One of the silver linings in this whole COVID-19 phenomenon is that we’re all slightly more aware of the fortunes and misfortunes of others. Life as we know it came to a standstill and is now limping forward, trying to regain some semblance of normalcy. Initially, much was said about us all being in the same boat. More recently though, a realisation has dawned: yes, we’re all weathering the same storm but no, we’re not all in the same boat.
At one end of the spectrum, there are those in rubber dinghies, patched to within an inch of their lives, just one rip or tear away from sinking. At the other end are those in massive yachts, fitted out with all modern conveniences and enough power and resources in the engine room to get their passengers through to the other side.
When we stop appreciating our good fortune and start taking it for granted, something will happen to remind us. Call it Sod’s Law. Whatever. It doesn’t matter whether we’ve worked for what we have or had it handed to us on a plate, being grateful is the first step forward. Helping those less fortunate is the next.
Several years ago, I met the dynamic Irish-Hungarian duo, Joe and Mária (Bobbie) Keys. There was a youthfulness about them that belied their years, an energy and an enthusiasm for life that was enviable. I’ve bumped into them at various gigs and functions in the interim and had a vague idea from their social media posts that they were one of 1.4 million global Lions Club International (LCI) members.
At the D-119 Annual Convention on 27 June 2020, Mária was sworn in as District Governor. The ceremony took place at the stunning Fertőrákos Quarry and Cave Theatre near Sopron. She takes the mantel from Gusztáv Boronkay and I suspect that LCI in Hungary, ably represented in the country since 1988, continues to be in safe hands. I was curious, though; I had to know more.
What began in 1917 as a club where people could come together to give their time and energy to improving their communities, and in turn, the world, has become a global phenomenon involving more than 47 000 clubs in over 200 countries and regions worldwide. Their mission is to
empower volunteers to serve their communities, meet humanitarian needs, encourage peace and promote international understanding.
In Chicago in 1913, Melvin Jones joined The Business Circle in 1913, a luncheon group of businessmen designed to ‘advancing the business interests of its members’. Jones was an insurance man and together with other members, reaped the benefits of this association. Some years later, in a moment of reflection, Jones asked himself:
What if these men who are successful because of their drive, intelligence, and ambition, were put to work helping improve their own communities?
As a response to the social problems created by WWI, Jones invited business clubs from all over the USA to come together on 7 June 1917 at the LaSalle Hotel in Chicago to explore the possibility of uniting. And so, the Association of Lions Clubs was born. [The history of the organisation and its relevance are laid out in Lions Clubs in the 21st Century by Paul Martin and Robert Kleinfelder.]
In 1925, Helen Keller challenged the Lions at their International Convention in Ohio, to become ‘knights of the blind in the crusade against darkness’ and almost a century later, Lions worldwide are helping make a difference. In Hungary, the Lions Vision Bus travels the country offering free eye tests and, for those who are in need, free glasses, too.
In 1968, the Lions Club International Foundation came into being with the aim of
…support[ing] the efforts of Lions clubs and partners in service communities locally and globally, giving hope and impacting lives through humanitarian service projects and grants.
Over €1 billion later, LCI is still a force for good. Hungary is in District 119, home to 42 Lions Clubs and more than 800 Lions. And for 2020/2021, District 119 will have Mária Keys at the helm.
Born in 1950s Pécs, Mária’s boat was of average size. Her father György was a lawyer, her mother Mária, a nurse. Her brother became a doctor, her sister an economist, and Mária herself trained as a teacher. She moved to Budapest in 1984 to be part of a new Swedish method of teaching at Káposztásmegyer. In 1994, she headed to the USA to attend Trinidad State College in Colorado with a view to studying Computer Science and improving her English. There she met and married her husband Joe – the Irishman. Their daughter, Aisling was born in 1996. It’s testimony to the familial strength of LCI that all of them are active Lions. Joe became a Lion while in Shamrock, Texas in 1999 (how an Irishman ended up living in Shamrock is a story for another day) and through him, Mária got involved. Together with their daughter Aisling, all three are charter members of the Budapest Cosmopolitan Lions Club, set up in 2014 and Mária was Charter President.
After several years of owning and operating motels and retirement homes stateside, the pair moved back to Hungary in 2011. With Mária armed with her Agro Operator’s Licence, they bought a property and a vineyard by the Balaton and have been here since.
Ascending the ranks of LCI takes dogged commitment and perseverance. Since 1999, Mária has attended local, regional, and national club meetings. She’s attended leadership seminars at European forums in Bulgaria, Estonia, and Switzerland; taken the District Leadership and Management course in Austria, and earlier this year enrolled in the Preparation for District Governor course with an intensive session in Chicago.
And although the chains of office are a symbolic reward for over two decades of commitment to the cause, that’s not what Mária is about.
My family have been so fortunate in our lives, and one way to show how appreciative we are is to serve the less fortunate. Just look around and see how much need there is everywhere in our communities. Through the Lions, we hope to make a difference. ‘Where there’s a need, there’s a Lion.’
As the Federation’s strapline tripped off her tongue, I wondered what clubs in Hungary were doing to help better the communities they served. The Vision Bus is just one of the many projects they’re involved in. They also run free diabetes testing and organise sports days for those with physical and mental disabilities. They sponsor orphanages and organise hospital visits for those who have no one else dropping by. Their five main priorities are helping the blind, alleviating hunger, protecting the environment, helping children with cancer, and those with diabetes. But as she said – where there’s a need, there’s a Lion.
While LCI has five main funding/operational streams, each club operates individually, developing their own projects according to the local need. As District Governor, Mária wants to encourage clubs to work together more and share their talents and resources. A national cooperation of this kind will make the Lions stronger and help them achieve even more and bring the Lions ‘closer in friendship, respect, and understanding’. Instead of being wrapped up in the present, Mária has an eye on the future and the need for LCI to stay relevant and to create a strong succession plan. They need more young people (and indeed, people of all ages) to get involved and carry on the great work being done by current members.
In the 1950s, LCI developed the Leo Program for young members. Today there are more than 175 000 Leos and 7000 Leo Cubs in 140 countries. In Hungary, there are over 60 Leos and 7 Leo Cubs.
Like just about every other charity and voluntary group, the Lions have been hit hard by COVD-19. Meetings are all online. Many projects involving face-to-face interaction have been put on hold. Fundraising has come to a halt. The District is helping local clubs with grants to keep projects going and LCI sent personal protection equipment to be distributed where needed most.
Like many other international organisations, LCI has a sense of cohesiveness and solidarity. I can imagine Mária rocking to a local meeting of the Ulaanbaatar Bichigt Lions Club in Mongolia and being welcomed with open arms. Just being a member gets you on the boat. And it’s a big boat. Given that pre-1987 women had separate clubs and were knowns as Lionesses, it’s is great to see a woman at the helm.
I’ll admit to having an innate suspicion of large charities and prefer to donate to individuals and grassroots organisations with little by way of administrative overheads. That said, LCI consistently gets four stars from the Charity Navigator. It’s reputable. It’s transparent. And it’s been around for more than 100 years, so it must be doing something right.
I’ve no doubt that Mária Keys will champion the cause:
I am very humbled to have been elected by my fellow Lions to lead District 119 for 2020/2021. These are trying times. The challenges are many. You will not find me shying away from the time, energy, and dedication needed as Governor. Remember, kindness matters in all things.
Where there’s a need, there’s a Lion. She is woman; hear her roar. If you’re interested in signing up or knowing more, contact Mária at [email protected]
First published in the Budapest Times, 17 June 2020