Immigrant twist on an American tradition: Service clubs adapt to changing demographics |

Immigrant twist on an American tradition: Service clubs adapt to changing demographics

WASHINGTON – In suburban Gaithersburg, Md., last weekend, members of the venerable Lions Club, in bright yellow aprons, offered up free vision screening and popcorn fresh from an old-fashioned machine. Just one thing was out of synch with this scene of 1950s Americana: The Lions were all Latino. As a large immigrant middle class emerges in the United States, its members are joining mainstream civic groups that until recent years had nearly all-white rosters. Across the nation, Latinos and Asian Americans are being courted by the 88-year-old Lions organization and other civic clubs. Ernesto Diaz, 55, president of the Montgomery County (Md.) Latino Lions, considers being a civic volunteer a sign that he has made it in this country. “When you come to the States, you come with the mentality of making money and succeeding. You don’t think about society,” said Diaz, 55, once a waiter and now director of logistics for Balducci’s, a gourmet food chain. “After you are here for years, you start to think about those things.” The immigrants, in turn, may be key to the service clubs’ future. The Lions organization has lost 80,000 U.S. members in the past decade, bringing total membership down to 420,000. Nationally, fewer than 10 percent of Lions clubs are predominantly immigrants, but their groups are among the newest. Members of the ethnic Lions clubs tend to be younger than their counterparts: under 60. “We need them,” said Edward “Woody” Woodward, 70, governor of the Lions’ suburban Northern Virginia district. “Us old folks are going to be passing on.”Once a staple of white, middle-class life, civic groups such as the Lions, Kiwanis and Rotary have become better known as home of the ROMEO – Really Old Men Eating Out. The average age, some members joke, is deceased. As people have become more pressed for time, fewer can commit to a monthly civic group meeting. And as a far wider array of social and professional groups has become available, Lions or Rotary membership is no longer needed to burnish a resume or forge business connections. Many immigrants have a different view. In their home countries, groups such as the Lions and Rotary – which have international chapters – still symbolize middle-class society. “I never thought I would be a Lion again,” Diaz said. Carlos Devis, originally from Colombia, said joining the Lions network gives immigrants more credibility and resources when doing volunteer work. “If we go in as Latino parents or the Colombian association, they don’t know us,” said Devis, 51, a consultant to Montgomery County schools. “If we go in as Lions, they know.”The Latino Lions, with 24 members, started a year ago. Another suburban Lions chapter nearly folded until a couple of Filipino immigrants were recruited eight years ago; now, the club has 28 members, nearly all Filipino. There is a Chinese American Lions club in both Washington and suburban Virginia. Social scientists say immigrant families typically have taken two generations to join such mainstream groups as the Lions. First-generation immigrants may be assimilating quicker now because U.S. society is more inclusive. Although such civic groups never had a policy against admitting minorities, membership is by invitation. Club leaders say the organizations have reflected the segregation of the times. Women were barred from membership until the late 1980s, when the Supreme Court stepped in. The court, in a case filed against the Rotary, ruled in 1987 that because of its size and ties to the business community, the civic club could not bar women. South Potomac (Md.) Lions President Jose Mararac said he joined because of fellow Filipino immigrants, but the club has been an entree for meeting people beyond that community. The Lions club is “a lot of volunteer work – the eye bank, blood drives,” said Mararac, 66, a Realtor. “You get to be a part of the community, to get to know other people.”Mararac and other immigrant Lions say their groups hold meetings that are similar to other chapters: the Pledge of Allegiance, the Lions song and a meal. Members are expected to hold fundraisers and contribute money. Latino Lions often conducts meetings in Spanish; because members are bilingual, they focus on helping disadvantaged fellow immigrants. At the Lions health bus in Gaithersburg, almost as many non-Latinos as Latinos came by, including a top member of the local establishment: J. Thomas Manger, the county’s chief of police. His vision is 20/20, although he needs reading glasses. And his hearing is perfect. “That means you can receive the complaints of the Latino community,” Diaz told Manger. “You’ve been checked by the Lions.”Manger chuckled – and nodded. Vail, Colorado

Support Local Journalism