Thousands of Lions will be descending upon Chicago this weekend.

But the only "roar" you'll hear will likely come from the crowd Saturday as members march along State Street to celebrate the organization's 100th anniversary.

"It will be people from all over the world, from Africa to Indiana to France, all with the same common goal," said Patty Cooke, of Schererville, the District 25A governor, estimating some 30,000 Lions Club members will be in attendance.

In Northwest Indiana, some 1,300 people are members of 52 Lions Clubs in the seven-county district, Cooke said.

Roots in Chicago

This year's international convention, Cooke said, is in Chicago through Tuesday because the Lions Club was born in Chicago.

In 1917, an insurance agency owner and member of the Business Circle of Chicago, Melvin Jones, brought together 27 business organizations and convinced them to change their focus to community service, according to the Lions Club International website at lionsclubs.org.

He encouraged his fellow members to expand beyond their business interests and seek the betterment of the community, saying, "You can’t get very far until you start doing something for somebody else," according to the organization's history.

The Lions Club ideal began to take off. By 1920, it became international with the first international club chartered in Canada.

Today, said Cooke, there are Lions Clubs in all corners of the world with the fastest growing organizations in Japan, China and Korea. There are 1.4 million Lions Club members worldwide in more than 46,000 clubs.

A vision for vision

Lions Clubs are best known for their work for the visually impaired. 

The group took that direction after Helen Keller addressed a Lions convention in 1925. She encouraged them to become "knights of the blind," and the clubs embraced the cause.

To allow people who were blind to navigate streets more safely, Lion George Bonham painted a cane white with a red band in 1930, an innovation that is still in use today. And in 1939, members of the Detroit Uptown Lions Club converted a farmhouse into a guide dog school, helping to popularize the idea of service dogs, according to the Lions Club history.

The Wanatah Lions Club is a hub for eyeglass collection, a main activity of Lions Clubs worldwide, President Don Parker said.

The Wanatah club also owns and operates a park in the heart of town. Because they have the space, Parker said, they opened up the facility to store donated eyeglasses.

Then they took it a step further. The group partnered with the Westville Correctional Facility and bought machines that can read the prescriptions of the donated eyeglasses. Inmates operate the machines and catalog the eyeglasses. The eyeglasses, which are shipped to Wanatah from across the Midwest, are then shipped, primarily to Mexico, where Lions travel on mission trips to outfit locals with eyeglasses.

Parker said they have processed more than 4 million pairs of eyeglasses.

Common thread is community

Lions Club work goes beyond helping the visually impaired, Cooke said.

"It is the activities we do in our communities. Each community has its own needs and we reach out to help meet those needs," said Cooke. "It is terrific to give back to the communities."

"A majority of the money stays local," said Elisha Porterfield, president of the Valparaiso Lions Club.

Porterfield, a fourth-generation Lion, said the Valparaiso club does whatever it can to raise funds to give back to the community. They maintain the Avenue of Flags surrounding the Porter County Courthouse, work the chain gang at the Valparaiso High School football games and can be seen selling chicken on a corner or two.

Thursday, Porterfield hosted a group of Lions from Poland. The group had spent the last week running from Tuscumbia, Alabama, the hometown of Helen Keller. They were welcomed on the courthouse lawn before having dinner and completing their run on Friday to Chicago.

"It is not a men's club," said Porterfield, the first female club president in Valparaiso. Lions Clubs opened memberships to women in 1987. "There are a lot of good people, a lot of good-hearted people who want to help their community."

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Joyce has been a staff writer for The Times for more than 20 years. She is the municipal and education reporter for Porter County. She is an amateur genealogist and writes a blog, Remember your Roots, appearing online each Thursday.