You gotta do your job - your employer comes first," Ted Burke said. "But dedicating and working for your community is something (Dr. Walter Soboleff) taught me. I was in the military and didn't connect to any community until he dropped it in my head that is was the right thing to do. And it's been a fun thing."
The spirit of fun is even reflected in the titles of club officers. How many other clubs have a "Tail Twister" or a "Lion Tamer"? These key roles ensure productivity while enlivening meetings. The "Tail Twister" and the "Lion Tamer" keep order with horns and 10-cent fines.
Burke said the elder Soboleff instilled in Club members the importance of enjoying the work they are doing.
"The intent is to always have fun when you're together as a team," Burke said. "You want to come away with a smile. That's what it's all about."
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