CANMORE – In the late 1960s, a group of Canmore residents got together and formed a local Lions Club.
Little did they know that the charter they signed on May 14, 1970 as part of Lions Club International would still be an important community group 50 years later.
Ed Latvala was one of the 22 community members that signed that charter.
"This all started in 1967 and the guy that engineered it was the bank manager for Canmore, his name was Gerry Rance," Latvala said. "We went to all the various clubs [including Banff] and learned everything about it; then started it up here and gathered members.
"At the end of 1968, we were more or less a full club and we applied for our charter."
Even with a number of other service clubs operating in the valley at the time like the Kinsmen, Shriners and Elks, Latvala said it was easy to recruit members to help out because "everybody wanted to do something for the town of Canmore.
"It did not take long to get members. I was surprised it was as easy as it was," he said.
Current Lions Club president Tom Paasuke said there was a party planned to celebrate the milestone, but due to concerns about COVID-19 it was cancelled.
But that doesn't mean the Canmore Lions Club is resting on its laurels during this time of uncertainty. With the Lions Club being the largest service club in the world, the Canmore chapter continues to support community initiatives, including new ones related to the coronavirus.
"It is not always a bit thing, but we are quite often among the first groups to help out," Paasuke said. "We may be small, but our roar is mighty."
Ken Ritchie has been a member for 45 years, with his wife Pat Ritchie having also joined the Lioness club before it merged with the Canmore Lions chapter.
"I started the ski school program [for the Lions Club]," Ritchie said. "I wanted my daughters to be involved on Saturdays and it took off from there."
Donations were raised and the program began with two full buses of Canmore children being taken to a local ski hill each Saturday through the winter months.
The subsidized program allowed many local youth an opportunity to ski that they would not have had otherwise.
The weekly ski school put an entire generation of Canmore children onto skis before it folded due to issues around insurance coverage for the endeavour.
Current Lions Club member Dave Williams said several new members have joined that were part of that cohort, having been inspired to give back to the community as a result of their experience.
"A lot of [the original club members] set the foundation to be able to move forward and the club still continues today," Williams said. "We are a small but mighty group that has a large impact."
Engaging youth in the community hasn't stopped either, with a newly formed Leos Club taking shape for ages 12 to 18. The Leos signed its own charter in 2019.
“Leo itself means leadership, experience and opportunity ... and that’s what we hope to teach the members of the club,” said Bryan Scriven, Leos Club Advisor and Lions Club member, at the time.
During its tenure so far, the local Lions Club has contributed towards countless local projects and programs in the community.
From the expansion of the cancer clinic at Canmore General Hospital to helping support a new playground for Elizabeth Rummel School – the list is extensive and speaks to a legacy that has helped build the community residents know and love.
"Whenever we are doing something for someone else and we need something, it has been donated to us or at cost," added Latvala. "Every business I have ever worked with has done that."
Two of the biggest projects the Lions Club has undertaken were to build the gazebo at the ice skating pond downtown and Lions Park.
It took a community-wide effort undertaken to sod the 30,000 square feet park, which is still home to a playground, tennis courts, baseball diamond and soccer pitch.
"Probably the most prominent thing in town we have been involved with is Lions Park," Paasuke said.
Jan Townsend is one of the newest Lions Club members.
As founder of the Hearts and Hands Foundation, Townsend is familiar with the support the club provides to local endeavours like hers.
"My personal feeling is that I have been helped so much by people in Canmore and the Lions Club is one organization that has helped me," Townsend said. "One of my ways of giving back is to join and help with other Lions activities."
Having travelled to Guatemala for more than a decade to support the Mayan community – including with local dentist Lloyd Evans to host dental clinics – she has received support from the Lions as well.
One of the current initiatives, said Townsend, links to the very beginning of Lions International itself. Founded in 1916 by William Perry Woods, he was inspired by advice he received from Helen Keller.
"The Lions have been involved with eyesight right from the beginning," Townsend said. "Together, Dave [Williams] and I have put together a Lions [eye care] clinic in connection with the Lions Club."
"We were hoping to do another one, but of course the virus interrupted that."
Williams said the last clinic provided 150 pairs of reading glasses and worked with the local club to bring the clinic to that area of Guatemala.
"For a lot of people it was the first time ever having an eye treatment," he said. "A lot of their income comes from handiwork and not being able to see is a problem."
Williams said the club has supported efforts like Townsend's over the years to help other organizations find success.
"The Lions over the years have kind of been a seed of starting out and helping people get started on their good initiatives," he said. "It may not be a huge financial contribution, but it is enough to allow the work to move forward."
With 20 to 30 members on average, Williams said it feels like a family that works closely together to serve the community while having fun at the same time.
All funds received by the club goes back into the community, with its administration being entirely volunteer driven.
"We are very conscious that anything we are doing for us, us funded by us and anything that we get in funds from the community goes back into the community 100 per cent," he said.
Lions Clubs around the world adhere to the motto We Serve and in Canmore that service has helped support the community over the past 50 years.