October 10, 1950 may not have been too significant of a date in history to most people, but to many volunteers here in the Gila Valley it holds great importance.

Feeling a need for community service support, a small group of community-minded businessmen came together on that date to form a local service group. The Safford Lions Club celebrate 70 continuous years of service to our valley this month and with over 90 men and women members they appear to be stronger and more vibrant than ever.

The second largest Lions Club in the State of Arizona, they are a small part of Lions Clubs International, the world’s largest service organization with over 1.4 million members. LCI encourages formation of local clubs to perform on-going community service as needed worldwide.

Lions Clubs International is headquartered near Chicago, where insurance agent, Melvin Jones, organized the first clubs in 1917. His amazing story started right here in the Gila Valley. Melvin Jones was born January 13, 1879 at Fort Thomas and he lived for there for his first eight years of life. His father was an Army Captain of scouts, assigned to the fort. The family stayed there until the Army reassigned them in late 1867. Melvin ended up in the Chicago area and became active in local business circles. His personal motto stated, “You can’t get very far until you start doing something for somebody else”. This tenet resounds in the LCI motto: “We Serve”. In 1965, the Safford Lions Club spearheaded the building and dedication of a memorial in Fort Thomas for the founder of Lions Clubs International.

Helen Keller asked an international convention of LCI to become the “Knights of the Blind” over 90 years ago. Internationally, sight projects still top LCI efforts. Safford Lions maintains several valuable projects supporting this mission. A grant from United Way of Graham and Greenlee Counties helped the club purchase two of the most advanced vision screening machines six-years ago. After factory-rep training, a vision team started scheduling events and vision screening support in local schools. State-mandated testing for certain grade level students is always a tough schedule for school officials, nurses and administrators. The Club has provided testing for more than the mandated numbers every schoolyear.

Although the club’s stated goal of testing ALL school-aged children, EVERY year, may not actually ever be reached, nearly 4,200 students are tested annually.

Safford Lions also have a huge, adult eyeglass program, annually sponsoring an average of 100-140 Graham County adult citizens who can’t afford this basic medical necessity. The club contracts for optometrist testing and a new pair of eyeglasses is provided at no cost if application criteria are met.

Interested people may apply at the Farmers Insurance office on Main Street or the SEACUS office in the Windsong Building in Safford.

The Safford Lions Club provides many other services and support to the entire area. With over 90 members from throughout the valley, the local organization has a very rigorous annual agenda with multiple significant projects.

SalsaFest started as Chamber of Commerce Director Sheldon Miller’s idea, but he quickly recognized he and his staff could not maintain operation of the growing event. He knew they needed a larger group to plan and organize this annual event.

He asked the Safford Lions to step in to provide leadership and manpower. For the past twelve years, the Safford Lions have operated this valley-wide public event. The incredible party on Safford’s Main Street has become a community staple.

Did you know the full, professional mobile stage used at most of our area events is owned by the Safford Lions Club? Originally purchased through a Freeport McMoRan Community Foundation Grant, the Lions provide it to local non-profit groups at approximately one-eighth the Phoenix/Tucson rate? Even “for-profit” people or entities of Graham and Greenlee Counties can lease the stage for about one-third the going rate.

Safford Lions fly American flags all over the valley on eight significant holidays. Lions provide the flags and the maintenance for most of those seen throughout Safford. These hang on the highway, Main Street, individual businesses, and even at private residences. Clients pay a small annual fee and never have to worry that their flags will be maintained and respectfully displayed on all major holidays.

Speaking of flags, the Safford Lions present small American flags to ALL first-graders in Graham County every year! In individual classroom programs, Lions distribute the flags and give patriotic lessons to the young students. Flag history, design, use, and symbolism are all discussed with questions and answers. The “Flags-for-First-Graders” project is over twenty-five-years-old and continues to be very popular.

The Graham County 4th of July Parade and fireworks are coordinated by the Lions Club. Separate funding and planning are accomplished through their Board of Directors. The Safford Volunteer Fire Department members take special training and shoot the pyrotechnics that evening. The Lions try to host a large picnic for the firemen and their families as part of the celebration.

Safford Lions Club annually provides two, full scholarships for county students to Eastern Arizona College. These are awarded through the EAC Alumni Office without restrictions as to race, sex, academic goals, age, or family affiliations (Lions and/or their children get no preference).

The youth component of Lions Clubs International is called the LEO program. Safford Lions Club charters two separate LEO Clubs, one meeting at the Boys and Girls Club and another at EAC for older students. These are under Safford Lions guidance as a youth service and leadership development group.

Safford Lions Foundation provides a very special gas card program.

Cancer patients and their families may apply monthly for $40 gas cards, regardless of financial need.

These are to assist cancer patient families with a portion of the financial burden created because of this terrible disease and the costs associated with the treatment travels (see Lion Michelle at Farmers Insurance).

Safford Lions provides ongoing support of the Graham County Special Olympics. Annually, the Lions conduct and operate the Graham County Special Olympics Track & Field Adult competition. The Lions of Arizona own and operate Camp Tatiyee, Arizona’s only “all special-needs summer camp” in Lakeside. Safford Lions give annual financial support for Tatiyee operations and land purchase needs. Sponsorship funds are also donated for at least two campers annually to Camp Tatiyee.

Safford Lions operate the “Produce On Wheels Without Waste” food distribution event, occurring on the first Saturday monthly, seven times annually. For a $12 donation, clients receive approximately 70 pounds of fresh vegetables gleaned by Borderland Foods, a Phoenix-based non-profit, from produce shippers at the Nogales port of entry. Hundreds of local families have benefitted from this distribution.

Have you ever wondered, “What is Lions and what do they do?” Hopefully, this article has helped provide information about this socially-diverse, service-minded group of Gila Valley men and women dedicated to community. Look around and you will find a lot of friends and relatives who presently serve as Lions and many more past members. Everyone is welcome, more tasks present themselves regularly.

“We Serve” is the motto of Lions Clubs International and your Safford Lions are truly dedicated to that premise. The Safford Lions Club asks if you think this kind of service could be your kind of thing, find a Lion to ask how to help with a project. Presently the Lions do not meet without “social safety protocols”. Without the pandemic, the Safford Lions hold weekly meetings at the Main Street Café. Every Wednesday at noon, they gather to share comradery, plan projects, and hear important, diverse messages affecting our communities, our state, our county, and our world.

Contact any Lion you already know, Lion Michelle Wilson or Lion Jim Warren at Farmers’ Insurance or Lion Chris Gibbs, at 928-322-0704 if you have questions, would like to volunteer, or need further encouragement to join. There is always a need for more hearts, hands, minds, and Lions.

Maybe October 10, 1950 may not sound like a significant date in history to many people. However, here in the Gila Valley, we should acknowledge and be thankful that date signifies the formation and birth of great community service from the Safford Lions Club. Happy Birthday!

Chris Gibbs is the Lions Club administrator.

Load comments