What Does 'Kiwanis' Mean? The Stories Behind 4 Civic Groups

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You've heard their names and seen their logos. You've probably watched them march in parades, donated money to one of their charities, or played on a Little League team they sponsored. But what, exactly, do these civic organizations do?

1. Knights of Columbus

Founded: The Knights of Columbus (K of C) is a Catholic men's organization officially chartered in 1882 by Father Michael McGivney and a handful of his parishioners. Their name was inspired by Christopher Columbus, as they felt they were carrying on his mission of spreading Catholicism across the globe.

Mission: One of K of C's primary focuses is offering low-cost insurance to Catholic families in order to provide for them should the primary breadwinner be injured or pass away. However, on a broader spectrum, they also offer many community services such as clothing, food, shelter, and family counseling to those in need. Since 2000, their community outreach programs include the donation of $1.3 billion to various charities and over 626 million hours of volunteer service. Most recently they gave $500,000 and purchased 1,000 wheelchairs for relief efforts in Haiti after the earthquake that devastated the country.

Members: 1.7 million members in 13,000 councils throughout the Western Hemishphere

Notable Members:

President John F. Kennedy; Samuel Alito, Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court; Vince Lombardi, Green Bay Packers head coach and Super Bowl trophy namesake; Jerry Orbach, "Detective Briscoe" from TV's Law & Order

Fun Fact: The group sponsors The Knights of Columbus Vatican Film Library in St. Louis, Missouri, one of the world's largest collections of microfilmed manuscripts copied from the Vatican Library and many other notable institutions. More than 37,000 medieval manuscripts, totaling over 12,000,000 pages, are available for academic study.

2. The Lions Club

lions-clubFounded: The Lions started as a group of businessmen who got together for lunch. One member, Melvin Jones, wondered aloud what would happen if these men of intelligence and ambition were to turn their efforts towards bettering their community. Figuring there was power in numbers, they invited similar business groups to join them in their civic cause. Borrowing the name of one of these groups, Lions Club International was founded shortly after in 1917.

Mission: The Lions offer many different types of services in their communities, including food and clothing drives, health screenings, and child immunizations. But the Lions are best known for assisting the blind and sight impaired, as well as promoting good eye health for all. Aside from vision screenings, they run eyeglass recycling centers, which send out thousands of donated specs to needy people. They also maintain Lions Eye Banks that provide tissue for 30,000 eye surgeries every year. The Lions are lending a hand in Haiti, too, with over $2.2 million to help provide support services for people in need.

Members: 1.3 million men and women from 45,000 clubs in 205 countries

Fun Fact: The Lions made eye care their mission after none other than Helen Keller asked the organization to become "knights of the blind in the crusade against darkness" during their 1925 national convention. To support this mission, the Lions have been selling brooms made by blind craftsmen for decades. Profits from the brooms go to help the Lions' work.

3. Kiwanis

kiwanisFounded: The Kiwanis were founded in Detroit, Michigan, in 1915. They were initially a business networking organization, but eventually changed their focus to community service.

Mission: The organization's primary mission is molding good kids into exceptional adults. They offer programs that teach leadership skills, the importance of community, and offer services like after-school tutoring programs. Annually, Kiwanis sponsors around 150,000 projects that cover a wide spectrum of services and raise over $100 million for their communities.

Members: Kiwanis is one of the few organizations that offers membership to almost all age groups—from elementary school students to adults. Combined, there are approximately 600,000 members in 8,000 clubs throughout 96 countries.

Fun Fact: The name Kiwanis is borrowed from a Native American phrase, "Nunc Kee-wanis," meaning, "We trade" or "We trade our talents."

4. Fraternal Order of Eagles

FOEFounded: The Fraternal Order of Eagles (FOE) was started as a social club in 1898 by a small group of theater owners. As its popularity grew with traveling performance troupes, it became a full-fledged organization that provided health and funeral benefits to members. Their chapters are named after the treetop nests of eagles, called "aeries."

Mission: Today, the FOE primarily focuses its energies on battling health problems like cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and spinal cord injuries. They also have a fund dedicated to one of their most famous members, Jimmy Durante, to help children in need. Additionally, they are well known for placing thousands of plaques inscribed with the Ten Commandments throughout the United States. Perhaps most famous of these was a six-foot tall monolith presented to the State of Texas in 1961. In 2006, a lawsuit attempting to have the monument removed from public property made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court allowed the monument to stay after a narrow 5-4 decision.

Members: There are currently about 1.1 million male members in more than 1,700 local aeries across the U.S. and Canada. There are over 335,000 female members in more than 1,500 auxiliaries.

Notable Members: The FOE's membership is nothing to scoff at. The list includes seven U.S. Presidents (Teddy Roosevelt, Harding, Franklin Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, Carter and Reagan); entertainers, like Jimmy Durante and Bob Hope; and numerous sports personalities, like Roger Maris, Stan Musial, and Arnold Palmer. First Ladies Eleanor Roosevelt and Bess Truman were members of the Ladies Auxiliary, too. And you may not know the name, but Frank Hering, an FOE member, first suggested the idea of Mother's Day and helped convince President Wilson to found the holiday in 1914.

Fun Fact: The FOE has been an outspoken and powerful force in American politics. As a personal thank you for the group's direct influence or support, the FOE has received four pens from government officials that were used to sign major bills into law. One is from Gov. Joseph Dixon of Montana who signed the first old age pension law in 1923. The second is from President Franklin Roosevelt, when he signed the Social Security Act in 1935. The third and fourth were both given by President Lyndon Johnson for supporting the 1965 Medicare amendment to the Social Security Act, as well as the 1967 "Jobs After 40" bill, which outlawed upper age limits in hiring.
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Are you a member of one of these organizations? Or do you have any inspiring stories of how a civic organization has helped you or your community? Let us know in the comments.

See Also: The Stories Behind 4 More Civic Organizations.

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March 10, 2010 - 2:24pm
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