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June 1, 2020

Lights of the Northwoods presented a check to the Rhinelander Lions Club in February, demonstrating mutual support by local nonprofit organizations in a concerted effort to make our community a better place to live. Photo by Stephanie Kuski.
Lights of the Northwoods presented a check to the Rhinelander Lions Club in February, demonstrating mutual support by local nonprofit organizations in a concerted effort to make our community a better place to live. Photo by Stephanie Kuski.
5/19/2020 7:29:00 AM
Community spotlight: Rhinelander Lions Club
Stephanie Kuski
River News Feature Writer

Rhinelander is blessed with multiple service organizations, each working diligently to serve the community in ways both large and small. One of those groups which has occupied a major, though unpretentious, role in our community is the Rhinelander Lions Club.

Lions Club International is a worldwide service member organization that empowers local chapters to serve their communities. Local Lions Club programs participate in a variety of projects that meet the goals of Lions International, including providing sight, hearing and speech conservation; diabetes awareness; youth and international outreach; and other humanitarian initiatives.

"Our motto is: 'We serve,'" Lion tamer Jeff Kataoka explained. "That's what it all boils down to, and that's what I love about it - we serve people in need."

Local Lions members work on various projects throughout the community, Kataoka said. Most of the funds gathered during their fundraising efforts stay within the community itself, while a fraction of those monies are sent to pay dues to Lions International, which aids local Lions Clubs all over the world in such things as disaster relief.

"It's a lot of fun," Rhinelander Lions Club Vice President Jill Zwiers commented on the organization as a whole. "It's about the community and what we can do to help."

"The money that goes in, it comes back and goes directly into the community," Lions PR Chairperson Mily Rappley echoed.

"There are a lot of things that the Lions do, and we are very community-orientated," Rhinelander Lions Club President Mike Romportl added.

Annual fundraisers earn the Lions enough funds to sponsor its programs. The club's annual Family Fisheree has been held on Boom Lake for over 40 years, making it one of their top fundraisers, according to Romportl.

International White Cane Safety Day is another annual fundraising opportunity that also increases awareness of the white cane, used by visually impaired individuals worldwide to aid in traffic situations. Bingo is another fundraiser sponsored by the Lions.

A weekly Bingo night is held the VFW Hall during the winter season.

"We tell everyone at the Bingo hall that the money they put in buying cards stays in the community," Kataoka said. "We ask for suggestions from them: 'Where do you want us to put the money you gave us?'"

Kataoka said funds gathered from the various fundraisers goes into a "pot," which is used to facilitate the various projects they implement throughout the year. He said members of the community have expressed interest in donating to various sports clubs, including (but not limited to) the Rhinelander Soccer Club, Babe Ruth Baseball, Hodag Water Ski Shows and the RHS Alpine Ski Team. In addition, local organizations like the YMCA of the Northwoods, NATH/Frederick Place and Tri-County Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault have also been selected as benefactors of those fundraisers.

While the Lions donate to various causes spanning our community and beyond, there are several programs with which the club has a long history in the Lions Club.

Vision Screening

In 1925 Helen Keller famously challenged the Lions to become "knights of the blind" at their international convention, marking the beginning of what would become a century-long mission of vision-related philanthropy.

"The number one things the Lions support is vision, to prevent blindness and support our vision programs," Rappley explained.

The Lions do vision screening for children in both private and public schools in our area to gauge whether or not children need glasses.

"A lot of parents don't realize their kids need glasses," Kataoka said, "and we have a machine where we can actually have the kids look into (it) and it says, hey this kid can hardly see."

In addition, eyeglasses are collected and distributed to those in need via local Lions Clubs.

"Thousands and thousands of glasses are refurbished and sent to places where the people can't afford them," Lion Sandra Mode explained.

But Keller's lasting impact on the Lions didn't stop there.

Leader Dogs

In aligning their mission to serve visually impaired community members, Lions Club International also founded Leader Dogs for the Blind, which provides white cane training and trained canines to eligible clients who are visually impaired. All expenses are offered free of charge, and clients walk away with a lifetime furry friend trained to support their disability.

Funds donated to the Leader Dogs are generated through the Lions' fundraising efforts, and oftentimes those donations directly affect individuals in our area.

"One time, someone came up to me... she looked in her wallet and she gave me $20 and said, 'That's all I can afford to give you, I wish I could give you more,'" Kataoka recalled. "She said that... her son was able to get a dog... through the Lions Club."

"She said it was such a lifesaver for him, and he enjoyed the dog until the dog passed away... then a while after that, he passed away too, the son," Kataoka said. "She was crying... but you know, you run into things like that in Rhinelander, where you actually affect other people."

Wisconsin Lions Camp

"It started off as a camp for the blind, but it has blossomed and grown to accommodate others," Zwiers said of the Wisconsin Lions Camp located in Rosholt.

The camp was founded by Wisconsin Lions Clubs in the '50s and local chapters continue to support the organization today. They serve children and adults who are blind, visually impaired, deaf or hard of hearing; children living with mild cognitive disabilities or autism; children with Type I & II diabetes; and children with epilepsy.

During their weeklong camping excursion, kids learn how to live with the nuances of their condition or disability. Not only do they have the opportunity to experience summer camp amongst their peers, but their parents also receive some much-needed reprieve as well.

"So the kids are having fun," Kataoka commented, "and the parents get a break from taking care of their children."

In addition, the camp is totally free for eligible applicants, and there have even been Rhinelander residents who have attended the camp.

Community Christmas Dinner

Every Christmas season, Lions members get together to serve their annual Community Christmas Dinner, which has been hosted at the National Guard Armory in previous years, but this last year it was hosted at Nativity of Our Lord Catholic School.

Mode, a volunteer at the dinner, described the scene as a concerted effort by individuals across the community to serve and deliver hot meals to those in need.

"The people come together and it's amazing," Mode said. "We served about 230 people who couldn't come in and we served over 200 in-house at the church."

She said Sowinski Farms donated potatoes, Rapid Cab provided free rides, Trig's helped prepare the turkeys and pies, Forth Floral donated poinsettias and their truck to deliver meals, while other organizations like Peoples State Bank and the VFW made financial donations.

In addition, Lions and community members banded together to take orders, prepare the meals and deliver them hot and ready to hungry doors.

Peru Project

While Lions funds collected in the community more often than not stay within the community, there are projects which extend beyond the borders of our small town.

Rappley, a native of Lima, Peru, has been living in the U.S. for over two decades, but recently started a project which allowed her to return to her home country in the hopes of making a lasting impact.

"Everything started when three years go, in this little town the mudslides from the rain coming from the mountains were taking everything and anything in its way," Rappley explained. "The rain was so bad, people had no houses, no food, no water, no nothing, and they're poor people."

"So I asked the Lions if we could help too, and that's how we started," she said. "The Lions is an international organization... So they saw the opportunity and thought why not help overseas."

Rappley said donations for the Peru Project came from Lions members themselves, or they held raffles or drawings specifically advocating for the cause, so those who donated knew where their money was going.

Aided by those funds, Rappley provided tennis shoes and rubber boots to orphaned children. She also cooks meals for local families, helps in vision screening and provides a toiletry kit of shampoo, soaps and towels. She gathered individual donations in order to get all the materials for the kits.

"It is such a good feeling that you have, regardless of where you help, if it's a little or a lot. It's just so rewarding," Rappley commented. "Now when they (the kids) see me, they just run up to me and hug me."

Other Projects

While the list of projects the Rhinelander Lions Club has contributed to is a long one, there are some highlights to mention.

In working to support youth and leadership initiatives, the Leos Club is the youth organization of the Lions Club which advocates for young people to develop leadership qualities via community participation. In addition, the Rhinelander Lions also donate to the Rhinelander Scholarship Foundation in support of local students, and sponsors the Fourth of July Kiddie Parade to encourage youth participation in community events.

Lions members also help distribute food at the Rhinelander Area Food Pantry (RAFP) the last Saturday of every month, in addition to donating monetarily.

In partnering with other community nonprofits, the Rhinelander Lions have also been instrumental in helping the Lights of the Northwoods establish itself as a nonprofit organization as well as provide extra manpower when needed.

But all that hard work and time also takes volunteers, and many active Lions commented on the need for new members to join. The group typically meets the first and third Wednesday of each month at Hodag Steakhouse, but those meetings have been temporarily suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Those interested in joining are encouraged to reach out to the Rhinelander Lions Club on their website, Facebook page or call (715) 256-7627 for more information.

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